Another sermon, another history lesson – that’s why you value Patronal Festivals so highly – visiting preachers never indulge in history.
We have got used to alternative coins and notes being in circulation at the same time, as new ones are introduced and the old ones phased out. Thus, circular pound coins are now only accepted at banks – which is why the Church will still accept them – and the new Janes (£10) are gradually populating our wallets, as the cash machines are stuffed full of them.
Consider, then, the complications of living in Jesus’s time, when there were three currencies, actively and legitimately being used in Israel.
There was the standard shekel, for every day use, but if you needed to buy a pair of doves for a sacrifice at the Temple, those shekel had to be exchanged for Temple money – money that was deemed holy, so never left the Temple precinct. We know this from the Palm Sunday accounts of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers when he entered the Temple after his donkey ride into Jerusalem. The third coinage was a specially minted Roman piece, that had to be used to pay the Emperor’s tax, or tribute.
It is this third coin which is under debate in our Gospel passage, it is this specific imperial tax which is being discussed, and which the Chief Priests, Pharisees and supporters of Herod – who probably hated each other deeply in normal circumstances – get together to try to trap Jesus. They think that they have him on the horns of a dilemma. If he says, “Don’t pay the tax”, they can legitimately turn him over to the Romans as a revolutionary. If he says, “Pay the tax”, then they can turn the people against him, and accuse him of being a Roman quisling. They are so proud of themselves, as they march up to Jesus in one of the Temple courtyards, and lay their trap in front of him.
Jesus’s answer is masterful, from many standpoints. It begins by throwing the spotlight back on his hunters, because Jesus hasn’t got one of these special tax coins in his pocket. The Pharisees have to fish around in their money bags to get hold of one to show him. Now, many have taken this to mean that Jesus didn’t have any money at any time, and that we too should eschew all cash and wander this world, living on other people’s generosity, as he did. This is a false conclusion. Jesus and the disciples did have money – they kept it in a bag which Judas Iscariot looked after – they just didn’t have a Roman tax coin in there. Why not? Because they had already paid the tax? No, because they were good Jews, and they would not have about their person a coin which broke one of the commandments. Not only was it a Gentile coin, but it had a picture on it – that of Tiberius Caesar, and a Latin inscription to that effect. Now, by asking his accusers to show him one of these coins, Jesus gently points out that these heroes of the Law were quietly breaking it by having such an object in their purse. First hypocrisy exposed!
Then comes the killer line – “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “Pay the hated tax”, says Jesus, “get it out of your system, out of your money bag, because then you can get on with giving yourself fully over to God.” In paying our taxes, we are merely contributing to the common good, which is only right and proper. But there is much more to be done in this world than to pay our tax. One coin, Jesus suggests, is all that belongs to Caesar. Everything else belongs to God, and we must give him back our tribute, our participation in his generosity.
So, where do we go now? We agree to pay our taxes, and we set out on the road to give back to God everything that he has given to us. Where do we start? God has given us everything – our life, our world, our families, our skills, our money, our time, our church – what can we possibly give back to him who supplies everything to us? What would God do with it? We can see that our taxes go towards the NHS, education, roads, social care etc etc. What about what we give back to God? Where does that go?
Well, how about a trip back in time? To the time of the prophet who calls himself Isaiah, during the Jewish exile in Babylon. It is his words that we read first this morning, and they are astonishing. This Jewish prophet is delivering words from God to the new King of Babylon, one Cyrus, King of Persia. How did this happen? Did the prophet nip round to the palace, and sound off in the inner courtyard? Unlikely. Did he stand up on a street corner, and launch into these extraordinary words? Probably not. This would have been uttered during synagogue worship, late in the evening, after work, and only Jews would have been present.
And what does the prophet say? That Almighty God, the one true God (or, as the Jewish exiles would have called him, the God of Israel) was going to use this new king to bring about his purposes in the world. It has been hard enough to come to terms with exile. Hard enough to learn that they can still pray to their God, in a foreign country, with their Temple and religious system lying in ruins back home. But to discover that their God is going to use a Gentile ruler to perform his will on earth must have been mind-blowing. Their God is getting bigger and bigger by the day. He is now the God of the whole world, of the universe, and he is able to use anyone, Jew or Gentile, to bring about anything that he wants.
We can usefully learn that lesson all over again, today. We are not the only people that God can and will use in this world, in this community, to bring about what he desires. God would love it if the Church were at the forefront of everything, but the world is bigger than us, and our broken, separated state enfeebles us to intervene, sometimes. But we are called to explore what it means that the things of God are to be given back to him. King Cyrus, back in the 6th century BC, was called to restore the people of Israel to their own land, and to allow them to take all the treasures of their Temple with them. And he did! We today are called on to look not just at what we would call our own, but at everything around us, as a source of worship, prayer, generosity and challenge. God can, and will, use anything at our disposal, for his good purposes. Thus, God gave us brains and tongues and hands and eyebrows to communicate, to work through problems, to share what we know with those who do not yet know it. God gave us hearts of love and eyes to see other people and other things, so that love can pour forth from us to them. God gave us time, time to work, time to sleep, time to eat, time to do whatever we want, while also having time to spend with others, to help others, to support others, to encourage others. God gave us skills – different ones to each one of us – so that we can put up shelves or grow plants, or paint walls or organise events. And God combines that love, that time, those skills, that awareness of the world together with his Holy Spirit to send us out to bring about his purposes – that people will live together well, that people who have little will have so much more, that people who are excluded will be brought into the whole, that people who are weak are made strong. It is so much more than money. In fact, Jesus only talks about money for Caesar, not for God. Everything, including money, is to be given back to God.
Jesus passes through this potential trap with grace and a bigger picture of God than the Pharisees and supporters of Herod had ever considered. Their God had just got a whole lot bigger.
May we, as we give back to God this morning our worship and our prayer, our cash and our time, discover just how amazingly huge our God is, and just how much he demands of us. We cannot be half-hearted in response to the God who has put us in this amazing world. We cannot begrudge anything to the God who has redeemed us by the life, death, and resurrection of his own Son. We cannot skimp on our generous response, when God has poured his Spirit into our hearts, to enable us and provoke us to use our brains, our skills, our time, to fulfil his good purposes on this earth. May we know joy, day by day, as our God gets bigger before our eyes, and may we respond with ever greater gratitude in all the multitudinous ways that God has put at our disposal.