Sunday 29 • 22 Oct 2017

Exodus 33:12-23
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Rev. Prof. Clive Pearson

What a few weeks it’s been! Lisa Wilkinson takes leave of the Today show and channel 9.The Coalition takes leave of the clean energy target proposed by the chief scientist and takes us back to the coal face. Kim Jong Un both threatens Australia and writes a surprising letter to Parliament urging Australia to move away from the Trump administration.

President Xi Jinping addresses the 5 yearly congress of the Communist Party and maps out China’s pathway of power and influence; Harvey Weinstein is exposed and Hollywood antics are called to account: Raqqa falls from its ISIS hold; and bombs explode with massive loss of life in Somaliland and Kabul;

And then n Friday it rained in Sydney and brought to an end a record run of seventy six days, maybe a sign of things to come as we move gradually into a new epoch, the Anthropcene, leaving behind those things which we have known when the world’s systems were more stable, more predictable.

We are now surrounded with news 24/7. We live in a global world where time and place are compressed into an instant. All this is, of course, a far cry from first century Palestine. It’s not unlike life on another planet. And yet it occurred to me that the kind of controversy Jesus was engaged with in this business to do with taxes would have been tailor made for our hi-tech world of TV and social media.

I can imagine interviews on A Current Affair, Q and A, the 7:30 Report, Lateline; I can imagine a column or two by Ross Gittins, Peter Hartcher, Jessica Irvine in the Sydney Morning Herald – maybe even an aside in the FitzFiles of the Knox Old Boy who so likes to dismiss the Christian faith, Peter FitzSimons. While, for those of you prefer the Murdoch stable, then no doubt Miranda Devine, given her surname, would have something suitable to say.

Tax attracts attention. It can galvanise a political campaign; there’s nothing quite like a carbon tax; in days gone by taxes that did not benefit those who paid them could spark a revolution – think of the American colonies and their war of independence with the British crown – and the promise of tax relief is favoured by certain political parties. Form this morning’s reading from Matthew’s gospel we can see that tax was a live issue back in Jesus’ day as well: he was called to give his opinion on one of the trickier issues of the day.

I can imagine a Moir or Cathy Wilcox cartoon at this point. Here we have a rather unusual coalition coming together. The Galilean ministry of Jesus lies in the past; now his time is beginning to run out, though his critics do not yet realise that. They are still at the stage of plotting and trying to find what will sever the hold that Jesus seems to have over the crowds. They rather like his teaching; they rather like his preaching; they rather like his healing and his proclamation that the kingdom of God is drawing near. Jesus has the support of the crowds, so it seems: his ratings are high, though he has no agent and there’s not much in the way of high salaries on offer.

Jesus is teaching in the Temple. His public ministry will soon be at a close. And now on prime time news, displacing the latest policing and traffic incidents from the breaking news segment, is this exchange between Jesus, on the one hand, and the Herodians and the Pharisees, on the other. The reporter, the columnist would have been baffled first of all by this coming together of critics who shared very little in common.

The Pharisees were concerned with matters of faith; they believed in the law and its proper practice; they even went beyond the written law and embraced the tradition of the elders; they are fastidious - and because their religious zeal, their commitment to the law, the Pharisees would have privileged the commandments Moses brought down from the heights of Mt Sinai:

3 you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them;

For a moment like this you need a Leigh Sales to probe – and probe relentlessly along these kind of lines: so, what do you think of the Roman occupation? How has it affected the life and worship of the people of Israel? Are there any risks to the observance of law here? And then comes the point of no return: that trick question the experts posed to Jesus; it is a good question; it is well crafted with lots of implications and consequences: how as a Pharisee might you have answered? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?

I can imagine the pause, the feeling of discomfort, the feeling of being caught out because, now the good Pharisee can see where this line of questioning is leading. He can’t possibly say yes to the paying of taxes to Caesar: in principle and in practice the Pharisees stand against too close an entanglement with the Romans, the unrighteous Roman – but our equivalent Leigh Sales knows that the problem runs deeper.

Slowly, deliberately, she picks up a coin. She gives an account of the burden of high taxes. Jews in first century Palestine paid numerous taxes: temple taxes, land taxes, customs taxes – but this tax is a bit different; it is more onerous; it is more offensive. The tax in question is an imperial tax paid to Rome in order to support the Roman occupation of Israel. That’s right: the people are required to pay their oppressors a denarius a year to support their own oppression. And the payment is to be made it seems in Roman currency, not their own.

Our Leigh Sales looks at the coin. One denarius. One small silver coin worth a man’s labour for a day. It’s not a widow’s mite. It’s not the equivalent of a church offering. It’s a symbol of invasion, but it is more than that. And Jesus has discerned that to be so: his response is an interviewer’s delight. “Show me the coin used for the tax”. It seems as if he is not carrying the coin in question on his person. That’s no small point in and of itself.

And then he turns the tables:Whose head is this, and whose title?” Whose head, whose title? They answered “the emperor’s”. The disciples of the Pharisees are trapped. And, our TV interviews knows that now is the time to press hard. You know that this coin
Is imprinted with an inscription? Let me read it to you: Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus and high priest’. Son of the divine: high priest. What might the Pharisee say? To say “yes” to paying taxes to Caesar is to break the first two commandments. The coin is claiming to honour another god – and that divine status has been expressed through a graven image.

Our first century Leigh Sales leaves the matter there and with an acute sense of interviewing technique turns away from the Pharisee. Alongside him is an Herodian –that is, a follower, a supporter of Herod Antipas - the first century ruler of Galilee and Peraea. The interview now begins to focus upon Antipas and what it means to be an Herodian.

Is it not true that Herod Antipas succeeded his father, Herod the Great? And, is it not true that Antipas was put into a position of power not through his family line so much as by a decision made by the previous emperor, Augustus?

And, so is it not true that Herod Antipas is, in fact, a Roman vassal? Is he not the ruler of client state of the Roman empire? Is he not someone who benefits from the paying of this imperial tax – and by the way, was it not Herod Antipas who was responsible for the death of John the Baptist?

And so our first century Leigh Sales probes – and probes relentlessly. The Herodian wishes to keep in good favour with the Romans. It is in his party’s interest – and so it is not likely that he will say “no”, we should not pay the imperial tax. We might say that they are collaborators. He does not have the same religious and legal scruples that the Pharisee has – and this where the equivalent of our media would have a field day; they would be genuinely baffled by this coming together of the Pharisees and the Herodians, whose only point of commonality is their opposition to Jesus of Nazareth?

Why are you conspiring with the Pharisee? Why have you joined forces? You’re not naturally allies? Quite the reverse. The things you say about each other are not complimentary - but here you are coming together on this matter of whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? The Pharisee must say no; the Herodian must say yes. And by saying yes he benefits – and, in the process, he rules out any possibility of being accused of treason.

What were the Pharisees and the Herodians doing by posing this trick question; yes, they flatter Jesus. They know that he is sincere; they know that he seeks to teach the way of God in accordance with the truth; they know that he does not favour one group over another. And so they seek to put him on the spot: if he says yes he supports the Romans and will lose the support of the poor for whom this tax is like a last straw. If he says no, then he is a revolutionary and a political threat.

Their question sounds genuine; it sounds authentic except that Matthew notes that Jesus discerned their malice: “Why are you putting me to the test?”, he asks. One can imagine Jesus’ reply doing the rounds on social media. “Whose head is this and whose title?” “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.

It almost sounds like he’s backing both options – but that’s not quite right. “Give to God the things that are God’s”. Jesus has not assigned any divine status to the emperor – besides which all things come from God anyway. Those who hear him respond know Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it”. Jesus goes further; he calls them hypocrites for they seem to be implying that God is like a great tax collector who can easily be pleased with a financial payment. Our first century Leigh Sales asks the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians what have they to say now – but they say nothing; they take they leave; they go on their way – they have been outmanoeuvred.

No one can serve two masters. That is one of Matthew’s messages. The kingdom represented by the emperor’s image is one of wealth, military strength and brutality. Yes, it makes some things possible – maybe better roads, maybe more advanced infrastructure,

- but it does so at a cost and that cost has to do with matters to do with justice, compassion, dignity, forgiveness , hope and the presence and absence of God in the living out of daily life. In terms of time that empire is temporary: yes, it is powerful in the moment but that will image on the coin will fade; it will date; it will be replaced -– whereas the kingdom Jesus proclaims is one which will endure and here all humankind is made in the image of God.

It seems like a big step now to make our way from Jesus’ encounter with the Herodians and the Pharisees to our responsibilities to the ATO. Of course we pay our taxes: our tax returns, if you have yet submitted one, are due at the end of the month. And we know that our taxes can support all manner of things – like health services, education, welfare, transport, communication, policing, protection. And we also know that the level of taxation can always be the subject of political promises, come election time. We know these things. That is part and parcel of the world, the society in which we live – and not to pay our taxes might lead to a penalty or something more serious.

What might we then make of this response of Jesus to this trick question? That response of give to God the things that belong to God is surely the key. We might say its trumps the alternative. Give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar. Our being in Christ takes priority.

Some years ago Michael Putney was the Catholic Bishop of Brisbane. There was a conference on how we live out our faith in the public forum. Around about the same time Peter Fitzsimons had taken exception to the number of times Christian faith was being expressed in the media and in politics.

In his Fitzfiles he complained about faith being ballyhooed in public. He reckoned that this was not the Australian way – matters of religion were private matters - you can choose your own delusion and so he proclaimed that men and women of faith should go tell it on the mountain but with the volume turned down.

Michael Putney disagreed with that line of thinking. He argued that those of us who are Christian in this country are forever running the risk of having compartmentalized hearts and minds. Far too often we cocoon our faith within a private space: far too often we allow a gap to emerge what we say and do in worship on Sunday with how our lives are lived in the complexity of everyday living. We fail to grasp the significance of what Jesus is implying in his response to this trick question posed with the malice.

The whole of life belongs to God not just those private spaces; the whole of life belongs to God and not just particular moments of the week. The whole of life belongs to God even if and when we are carrying out our responsibilities to our families, to where we work, to the society in whose jurisdiction we find ourselves. The trick for us if to let that faith not be confined to those private realms but to let it permeate the whole of our lives to the best of our ability, knowing full well that we will always fall short.

And suffice it to say, that kind of good news is not likely to feature on the 7:30 report, on Q and A, on Lateline or social media.