Readings: 18th Sunday after Trinity

10 October 2014

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18th Sunday after Trinity

Proper 24: Isaiah 45.1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22

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. Amen.

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 their city.

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 trap.

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 have tussled.

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 day.

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 situations.

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