There’s a story I like…about a politician who dies and goes to heaven. He is greeted by St. Peter who tells him there is a new system in the afterlife. You can spend one day in heaven and one day in hell, and afterwards you can decide where you want to spend eternity.
So the politician spends his first day in heaven, praying with the Lord, singing with the choir, and talking with the philosophers. He's thinking ‘this is alright; not too exciting, but it's got to be better than hell’.
The next day, the man awakes in hell, in a Penthouse suite! He is greeted by the Devil himself, dressed in an Armani suit, holding out a glass of champagne. ‘Welcome!’ says the Devil. You’re going to love it here!’
The man takes the champagne and is told by the devil that in the lobby there is a free bar, swimming pools full of beautiful people, a restaurant with the finest chef the world has seen, and a casino and theatre next door.
The politician thinks to himself, "Wow! This is hell? This is amazing!" He spends all day pleasuring himself on every possible vice.
The next day, the politician awakes with St Peter asking him that now he must make the decision of where he wants to spend eternity. The man says "Heaven is OK, but it's got nothing on Hell. I'm sorry St. Peter, but I think I’m going to have to choose Hell." St.Peter asks the politician if he's sure of his decision, and the man says “Yes. That’s what I want”
The man awakes to screams of pain and torture, in a dark and unimaginably hot place. He is greeted by the Devil, who is wielding a Trident and laughing maniacally. The politician says to the Devil, "What's going on? Where are all the beautiful people? Where's my penthouse suite? This isn't what you showed me that Hell was like!"
The Devil replies, "Well you see, yesterday we were campaigning, but today you voted."
Politics, politics, politics. It’s a slippery business, isn’t it? It’s a business that I know something about. Before I was ordained, I spent five years of my life working in Westminster. I worked in a building in Great Smith Street, just across the road from Church House – the offices of the Church of England. Often, I would look out from my ivory tower across the road at the administrative home of the Church I was about to serve…and I would wonder.
I would wonder at the link between the church and the state. The formal link between state and church that we have in the United Kingdom is, in fact, a pretty rare thing – compared to the rest of the world. The link between us – the church - and our nation is cemented in Law, and presided over, on both sides, by our Monarch.
So how are we to interpret Jesus’ teaching to ‘give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and to God what belongs to God’. Many have argued for centuries that this link should be ‘disestablished’ – and that Jesus’ words should be taken to mean that’s time for the link to be dissolved.
But is this actually what Jesus is saying? Well, as always, when we want to understand anything in the Bible we must remember the three C’s….what have I told you? Context, context, context.
The first context is the state of the nation at the time of Jesus. Israel was under occupation, by the Romans. Taxes had to be paid in Roman coins…coins which had the head of the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar imprinted on them. These coins were considered blasphemous, because they declared the emperor to be God – in Latin words written around the edge. And Roman taxation of conquered nations was hated by all. Why should they send their well-earned cash off to Rome, to keep the emperor and his cronies in luxury?
The second context was the Jewish leaders’ increasing sense of disquiet about this Jesus character – they suspected that he too was a blasphemer, declaring himself to be God. So they set about trying to trip him up with a tricky, tricky, conundrum. “Teacher”, they said…fawning and faking a sense of teachability on their part. “Teacher – is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
A very clever question indeed. For if Jesus said it was lawful, then the Jews would hate him for supporting the Romans. If he said that it was not lawful, then he would be subject to arrest by the Roman state. A trick question…designed to trap him. There was no way Jesus was going to get out of that, was he?
If you think you can trap God with mere words, you’re a poor fool indeed. Jesus rose, ably, to the challenge. Taking a roman coin from the crowd, he asked whose head was on it. “Caesar’s”, they said. “Then,” said Jesus – probably with a casual shrug of the shoulders – “give Caesar what is his. But give God what belongs to God”.
Is this a great cry from Jesus for the disestablishment of the church from the state? Is this a cry that religion and politics don’t mix? Is it heck!
The third context that we must not forget is the entire body of the rest of Jesus’ teaching, and the law and the prophets’ teaching he came to fulfil. Jesus stood in the tradition of all the ancient prophets, who legislated for the way that the whole State was to act, in all matters of human endeavour.
- the ways wars should be conducted,
- the way prisoners should be treated,
- the way aliens should be welcomed,
- the way that the poor should be supported,
- the way that disputes should be settled
- the way that the ownership of property should be regulated,
- even the way that banking and the charging of interest should be conducted…
...there are laws in the Hebrew Bible for all of these things…and many more.
And Jesus went even further. On top of all these laws that he came to fulfil, Jesus proclaimed a new kind of Kingdom. Kingdom is an inherently ‘political’ word. Repent! Turn around! Do things differently! Live according to God’s rules and God’s ways. Live in God’s Kingdom.
The real problem, I want to suggest in conclusion, is that our state, here in the UK, has already become effectively disconnected from its religion. Our society looks less and less like the religion we claim to respect.
The poor are neglected and discarded. For example, the new universal credit system requires people with nothing – no money – to live for a minimum of six weeks without any support from the rest of society. Whereas the Scriptures teach, boldly and courageously “there shall be NO poor among you”. (Deuteronomy 15:4). We ignore that teaching, and then we wonder why desperate people break into churches to steal what they can to live on.
Our economic models are driven by the charging of interest, which the Scriptures call usury, and illegal. (Exodus 22:24 –commands, “you shall not charge interest on loans to your brother”).
We take for granted the accumulation and passing on of capital through our families. Yet the Scriptures, on the other hand, advocate ‘Jubilee’ – the principle that fairly-shared land shall be returned to the original owners every 50th year. Leviticus 25.
We define ourselves as ‘consumers’ – it’s a badge that we wear with pride. We devour consumer magazines, and listen to ‘You and Yours’ – Radio 4’s flagship consumer programme. And yet the Scriptures invite us again and again to see ourselves not as individualistic consumers, concerned about our own rights and acquisitions. We are members of a community, with a responsibility to ‘do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God’. (Micah 6:8)
I could go on – at some length. But you’ll get cross with me if I do and start waving your watches at me. Let me finish with this suggestion.
Far from being a call to separate politics from religion, Jesus’ call to render to Caesar and God that which is theirs should constantly remind us that both the state, and God, have a call on our lives. These two calls must be held in a state of constant dialogue. A state without a religion is a state out of control – prey to the whims of the mob who would drive it ever towards the human kind’s baser instincts...blame of the other, the fracturing of community, individualism and consumerism, and the total disregard of the poor and the suffering.
A religion without a state is just as much in danger. A religion practiced without the tempering reality of human life can also become a deeply damaging thing. Personal religion can so easily become an individualistic search only for personal peace and holy experiences. The songs of stateless religions are always the songs of the individual search for God…cries for God to ‘touch me, heal me, fill me’. They are just as much a danger – and just as much worthy of contempt.
The state needs religion. And religion needs the State. Each keeps the other in balance. Each invites the other to think outside of the narrow confines of the self.
Yes, we must render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. We are the State – and we owe a debt to the community which sustains us, feeds us, houses us, and cares for us. But we must also render to God what is his…and never forget his cries for justice, for loving one another, for caring for the poor and the unlucky, and for placing God’s priorities above all else.