Sermons

Sun, Oct 22, 2017

Render to God

Series:Sermons

The seventh of November--

that's the deadline for the non-compulsory, non-binding postal survey on marriage equality.

Already, millions of forms have been returned.

And, at least one of the leading conservatives in the government-- 

and an architect of the survey...

Peter Dutton--

is predicting a 'yes' win.

But at what cost?

And I don't mean the one hundred and twenty-two million dollars required to stage this survey.

Rather, I mean the social cost to the nation...

and, especially, the cost to the LGBTI community.

Apart from some reported incidents of hate crimes...

the 'debate' surrounding the survey has taken its toll, especially on young LGBTI people--

a fact acknowledged by the new Human Rights Commissioner, Ed Santow;

while the National Mental Health Commission has warned of increased discrimination... 

being experienced by the LGBTI community.

There has also been a significant spike in the number of people accessing counselling and support services.

People are suffering.

And for what?

Even if there is an overwhelming 'yes' vote in the survey...

a bill still needs to go before parliament...

and be voted on...

and there's no guarantee that that will get through.

And let's not forget why we're having this expensive, divisive, non-compulsory, non-binding survey.

As the former Liberal leader-- 

John Hewson--

reminds us...

this was simply "to satisfy 'forces' in the Abbott/Turnbull government that wanted to avoid a parliamentary vote".

It's sad, really.

But, all too often, that seems to be the nature of politics--

machinations and point scoring at the expense of real people and real lives.

 

In a way... 

that's also what seems to be happening in this morning's story from Matthew's Gospel.

A group of Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus in an effort to entrap him:

"Tell us...Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor, or not?"

The tax that they are referring to is the Imperial tribute--

money that, as a conquered nation, they were required to pay to Rome.

It was a potent symbol of their occupation and their subjugation.

The local elite was responsible for collecting the tax...

and they used it as a chance to line their own pockets at the expense of the common people--

adding a further burden to the latter's already marginal existence.

As a result, the tax was greatly despised.

The Herodians, however, were supporters of the local puppet king. 

They had no problems with the tax at all--

after all, their power and privilege came from the Romans...

and they benefited directly from the tax.

Although the Pharisees objected to the coinage used--

which offended their religious sensibilities...

since it bore the Emperor's image...

and, in many cases, an attribution of divinity--

in real terms, they weren't opposed to the tax per se.

After all, they held a position of political influence and authority;

they served as bureaucrats and functionaries in the government;

they, too, benefited from Roman rule and from the tax.

But both groups used this as a wedge issue to attack Jesus.

They were trying to pin him down--

trying to make him say either something politically incriminating...

or something that would undermine his support with the common people.

However, in one of the better-known sayings of the Gospel tradition, Jesus' responds:

"Give therefore to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor's, and to God, the things that are God's".

With a piece of cunning logic and rhetoric, Jesus seemingly sidesteps their trap.

At least, that's how it's usually interpreted.

Give to the Emperor--

that is, the civil powers-that-be...

or the State--

the duty or allegiance that is appropriate....

but give to God the duty and allegiance that is appropriate--

as if the two were quite separate.

So often this saying is heard from the perspective or ideology of a separation of religion and politics...

of church and state.

But that's far too modern.

It makes no sense in the first-century world...

where there was no separation between religion, politics, and economics.

They were intimately entwined.

The Romans believed that the Emperor was divine...

and they believed that it was by divine providence that they ruled the known world.

The elite in Jerusalem was centred around the High Priestly families--

they controlled the Temple...

they dictated religious precepts and observances...

they demanded and received tithes and Temple taxes...

and they did so in league with the Romans...

accommodating theologically to the situation that they faced.

 

On one level, Jesus' response was quite ambiguous.

It all depended on how the hearer understood the relationship between God and the world.

The High Priests, the Sadducees, and the Herodians saw God as distant or uninvolved.

As long as the priests performed their duties...

and as long as they lived ritually pure lives...

that was all that mattered.

They were otherwise free to live as they chose.

Although the Pharisees argued among themselves about the interpretation of the Hebrew Law...

and how they should apply it to everyday life...

they tended to restrict that to everyday practice--

to the operation of families and households.

For them, it was the failure to live pure personal lives...

that led God to allow the Romans to conquer them.

Each group could have heard and interpreted Jesus' response as supporting their particular position.

 

So, what did Jesus mean by it? 

 

I think that we can only understand it in the light of what precedes it.

According to the author of Matthew's Gospel, this episode and this saying comes after:

the political parody that was the entry into Jerusalem on a donkey;

after the confronting political act of cleansing the Temple;

and after Jesus' parabolic condemnation of the politico-religious powers-that-be. 

It follows Jesus' confrontation with--

and challenge to--

their authority and their practices.

So, for this author at least...

what Jesus meant when he exhorted them to "Give...to God, the things that are God's"...

was inherently economic and political.

It was, in fact, intentionally subversive.

It was a call to live in a way that is consistent with the nature of God...

and the values of God's Kingdom:

love... 

compassion... 

justice... 

and inclusion.

As such, the call to love, compassion, justice and inclusion must supplant... 

surpass... 

and supersede any other demands or obligations.

It certainly overrides any allegiance to the Emperor...

or to the powers-that-be--

even when they are veiled in religious tradition and ideology.

 

In other words, what this says to us...

is that, as people of faith...

we are called to reassess all of our commitments, our obligations, and our allegiances;

to look beyond self-interest or even national-interest;

to look beyond the party-political; 

and never to bow down to any authority or any power...

that does not manifest or incarnate the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We are called at all times... 

in all places... 

and in all ways--

whether it be in relation to climate change...

the treatment of asylum seekers...

marriage equality...

the inclusion of gay people in the Church...

reproductive or end of life choices...

or whatever economic, social, or political issue that we face in our day--

we are called to embody God's demands for love, compassion, justice, and inclusion;

and to do so irrespective of any authority or any power that otherwise demands our allegiance--

even the Church.

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