Thursday, 16 October 2014

Give to God what is God's!

"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

What does it mean to give to Caesar and to God?  Does it mean separating religion from politics?  Does it mean we should pay our tax but not let our spirituality impact our political decisions?  Do religion and politics mix or not?  To glean a better understanding we need to travel back to the moment Jesus was telling the story. 

The first thing we have to understand about this story is that these two groups were not natural allies.  The Herodians supported the rule of Herod who cooperated with the Roman rulers and was given authority by them.  The Pharisees on the other hand were the legalists among the Jewish leaders who believed that their interpretation of the Law was the one to be obeyed.  When they spoke of the law they specifically meant Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

So effectively when these groups team up to confront Jesus they choose to set aside their own differences to attack a common enemy.  Jesus is the meat in their sandwich.

The aim of the question is not to get an answer but to trap Jesus.  Let’s think about the question about tax and the coin that Jesus asked to be produced – a Roman coin!
The Pharisees would have regarded these Roman coins as idolatrous.  The contained an image of Tiberius, Caesar, who would have been considered as divine by the Romans.  The point can be made by the group simply producing the coin in the temple they had shown themselves up as hypocrites.

On the other hand it is more than likely that the Herodians had no problem with the Roman coin, after all they had allied themselves with Rome.

So the question comes, should they pay tax?  I wonder if you can see the trap.  What will the Pharisees say if Jesus says ‘Yes’?  What will the Herodians say if Jesus says ‘No’? 

The question was intended to back Jesus into a corner so that whatever his answer Jesus would get in strife with the authorities.

Jesus answer cleverly avoids the trap yet at the same time confronts his adversaries with a conundrum in terms of their loyalties.

"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

I think that this is one of the better known quotes of Jesus and one of the worst understood.

In trying to see behind Jesus words what should be patently clear very quickly is that Jesus believed everything belong to God, all things were derived from God, even political power.

In the scriptures both the Old and New Testaments the intermingling of religion and politics is constant.  In the Old Testament again and again we read of how God ascribed political power to even the foreign rulers and enemies.  They ruled because God made it so. 

Jesus himself was incredibly immersed in challenging the political powers and the social structure of his day. In the book Intelligent Church Steve Chalke talks about how the New Testament scholar N.T.Wright says of Jesus whatever else he wasn’t, Jesus was a politician. 

I believe that this passage has been wrongly interpreted to mean that politics and religion don’t mix.  This assumption that is made by many in our post-enlightenment world has arisen out teachings and understandings that have emerged since the time of the Reformation. 

Around 500 years ago Martin Luther argued for a distinct line to be drawn between the spiritual and political realms.  In this I think has been wrongly understood as saying the two don’t mix.  Without going into too much of the history of the situation the issue for Luther was who and how that power was being exercised.

Despite this, I think Luther’s teaching, alongside the rejection of the spiritual in favour of a secular understanding through the enlightenment has served to deceive us into thinking that our faith somehow should not have a political edge.

If we consider that all things belong to God, including the way in which we structure our society then as Christian people the way we live, who we vote for, what issues we choose to fight for, are both the political and religious outworking of our faith.

Even what we choose to pray for, or even more importantly not pray for, in our prayers for the world indicates both a political and religious stance!  The words we use, the phrases indicate our alliances to God and to his coming kingdom.  After all when we pray ‘thy kingdom come thy will be done’ surely we are praying for political and social change as well as religious change.

Last time a preached on this topic in this congregation I pointed out that the implication of this is that whatever our political allegiance might be, and I know some of you are card carrying members of various parties, our first allegiance is to Jesus Christ and the coming kingdom.

Sometimes in parliament they have what is called a conscience vote.  This is a time when politicians are allowed by their parties to vote based on their personal moral, philosophical or religious stance on an issue because of its moral content.  In a sense this misses the point that every single decision made by any parliament is a decision that has moral content and has religious or faith implications. Dare I suggest that all decisions in parliament should be made in this way?

Sometimes the Uniting Church makes decisions and advocates in the community for particular issues.  Sometimes you may agree, sometimes not, sometimes you may get the impression that the Uniting Church is taking sides in politics.  Whilst this may appear to be the case I believe that in these situations men and women of faith like yourselves are seeking to discern what it might mean to proclaim ‘thy kingdom come’ in terms of specific issues confronting our Australian community.

As individuals and as a local community of faith I believe the challenge of being Jesus followers is to seek to discern how we might live out every aspect of our lives. 

To conclude I want to give two quick examples of the intersection of faith and politics from this week which I was confronted by.

The first has a personal element.  Some of you may remember that when I went to Jandowae I caught up with a friend who is a farmer at Durong.  She emailed me with information about the campaign called ‘You can’t eat coal for breakfast’.

Essentially the situation is this; the Queensland Government had granted Tarong Energy a mineral development licence over the Haystack Road coal deposit.  The implications could be that hundreds of square kilometres of prime farming land might be reclaimed for the purpose of coal mining.  According to the website once mined the land will never be able to produce crops again.  To give some idea of the scale of the impact this area produced enough wheat last year to make 68 million loaves of bread.  That’s not counting other crops and produce.

What is the Christian response to this issue?  What do we pray for?  Is it right to continue to mine non renewable energy resources, especially in such a way that destroys good farming land?  Is it appropriate to continue to burn fossil fuels when we know the impact they are having on our climate and the whole planet?  Or does our current need for the coal outstrip our need for food crops?  What part does the church play in this situation?  For what should we pray?

The second issue was from a story on ABC radio about the impending closure of the Ford factory in Melbourne.  This is occurring because of the lower demand for bigger cars.  The discussion on the radio centred on the tension between the ideas that for because of that we have our economy constant growth is necessary and the opposing tension of trying to reign in consumption because of the impact on the environment and the use of finite resources.  What do we pray for?  What kind of car should you and I buy? Do we pray for workers losing jobs?  For companies that need profits and not to be propped up by subsidies which come from our taxes?  Or for both?

Jesus comes heralding a new kingdom, when we pray 'thy kingdom come' we are making a political statement as much as a religious one.  As we follow Jesus and witness to God’s love let us not deceive ourselves: the political decisions that we make are faith decisions, our lifestyle choices are faith decisions; in fact all of our decisions are faith decisions.  Take a moment to consider the decisions you are making what does it mean for you ‘to give to God what belongs to God.”

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