The Things that are Gods
Isaiah 45: 1-8. Matthew 22:15-22.
Sometimes things aren’t the way they seem.
We like to think of things in black and white, but sometimes things are more complicated than that.
Just before I went on holiday the political conference season started.
And if there is any time that things get confused then it is that time.
According to every party things are very black and white.
Vote for us and you are voting for a better country, a brighter future, a more prosperous time.
Vote for the other party and you will get an uncertain future, a greater burden on your finances, a more divided country.
Every single party is the same.
We are the good guys, they are the bad guys.
And to be honest we are usually stupid enough to believe this black and white world....especially when it comes to our own party, or even our own religion.
Like in the Old Testament, we can read that and it is very easy to think that there are the good guys, that’s the Jewish people, God's chosen people,
and there is the bad guys, that would be the rest of the world.
The good people, God’s chosen people, are the underdogs, the vulnerable, the put upon, and the rest of the world are evil and bullies that will be destroyed by God, his vengeance will be upon them and the chosen people will rise to power and prominence.
The danger with that idea is that we then move to our own times and we become God’s chosen people and we are the good guys, and the rest of the world is the bad guys that God will destroy because they are evil.
It’s simple and it’s easy to understand and we love it because it is very black and white and we like black and white, especially when we are the white.
God’s on our side and we can do what we want.
It’s a really dangerous theology because it means we don’t look at ourselves.
It’s a really dangerous theology because it means we are not looking at what God is really doing in the world.
Look at our first passage.
The people have been in exile in Babylon for decades. They are powerless, they are down and out. They have no chance of getting home, no chance or rebuilding the temple, no chance of worshiping God the way that they want to. But God will raise up from their ranks a saviour who will save them and destroy their evil overlords.
It’s all very easy, all very black and white, and totally rubbish.
God is going to work, God is going to have an anointed, a Messiah, who will save them.
But the messiah isn't going to be one of the good guys, the messiah will be Cyrus, a Persian king, a heathen, a Gentile.
But that doesn’t make sense.
Only Jews are God's chosen people, only Jews are the good guys, God will only work through his own people because only his own people are worthy.
And here’s the sudden theological explosion...
maybe God has a plan for everyone,
maybe God has a purpose for everyone,
maybe the choice isn’t if we are chosen or not,
maybe the choice is whether we follow the journey God has for us or not.
And that then makes everything messy.
Because maybe the bad guys aren’t other people, maybe God is helping other people to become good guys.
And maybe we can't presume that we are just automatically good guys, if we are not following the path God has for us maybe we are acting like the bad guys and we need to change.
That’s the scary point of the second passage.
There are two very different groups. The Pharisees and the Herodians. I can’t think of anywhere else in the Bible that these two groups of people would be working together.
The Herodians had worked out that the only way to survive the Roman Empire was to work with them. The Romans would be in charge but the day to day stuff would be run by them, Jewish people. And they would justify their position by looking at the Temple, rebuilt and looking fantastic. It was a new centre for Jewish culture. And the Jewish faith was spreading throughout the empire with synagogues in every major city of the empire.
Looking at the new aqueducts and how they were bringing in fresh water to the cities and irrigation to the farms. Looking at the commerce and how the place was booming. The Romans were bringing peace to the area and opening up markets all over the empire.
The Pharisees had worked out that the only way to survive the Roman Empire was to have nothing to do with it. For their souls to survive, for the faith to survive, then they had to go back to basics. Have nothing to do with any foreign culture. Anything not of the old ways was tainted. And anything that could taint the soul would risk an eternity in hell. So they would separate themselves off from others, they would abide by the old rules, Gods rules, and they would obey them to the letter.
It is a strange day when these two groups work together.
But they are the perfect partnership for this trap against Jesus.
They come up to Jesus and ask what seems like a simple question, ‘What do you think about paying taxes to the Roman Empire?’
If Jesus says, ‘I think taxes to the Roman Empire are alright,’ then the Pharisees attack him. We are God’s people and this empire is keeping God’s people down. Taxes support an oppressive regime. How can you be a man of God and support an oppressive regime? And the people would go against Jesus.
But if Jesus says, ‘I think it is wrong to pay taxes to the Roman Empire,’ then the Herodians attack him. How can you be a man of God and break the law of the land? You are threatening to undermine the whole empire, encouraging anarchy. And the authorities would have him arrested.
Heads they win, tails Jesus looses.
But Jesus sees what they are up to and refuses to play the game.
‘You hypocrites,’ Jesus says. ‘You openly hate each other and yet you are working together to trap me. Show me the coin for paying the tax. Whose face is on the coin?’
‘The Emperor’s,’ they say.
So Jesus replies, ‘Well then pay the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay God what belongs to God.’
At one level it is a clever answer because you can make of it what you want.
To the Herodians it means that people should pay their taxes to the government to pay for the army that allows the empire to have peace, pays for things like the maintenance of the aqueducts, and allows the empire and its people to have stability. So they get the answer that they want.
To the Pharisees they would see that everything is God’s, God created it all, it all belongs to God, we owe Caesar nothing. So Jesus is clearly saying that Caesar gets nothing, because everything he has is through the gift of God. In fact if Caesar is to get what he deserves then he will get the wrath of God. So they get the answer that they want.
But what does it say to us?
Pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and pay God what belongs to God.
I think this is a very tough question.
Because this statement questions us.
At a periphery it questions us about our politics and the way we interact with the world.
We all pay taxes that support our country and what this country does.
And what we pay to the government in taxes is important, because they act in our name, because it tells the world what we think is our priorities.
We support a system with our taxes.
So what if the government decides that all police would be armed, our taxes support that system.
So what if the government decides that nurses and doctors and firemen over five years get a below inflation pay increase. In fact it is worse than that because that pay increase is paid through saving efficiencies. So for ten men to get an increase, five other men don’t get replaced when they leave. So now these 10 firemen are getting an effective pay cut and now doing the work of 15 men.
So what if the government decided that home helps don’t get paid for their travelling time. Or that they can only spend ten minutes in each house.
Or that it is more important to buy the latest nuclear weapons than it is to buy the latest bullet proof jackets or latest armour protected jeeps for the army.
Our taxes support that system.
I think in this passage there is a call for us to be more involved in the world and the people who do things in our name.
But then there is the second part, a part I think we often don’t even think about.
Give to God that which is God’s.
What does God deserve from us?
There used to be a priest in Alva called Ken McKaffery. He used to joke that every Sunday after the service he would take the collection plate and fling the whole collection up towards heaven. The stuff that stayed in heaven God wanted, everything else that fell to earth he presumed God wanted him to keep.
Now he said it as a joke.
But what do we give God?
Two questions we need to ask.
What has God ever done for us?
What is our response?
At this point I was tempted to go round the congregation and ask individuals, ‘What has God done for you?’
But instead I’ll do it to myself.
There is a defining moment in my life when I sat on a park bench and God asked me to go into the ministry.
If I hadn't gone into the ministry I would more than probably have gone into microbiology.
I’m not too sure what job I would have had but I am nearly sure that whatever I did would have paid 5-6 times more than what I get now.
I am positive I would never have met Roseanna.
Never have had the children I have.
Never have met the people who challenged me in my faith and forced me to grow up.
Never have had the sense of purpose.
Never have had the frustrations of a never ending job that often seems to go from one crisis to another.
My squash partners would never have had to go through the humiliations that they go through.
What do I owe God for the life he has given me?
The only thing I can think of is a life of grateful obedience.
But that’s what I think.
Now the questions go to you.
And you certainly don’t need to answer to me.
But you do have to answer to yourself.
What has God ever done for you?
And what is your response?