Matthew, Taxes and Caesar
During the pandemic I’ve been writing articles about individual encounters with Jesus in the gospels. The woman at well, tax collectors, lepers, a rich young ruler, and others. And the encounters of disciples. disciples. Thomas (my favourite), Peter, James and John.
If we try to imagine ourselves in the place and time, we get a sense of Jesus’ character. He’s often firm. Yet always compassionate. Insightful. Empathetic, understanding and most of all loving. Jesus has the gift of letting people recognise who they are, and accept what they’ve done, before showing them who they can be. The encounters I’ve covered have always been life changing. Dramatically, joyfully, irrevocably, life changing.
To those who meet Jesus knowing their thirst, Jesus is the purest water. To those who acknowledge their hunger, the finest bread.
How differently those encounters work out for those who already know it all. To those who already have all the answers. The story Matthew tells here is stark in its contrasts. The Pharisees who are certain they are holy men. Who have studied every dot and tittle of the scriptures their whole life, who know all the laws, and what’s more have interpreted those laws into myriad tiny shards of rules without which you simply cannot be holy. Who control your very salvation to the last letter, and uphold the traditions and systems inherited down the centuries.
And then Jesus, who has also read and studied the scriptures all his life, and who also knows all the law and the prophets. But who also knows the heart and mind of God the Father. Because he shares the same heart and mind. Because he was there when that heart and mind chose to lay the foundations of the universe.
But that’s all about the big stuff. For now, we’re here in a very mundane situation. A debate. It’s likely the Pharisees have picked a time when Jesus is in a public place to try and catch him out in front of witnesses. And most likely in front of a varied audience which will include Romans. Very likely Roman soldiers, the eyes and ears of the Empire. Because the question they’re going to trap him with here is, make no mistake, a matter of life and death.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? If he says yes it is then in the eyes of the Pharisees, he’s acknowledging a higher authority than God and he’s guilty of blasphemy. And blasphemy is punishable under Jewish law by death. if he says no it isn’t, well that’s insurrection against the Roman empire. And the punishment for insurrection is death. A rock and a hard-place.
There’s a third option of course. He could bottle out and refuse to answer the question. Maybe this is what his inquisitors are hoping for. He’d save his own skin, but he’d go on his way with less kudos. He would look silly in front of those who follow him, and it could reassert the Pharisees as the clever ones. The ones with the answers.
We know of course that eventually Jesus will indeed be executed on charges of blasphemy and insurrection. But not today buddy. There’s still a lot more to do.
I love watching Jesus’ debating style. Setting aside for a moment the fact that he’s the Son of God, in purely human terms this man is seriously smart. Highly intellectual, well read and with a stunning understanding of human nature and how people’s minds work.
As so often in the gospels, Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He asks a different one. And in this case he asks for a visual aid. “Give me one of the coins that you pay the tax with”. (Not his own coin notice. As a Yorkshireman this pleases me) Now, he asks, whose head’s that?
On the page it sounds dry. But I love this because it’s humour. Dark humour for sure. But it’s humour. And as Clive James said, a sense of humour is a sense of proportion dancing.
Suddenly these highly clever Pharisees are confronted with a very simple question. It’s not even a binary question. There’s only one answer. It’s Caesar’s head. Of course it is, stupid.
And now they’re in the dock. Their question has been turned back on them. And the Romans are probably watching and waiting with interest to see what they say from here. In my view, Jesus lets them off lightly. He could really land them in it by asking them directly, “so what do you think then?” and watch them squirm. But no. “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s then. And give God what is God’s”.
Inside Jesus is probably aching with sadness. He has the words of eternal life. He has the message that the God who created the universe loves you – yes YOU – more than words could ever express. That you – yes YOU – are infinitely precious in God’s sight. That no matter what you have done in your life, you are really worth something. And all they can do is come to him with lawyers’ tricks to try to trip him up. Why? Because he’s messing with the status quo. Turning things upside down.
Well things are upside down. Jesus just wants to turn them the right way up.
When I was growing up and Christianity was still allegedly mainstream, and everyone had some knowledge of the bible, all sorts of people with no church background or connections would quote the bible when it suited them. This is what you should do if you’re a Christian. And as we went into the eighties, we were fed the idea that this is what we should do if we’re a Christian nation.
The trouble is they didn’t quote the bible. They quoted the useful bits. “The wages of sin is death,” they’d say. Well that should keep you on the straight and narrow. “An eye for an eye!” So we should have the death penalty. “God helps those who help themselves.” Which of course Jesus simply never said at all.*
But the bible doesn’t say the wages of sin is death, full stop. It says the wages of sin is death, comma, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus, full stop. Jesus says, you have heard it said eye for eye, tooth for tooth, but I say forgive your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
And “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. It’s your Christian duty to obey the law, and by implication not challenge those who make the law however good or bad they are at it.
Again, that’s not what Jesus said. He said give Caesar what is his and give God what is God’s. Perhaps, in his weary sadness and frustration, he really wants the Pharisees to hear the second part at least as loudly as the first.
And I passionately believe that he wants us to hear it too. Because that’s the big stuff. It’s the good stuff. It’s the good news. It’s the gospel that Jesus came to earth to embody, to teach and to give to us. The news we’re told to share. That what we’ve earned through our sin is death. But eternal life is ours to freely accept as a love gift from God. Not what we’ve earned, but what he gives. That we should forgive because we’ve been forgiven. And because in the end forgiveness brings us freedom. A wise person once said that a man who nurses hatred and grudge is like a man who repeatedly takes poison in the belief that it will kill his enemy.
On the rare occasions when anyone talks to me about faith these days, there still seems to be a view that it’s all about rules and restrictions. All about “shalt nots”. But when questioned on what is the greatest commandment, Jesus replies with two inseparable “thou shalts”. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength. And love your neighbour as yourself”.
Because if you are steeped in those two positives, well you won’t murder you neighbour, or take her husband from her, or nurse jealousy over what they have, will you?
Further pressed, Jesus invites us to decide who is our neighbour. And it has nothing to do apparently with geography, race or religion. It has to do with those who are in need. Our neighbour is next door to us, and he is coming half-way across the world to us in tiny boats bringing only his desperation and fear. She is in the church up the road or the Mosque in the city centre. He is in the big house on the hill, and on the streets of our city under a sleeping bag.
The Pharisees with all their reading must have known the scripture that asks, “what is it that God requires of us? To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God”. That, surely, is giving to God what is God’s. That, surely, is the good news that we are given to share, in our words and in our lives.
Below are two items from Ian: a poem inspired by a recent trip to Filey and a thought about the miracle of the Five Loaves and Two Fishes - July 17th
Matthew 7.21, 24-27
This familiar passage popped up in my Pray as you Go this morning, and like so many familiar passages during the current crisis struck me in a fresh way.
If you are of a similar vintage to me, you will now have a song in your head that you learnt at Sunday school or its equivalent. “The wise man built his house upon the rock….”, and you’ll probably have it for the rest of the day.
You may remember the actions, and the childish glee with which we’d sing “..and the house on the sand fell FLAT!” clapping our hands together to emphasise our schadenfreude at this unfortunate man’s comeuppance for his stupidity. In more mature terms, the old translation of the bible has “…and great was the fall thereof”.
Misfortune calls on all of us at different times. In extremes it feels like everything that we built on, everything that we set our faith on, has come crashing down and there’s nothing left. It often comes to us through no fault of our own. To put it politely, poo happens. It doesn’t make it any better that it isn’t our fault.
But in the phrase “great was the fall thereof” is the greatest tragedy of the second man’s story. Watching as everything he’d built, everything he’d set his trust in, had crashed irrevocably to dust.
And the greatest wailing was that he knew it was his fault. Before a hole was dug, before a stone was laid, he’d chosen the wrong place to build. The wrong foundation. And it had cost him everything. And it needn’t have.
Gloomy isn’t it? What hope is there then if we start from the wrong place?
Rev Paul reminded us in last Sunday’s address that we walk with the God of “the second, third and fourth chance”. And in that knowledge lies our hope and our joy.
While we have breath, it’s never too late. However shaky and dubious are the foundations on which we’ve started, however close to collapse the edifice we’ve erected, we can start again. By the grace of God, and through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ. That’s what repentance means. Not just saying sorry but starting again. Turning round. Making a different decision.
If we make God the foundation for whatever we start, he will provide all that we need. And he will be the builder too. Every structure will be unique in shape and purpose. The structures will get marred along the way by the catalogue of mistakes that we make, because we’re only human, and we’ll foul up.
But there is nothing so bad, so shaky – and I mean nothing – that the Creator of the universe can’t deal with and put right.
And ultimately, when storms come, even when the final storm comes, nothing can wash away what God has built. Our life is eternal in him.
Holy Spirit we Welcome You. Ian Price with pictures from Holmesfield Wood
A Martyn Joseph Song......."He Never Said"; Sunday 31st May
The Great Escape – or Not
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer[a] called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord[b] to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
Each time we come to a familiar passage in scripture it can open up to us in a new way. This is why we call scripture the living or active word of God. It speaks to us according to what we need to hear when we need to hear it. This passage was in my audio reflection on Tuesday.
God’s miraculous interventions have the same character. Not just for show, but targeted, thought out and executed for the people involved and their circumstances. And not always for the people we expect. Not always for the billed “stars” of the story like Paul and Silas. For me this week, this story isn’t about them. It’s about an un-named public servant – a jailer – and his family.
This is not a story of an escape. Not for the apostles anyway. God can do that if he wants to, it’s no problem. Have a look at Acts 12.6-19 for confirmation. But this time it seems God didn’t want them out, he needed them to serve where they were. Oh I reckon they could have escaped. In the face of an unexplained earthquake, breaking of iron chains and opening of locked doors, who would dare to stop them? Not the jailer. He’s already decided to avoid the dreadful punishment of his masters by ending his own life quickly and cleanly, and with some honour.
But no. the apostles stay where they are and tell the jailer not to do anything hasty. He hasn’t failed. All of his charges are still here thank you.
In the face of this miracle apparently he sees God’s hand at work, and asks what he must do to be saved. As my commentary said, the jailer recognised that his freedom was to be found on the other side of the prison bars. With the prisoners.
As soon as he recognises this, his attitude and behaviour change as well. His thoughts are now for others before himself. He washes the disciples’ wounds – himself. Just let that sink in a moment. It’s an act of kindness, love and concern. It may be an act of repentance as well. He may have delivered those wounds, or ordered their delivery. Either way he was part of a system that did.
And then he and all his household were baptised.
So many things to learn for today here.
So, not a great escape then for the apostles. But for the jailer and his family, certainly. Whatever else we can take from this story at this time, amidst the fear and anxiety of the apostles’ predicament, it sure shows what God can achieve in a lock down. If we let him.
From Ian - a song of his own composition; March 31st 2020