Reading: Gospel according to Matthew, Chapter: 22, Verses: 15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’
When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
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 Jesus wanted the link to be ‘disestablished’ – and that Jesus’ words should be taken to mean that’s time for the link to be dissolved. Those who oppose this view rejoice in owning the longest word in the English language: antidisestablishmentarianism!
So is Jesus’s statement a great cry for the disestablishment of the church from the state? Is this a cry that religion and politics don’t mix? I don’t think so!
Jesus stood in the tradition of all the ancient prophets and teachers, 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. He came to fulfil these laws, by proclaiming 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, 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 around six weeks without any support from the rest of society. For those with no savings, because any work they did have was very low paid, this is enough to bring about utter destitution.
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.
Here’s another example. 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”).
And another. 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).
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 correction.
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 plain unlucky, and for placing God’s priorities above all else.