Isaiah 45:1-7; Matthew 22:15-22
19th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s; 22.10.17
Rev Charles Higgins
So did you manage to spend your old pound coins this week?
This Monday just gone, apart from a very few companies and charities that will still accept them, the circular pound coin was completely replaced as legal tender by the new 12-sided coin. It’s astounding, isn’t it, that one small object can carry so much information? But whether it’s the precise shape and weight of a coin that tells a machine that you’ve paid for parking or that your chocolate bar should be released from its spiral, or whether it proclaims that the Queen is queen by the Grace of God, she’s the defender of the faith and it’s 2017 (all there on every coin), coins tell us a lot. And just as money and taxes are a hot topic for us today, it was no different during Jesus’ Earthly ministry.
The particular coin that Jesus asks for in our Gospel reading today would have been used for paying taxes to the Romans, an occupying and oppressing presence in the land. We’re told it had the emperor’s image on it (the Jews weren’t allowed to have images of human beings on their coins) and we’re also told it had the emperor’s title on it – far from identifying the monarch as a servant of God, it would have the often-repeated claim of the Caesars – that they themselves were divine. As far as the Jews were concerned, all that was wrong with the world was packed into that one small coin.
Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah also finds God’s people in the midst of oppression. They had been ruled over by one superpower (the Babylonians), yanked from their homeland, only to see them defeated by another, the Persians, that took over and seemed poised to carry on where the Babylonians had left off. Then for some reason, we’re introduced very specifically in this passage to this man Cyrus who was the king of the Persians, and puzzlingly he is introduced, in fact directly spoken to by God, as his chosen one. He’s the only non-Israelite that is given this title anywhere in the Bible, and its a word that’s even used of Jesus later on. It would seem that, like Jesus in our Gospel reading, we find ourselves in a bit of a tricky place. What good news does God have for us in the midst of all of this difficulty?
I think to answer that question we need to notice the way that Jesus springs the trap that is set for him, for Jesus notices immediately that it is a trap. Ganged up on by the Pharisees and the Herodians (who normally wouldn’t have anything to do with each other) Jesus issues a sharp challenge in return to the one they offer him. What they want to happen, of course, is either for him to say that taxes shouldn’t be paid to the Romans in which case they can label him as dangerous or to say that they should be paid, calling all he’s been teaching about the kingdom of God into question.
However, Jesus’ answer reveals that they might be cosier with the authorities than they’re letting on – they have a Roman coin easily to hand whereas Jesus’ pockets are empty. The good news for us is that Jesus knows what’s really going on, both what’s obvious and what’s not quite so obvious, and he is extremely realistic. Jesus’ words that we should give to the emperor those things that are his and to God’s that which is his show us that Jesus realises that we too have lots of things that make demands on us – whether it’s our time that we divide between family, friends, church, work, school, social life or our money or our allegiance. He realises that we wrestle with questions like ‘when is it right to speak out against injustice?’ ‘Are there charges that we should refuse to pay?’ Laws that are unjust? Jesus understands the knotty problems that we face and his words meet us in the midst of them.
Although Jesus remarks might appear to be less controversial than his questioners wanted them to be, there is a definite sting in the tale of what he says. He says that taxes should be paid but he leaves us in little doubt that God is more important than the emperor. Romans and their taxes are just a footnote in God’s kingdom. This gives us a clue about our passage from Isaiah as well. Isaiah writes of God’s power over all of creation and all of history – such a vast array of things are mentioned. Even a conquering army like the Persians can be used by God and even Cyrus, a foreign king, can be called God’s chosen one because Cyrus turns out not to be like the superpower he conquered at all – he allows God’s people to return to their homeland, to rebuild their temple. God works through a king who has probably never even heard of him to fulfil his promises to his people to bring them out of exile. God understands the traps of this world from everyday problems to national turmoil and everything in between – he offers hope and a future, even when it’s not obvious. The invitation of Isaiah and of Jesus is to offer our allegiance first and foremost to God, to trust him, because the things of the emperor never ultimately define either who we are or what our lives are about.
Very often our position in society, the places where we “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s” is something we earn – we pay our bills, we meet our obligations and the system carries on. However, because of God’s love shown to us in Jesus, we are given the things of God – it’s a gracious gift. As we follow Jesus we realise that even more than that we actually are the things of God. If we had a coin that contained information about who we are, before anything else it might say this: we belong to God. God who has the whole sweep of history in the palm of his hand, is also with us in the everyday, caring profoundly, and inviting us to trust him. Let’s pray today that he would help us to take up that invitation.