Even Caesar is accountable to God

29th Sunday Year A
19 Oct 2014
Les Ruhrmund

In the 1st Reading, Isaiah proclaims with great certainty that the God of Israel is the only God; there is none other. The Lord is the God of Israel and he is the God of the pagans; he is the God of believers and non-believers alike.

Cyrus, the Persian king who rescued the Jewish people from bondage in Babylon and encouraged them to return and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem was a pagan and yet he was chosen by God as his anointed one to set the Jewish people free. Isaiah says that though Cyrus didn’t know God, God is God, and God knew Cyrus, and the hand of God can be seen in the actions of Cyrus.

The game changers in the world and in God’s plan of salvation will not necessarily be people

who we recognise as God’s servants and shepherds. The Holy Spirit is everywhere in everything and we cannot know with any certainty who or how different people, believers and non-believers, will respond to God’s abiding presence in the world.

The Psalm is a beautiful song of praise to God, acknowledging Isaiah’s declaration of one God of all; the universal king.

The 2nd Reading is from the opening verses of Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica, a prosperous port on the Aegean Sea on the northern coast of Greece, named after the sister of Alexander the Great.

This letter written just 20 years after the death and Resurrection of Jesus is probably the oldest of the preserved letters written by Paul and is the oldest written book in the New Testament.

Paul greets the young church in Thessalonica which he had founded and says he carries them in his prayers always giving thanks for their tireless faith, hope and love; actions, behaviour and works that come as their direct response to the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The account in Matthew’s Gospel of the challenge on Jesus from the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians about paying tax is better understood when one knows something of the political and religious environment in which the question was asked.

The Herodians were followers of Herod, the stooge Jewish king who was appointed by Caesar. Strange bed fellows were these disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians; united only in their determination to discredit and incriminate Jesus.

The tax in question was the annual ‘poll tax’ which was imposed on every man, woman and slave between the ages of adolescence and 65 for the privilege of being part of the Roman Empire.

The Jewish people living grudgingly under Roman rule in Israel, resented having to pay this tax; on political grounds because they detested the Roman authorities and on religious grounds because the tax had to be paid in Roman coins which on one side bore the image of the emperor Tiberius and on the other the words “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus” (literally “greatest pontiff”).

The Jewish people considered payment of this tax as an acknowledgement that Caesar was a divine king  – clearly an act of blasphemy. The Pharisees considered it blasphemous even to touch one on these coins, let alone carry a coin on one’s person.

Notice that that when Jesus asks to see a coin, they are able to produce one!

Hypocrites in word and deed!

Jesus’ reply to their question whether it is lawful (and by that they meant allowed in their religion) to pay this poll tax, is sometimes interpreted as a teaching on temporal and religious obligations as if the two are distinctly separate; the separation of state and religion.

That is not what Jesus means when he says “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’.’’ Jesus is not suggesting that there are two independent spheres of power, obligation and authority; that of Caesar and that of God.

God has dominion over everything, the whole of creation, and Caesar is subservient to God.

The state is subservient to God. All governments are subservient to God. Government officials who are elected to serve God’s people are ultimately responsible to God.

We should by all means give to Caesar that which Caesar is justly entitled to have for the sake of the common good; to provide services for the community; water, sanitation, security, transport, hospitals, schools, electricity, etc..

A greater obligation, however, is due to God who, in time,will call all Caesars to account for what they have done and what they have failed to do.

And if they have acted unjustly we might be asked how we allowed them to get away with it.

We can and are so easily seduced by those who want the church and God sidelined from the mainstream of the debates that shape our lives; the way we live, the values we share and the laws we draft.

This argument is fraught with danger. Evil, corruption and immorality thrive when good, honest, God fearing people exclude their Sunday faith and prayers from their Monday to Saturday politics.

We cannot exclude God from government because government is not excluded from the jurisdiction of God.

We are obliged to declare again and again and again that God’s love includes everyone and encompasses everything; to speak out and act against injustice, intolerance, violence, war and poverty.

Jesus looked at the coin and said pay to Caesar what is due to Caesar. He now looks at each one of us and says give to God what is due to God.

We are created in God’s image and we are God’s coins. In each other we see not the face of Caesar but the face of God. We carry God’s image to the places we live and work, study and play; everyday, everywhere.

We owe each other and all others, love, kindness, forgiveness, tolerance and generosity because that’s the currency of God.

Out of such wealth a kingdom can be built – God’s kingdom on earth

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