St Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington

Sermon for Sunday 22nd October, 2017, at 11am

Two kingdoms?


Matthew 22: 15-22

I wonder if any of you saw a video clip of the interview that our Prime Minister, Theresa May, was giving to a radio station recently on the subject of Brexit (what else?). The interviewer asked her a question which was probably the most curved ball you could bowl:

“If there was another vote on Brexit tomorrow, how would you vote?”

OUCH! She was completely paralysed, because everyone knows that she was a “remainer” in the referendum, but now she’s working on the negotiations to leave. If she said she’d vote to leave, then she’d be open to accusations of flip-flopping on the issue; if she said she’d still vote to stay then she’d undermine the entire basis of British negotiations.

What a question – and so cunningly put by the interviewer. Her face was a picture, she was completely paralysed and gave a terrible non-answer.

That’s the rough and tumble world of politics, I guess, and that rough and tumble was what was going on in the story from Matthew’s Gospel.

Jesus faced a similar sort of dilemma, but perhaps from an even more explosive situation.

Judea was a Roman colony in Jesus’ time. Yes the Jewish religious authorities and the monarchy were in charge of Temple and government, but only at the pleasure of the Romans.

That was a bone of contention for the ultra-religious, represented in this story by the Pharisees, who in principle could not stomach the thought of the blasphemy of the Roman coinage bearing the head of the Emperor, who claimed to be a God. That could not be reconciled with the one God of Judaism.

Alongside this was the group identified here as the Herodians – the folk who were willing to back King Herod, the local ruler, who was in charge as a kind of “puppet king” keeping order in some style on behalf of the Romans, but without any real power of his own.

And in the middle of this was Jesus, who neither side liked. Jesus was a friend to neither group, because as we repeatedly hear, he noised things up with the Jewish religious hierarchy and both challenged and poked fun at their legalism and rigid application of religious law, whilst finding ways round it when it suited them.

For the Herodians, Jesus was a pure and simple criminal against the state. Challenge to the Herodian regime had its dangers as John the Baptist found out when his challenge to the morality of the Royal household ended up with him being jailed and then his execution. Jesus was the inheritor of his cousin’s mantle of challenge to both Temple and Palace.

So this story is as compelling as any of our political dramas today. When you focus on the detail of this wee scene, it comes flooding out. It’s in the middle of a whole section of the Gospel sees Jesus being challenged and tested. Here’s the latest effort. The Pharisees don’t come themselves – they’re too sleekit for that. They send their “disciples” who are the ones who are sent with the Herodians. The Pharisees don’t want to be seen colluding with Herodians, so their public image is safe. And the disciples butter Jesus up. “Oh Jesus, you’re so wise, you’re so fair and impartial, give us your opinion on this question we have.”  What fakery!

And then the killer question:

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not.”

Simple but deadly.

Why?

If Jesus says yes, then the Pharisees can say that he’s blaspheming against God and breaking the Jewish Law by using the Roman coinage – the coin that has the Emperor’s head on it: the Emperor that claims to BE GOD.

If Jesus says no, then the Herodians can go right back to their Roman masters and tell them that Jesus was encouraging sedition – by telling people to withhold paying their taxes to the empire.

Say yes or no, and Jesus is doomed.

So the answer that he gives is brilliant:

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

In that context, he completely dodged the bullet, and that unholy alliance of two groups with nothing in common except a shared fear and dislike of Jesus and what he stood for, had to slink off with their tails between their legs.

Interpretation of the reply

“Render unto Ceasar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

That reply, though, has resonated down the centuries as Christians have tried to wrestle with the question of what exactly might constitute the realm of faith and the realm of what you might call “civil” society. The religious stuff and the rest, I guess you might say.

It’s a thorny issue – too much closeness between religious authorities and the civil power and you end up with a “theocracy” that has the potential to go in rather unhealthy directions – the US is having this debate big style right now.

Too far apart and you end up with faith as a private matter pushed into a corner, with just as unhealthy consequences as churches become religious cliques that set themselves apart from the world and their story becomes purity and retreat from the rest of the world, which is seen as somehow soiled, and they are carrying the torch for the heart of God.

COINAGE

Earlier on at 9.30am I showed the children a Denarius coin from the Roman Empire that I got hold of and also one of our £1 coins from today.

On our coin, there’s the Queen’s head for sure, but it says around it:

“ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA FIDEI DEFENSATRIX:

Which means “Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, Queen and defender of the faith.”

And this is incredibly important:

The Queen rules by the grace of God, not on her own terms or with absolute power.

Actually, if you looked at older Scottish coins before the Act of Union, you’d also find:

“”pro me si mereor in me” – “For me, but against me if I deserve.”

SO WHAT?

These inscriptions speak of a principle, of an understanding that we live and move and have our being within a world that is God’s realm. God is our ultimate authority, and nobody else.

Nobody can claim absolute authority, and that goes for ministers, political leaders, kings, tyrants. They just don’t have the mandate.

Andrew Melville

I wonder if any of you have heard the story of how the firebrand presbyterian theologian, Andrew Melville, was hassling the king during an audience at Falkland Palace and he tugged James VI’s sleeve and is supposed to have told him that he needed to get back into his box because he was merely “God’s sillie vassal.”  Imagine saying that to a king who had designs on divine right rule. That went down like a lead balloon of course, and there were consequences.

But I think that Melville was right, and when it comes down to it, there can be no kingdom of God and kingdom of the world. It’s all God’s.

That’s why Desmond Tutu could say with complete confidence back in his prime, “I am puzzled at which Bible people are reading when they say religion and politics don’t mix.”

When John Calvin locked the doors of the church in Geneva during the week to stop people treating the church as especially sacred, it was not because he didn’t believe that there was a benefit to going to the church to pray, but because he believed that the whole world was sacred – it was all God’s space and time, and he didn’t want this unhelpful concept of sacred and secular. In a way, that’s why the Reformers were so dangerous, because they refused to collude or to have the church shoved into the “sacred” zone.

Put simply, Christians are not bound by a sacred and secular concept. Jesus didn’t have it – for him, God’s rule was over everything, and that’s why he was such a threat to Roman rule.

FOR TODAY

This is all a great challenge for us though. How do we assert a view of the sovereignty of God in a society in Western Europe seems to be going in the opposite direction.

We have to negotiate our way carefully. We have to give wise answers to questions and challenges from individuals and groups who would like to cast the “religious” as being nutters and fundamentalists who can do positive harm to society. But there is one huge thing from the heart of our faith tradition that we can offer to society:

And that is Accountability

To live in a way which asserts that there is or could be a higher power beyond anything that we can fully understand and know, and to assert that we have to be accountable to that higher power seems to me to be an incredibly important mantra. To ask the question, “how would I account to God for this” in a scene of future judgement is something that focuses the mind. What if it’s not just us? What if we do have to give an account of ourselves?

Regardless of the cascade of church doctrine and practice that flows from that position of seeing ourselves as being “created” or “made” and subject to that creator, that basic position seems to be something that we should try to recover and sustain in our public life.

Not in our small corner

So we are never shut in a wee corner. Our outlook is always one of benignly (not in a power grab or controlling way) relating to the wider world, and that is what should characterize our identity as a parish church. Keep looking outwards, even as we gather as the people of God in a much smaller group.

At communion we often sing Ye Gates, Lift up your heads on high,” which is part of Psalm 24.

What we miss out is the beginning of that Psalm, which says “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,”

So let’s take that as our mantra, not two kingdoms but one, of which we are all equal citizens accountable under God. AMEN