Preacher: The Ven Simon Burton-Jones, Archdeacon
16 October 2011 (Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity)
Most political interviews today are very boring to listen to. This is because politicians are well trained in getting round awkward questions. There are three tried and tested ways of doing this. The first is not to accept the premise of the question and instead put across what you want to say. This is pretty much the default setting today. The second is to go round the houses until the actual question has been forgotten and everyone has lost the will to live. The third is to set up an enquiry and delay answers until someone else has your job.
Occasionally politicians are caught off guard when the microphones are left on. This happened to two former Prime Ministers: John Major (over his less loyal cabinet colleagues) and Gordon Brown (over Rochdale’s Mrs. Duffy). More recently Nick Clegg forgot he was miked up when he opined on the perceived lack of difference between him and David Cameron. Bigger changes may be at hand with the emergence of citizen journalism, where members of the public use their mobiles to record what they see and hear, catching out the unsuspecting. Bill Clinton was famously snatched losing his temper during his wife’s bid for the Presidency, damaging her campaign. With the new social media, everyone seems to be recording everyone else, so tomorrow’s public leaders had better watch what they do from the age of eleven if they want to avoid bad publicity.
One of the hardest demands is being asked a loaded question in front of other people, purely with a view to tripping up a public figure. Before he was made President, George W. Bush was asked for the names of various national leaders. His subsequent failure to identify President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan marked the beginning of the open season on his perceived limitations. Spare a thought for Jesus, in Matthew 22: 15-22, where an obsequious entourage of the Pharisees cornered him with a question he was sure to trip up over: ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?’ On one level this shows there is nothing new in asking an intricate question on taxation policy as a way of undermining someone’s career (former Labour Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson knows all about that). However, there is something more sinister at work here and Jesus could see the issues clearly.
He was a Palestinian Jew and Palestine was occupied by the Romans. They had to pay a poll tax to Caesar to finance the occupation. The Jews hated this tax and all it stood for. If Jesus said that the people had to pay the tax, he would lose popular support and be deemed a stooge of the Romans. If he said that they didn’t have to pay the tax he would be denounced to the Romans as an agitator and face arrest.
Jesus grew up with an emerging sense of his place and purpose in the world. He would have observed the Roman occupation and drawn his own conclusions in the light of the dawning awareness of his destiny. There would inevitably be a coming clash with the secular authorities as his power demonstrated more and more loudly the scope of his authority and ambition. But this confrontation had to be on his terms and in his time. The remarkable encounter with Pontius Pilate, where Jesus, despite his solitariness and vulnerability, put those around him on trial over his divinity instead, is evidence of this timing. When these stooges door-stepped Jesus he was not ready to face the Romans.
So he asks for a coin.
It was a characteristically Jewish response to answer a question by asking several others. ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ he says. Their response provokes one of history’s more quotable political sayings: ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s’. Here Jesus accepts the demands of government while switching their attention to the more important and compelling demands of God on their lives. It isn’t that politics and religion are different spheres: they are two sides of the same coin. And the whole coin belongs to God.
The interplay between politics and religion is a subtle one, calling for wisdom and understanding. Some think that faith should play no role in public policy or debate and even quote Jesus here to support their position. Yet Jesus is here pitting Caesar against God as a way of showing the immeasurably bigger claim that God places on human life and society. It is impossible to give God no place in the public arena because he will find one despite the best initiatives of his opponents. The created world belongs to him and he has loved it enough, despite its endless failings, to send his Son to win it back for him. No-go areas do not exist for God. However, the unchallengeable authority of God requires those who follow him to speak in his name with great care and humility lest they misrepresent his character. Politics is about the distribution of power and resources in society and one of the demonstrable ways God’s nature is honoured is in conferring a special dignity on those who cannot speak loudly for themselves.
Much thought has gone into the relationship between Christianity and political order, of which these words of Jesus are but one component. They speak very powerfully, nonetheless, of three ideas. The first is that government has a divine purpose. There is a legitimate sphere for it under God. The New Testament was written against the background of a minimal state which has been taken by some to mean that all States should be minimalist in outline. The range and sophistication of human relationships and endeavour today call, inevitably, for a more complex and involved State than endured in Jesus’ time. Nevertheless, the words of Jesus in our reading imply strongly that government should recognise its limitations. This is the second idea. Government cannot claim for itself ultimate truth. The inherent weakness of human beings before a holy God compels restrictions on how they exercise power over one another. The greater the scope for power, the greater the likelihood this will be abused.
The third suggestion behind Jesus’ statement is that all human government should recognise its contingency under God. The risk of political systems which eradicate any mention of God is that other philosophies may take root which claim robustly to express truth but which contain the seeds of oppression. Fascism and communism are good examples of this. Those systems which help us to be aware of a higher authority in our public debate and policy-making create a sense of divine accountability for those who wield power. So constrained, they should be more likely to exercise authority in humility and awe.
No doubt if God’s Son had been born in Britain in the late twentieth century someone would have asked him: ‘so Jesus, should the United Kingdom join the Euro?’ just so he could become embroiled in a policy question, lose face and have the words come back to haunt him in the current sovereign debt crisis. For all their deep worth, we spend endless amounts of time pouring over some questions in life which are second order when contrasted with the really big one: what are we going to do about God’s claim on our lives together? Once we get a grip on that, we are in a much stronger position to answer those other demanding questions of public life where Caesar must still answer to God.