18th Sunday after Trinity
Proper 24: Isaiah 45.1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us your gift of
faith that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to that
which is before, we may run the way of your commandments and win
the crown of everlasting joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
HOW do we balance our loyalty to God and to secular governments?
There is no monochrome view in the Bible. God's people lived under
different circumstances at different times, and we hear one
perspective when, in 587 BC, they were taken into exile. Their
Babylonian conquerors exiled conquered nations to Babylon, where
they allowed them to settle in their own communities.
Soon, however, the Babylonians were conquered by King Cyrus of
Persia, who adopted a different policy and permitted conquered
nations to return to their homelands. So, in the 540s, Cyrus issued
an edict allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild
The Bible interprets secular events through theological eyes.
This unexpected turn of events was surely a manifestation of God's
power and ultimate authority. Isaiah reiterates that, although
Cyrus did not know God, none the less God worked through him. Even
more startlingly, Isaiah claimed Cyrus as God's anointed - in other
words, God's Messiah, or Christ. This raises all sorts of hard
questions about how we discern God at work in the world.
If nothing else, this alerts us to the dangers of identifying a
particular regime with divine intention or opposition. As a student
in the 1970s, I recall a rash of dubious American books that
claimed, with undue confidence, that Russia was the Antichrist in
Revelation. Subsequent events have shown this to be far too
simplistic. So, in due course, the Persians were conquered by the
Greeks, and we should read Isaiah less as a description of Cyrus
(or Brezhnev, or anyone else) in particular than of God's authority
in the world.
Jesus lived in a fraught political situation. His encounter with
the religious leaders was the first of a string of such
head-to-heads in these last days of his earthly life. Tellingly,
Matthew uses "malice" to describe their motives. They tried to trap
Jesus into either sedition (denying the authority of the Emperor)
or denial of God's authority. The tax referred to was a tax on
agricultural harvests and personal property, liability for which
was established through census registration, which prompted violent
opposition (Acts 5.37).
What made matters worse was the collaboration of Jewish
authorities in its collection. Ultimately, it contributed to the
catastrophic rebellion against Rome in AD 70.
At Jesus's request, the religious leaders produced a coin that
should never have been in the Temple precincts, since it bore the
blasphemous image of the Emperor, whom the Romans considered
divine; a coin that, notably, Jesus and his disciples did not carry
on this sacred ground. Jesus then edged his way out of the
Matthew carefully places this story close to Jesus's parable of
the wicked tenants who denied the landowner what was his by right
(Matthew 21.33-46). In that light, Jesus's words about giving
Caesar his due were qualified by the earlier parable. He left no
doubt who was entitled to the income from the vineyard, which, in
the thought of the time, represented Israel.
Like Isaiah centuries earlier, Jesus claimed God's authority
over earthly rulers, whether or not they recognised it. The rider
to this was that duty owed to rulers is, ultimately, duty owed to,
and determined by, God. That raises all sorts of very difficult and
very live questions with which theologians through the centuries
It is simpler to be wholly given to one extreme or another - to
deny God, succumb to secular authority, and avoid persecution, or
to be religious fanatics who decry worldly authorities. Neither
will do. The harder way of discipleship is to live faithfully in a
world that, while not always acknowledging God's authority, none
the less is God's world, in which we have to go on making difficult
choices about how, in practice, to be faithful to God, day by
Paul wrote to Thessalonian Christians who were in this situation
of living under a pagan emperor, being persecuted (1.6) even to
death (4.13). Having turned from idols, how were they to live? As
Christians today in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Sudan, and too many other
countries know, it was searingly demanding.
There is more than meets the eye when Paul gave thanks for "your
work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our
Lord Jesus Christ", and we should be praying for Christians who run
the way of God's commandments (a reference to St Benedict) in such