Thought for the week - 22 October 2023
People often have expectations of others which may or may not be realistic – and we can have expectations of ourselves too which may be the same. Expectations often fail to take in factors such as physical fitness, age, stress and so on – in a football match there is an expectation on both sides that each will win, but this is, naturally, impossible and it’s impossible that each of us will live up to the expectations laid upon us by others and indeed by ourselves, and that’s no bad thing. Primarily it’s no bad thing because all too often, expectations are actually judgements that we make on another person’s ability to perform in the way we expect them to – ‘oh he’s a nightmare after a few, try and sit somewhere else’, ‘she always forgets things’, ‘go and speak to him, he will be able to help’ – whatever the judgement we impose may be, it becomes a positive or negative expectation and the sooner we lose these tropes, the better, because they trap us into a mindset which is judgemental and trap others into our own negative thoughts as well – not judging others helps us too.
One of the expectations often wheeled out is that the church should not get involved in politics. I have never managed to understand why this thought has come up and having spent much of my life studying the scriptures, I have come to the conclusion that it’s simply what people want to think when they find religion challenging. Right now, religion is going through a moment of being very challenging indeed, and for all the wrong reasons – we see murder, war, hatred, and revenge behind so much of the terrors and evils of this life, and those perpetrating these abominable deeds are generally claiming religion as their motive. It is a hard time to proclaim our faith in the world, and we will be subject to others expectations and judgements if we do so, but this fear of being judged should not stop us, as it did not stop Christ being judged by Pilate.
In todays first reading, we reflect on the Jewish people living under a repressive regime. Isaiah, a member of the forced resettlement of a previous king, sees the present King of Persia, Cyrus the Great, as a potential liberator. The forced separation from home will end. It will be possible to return to Palestine. Five hundred years later, another repressive regime dominates the Jews, and Christ is asked metaphorically who they should now obey by asking whether they should pay tax to Caesar or not, and this is often read as making a distinction between politics and religion. There is Caesar’s world and that of God. Priests should keep out of politics and stick to spirituality. But this to misunderstand what Jesus is saying. Every human being is made in the image of God and so belongs to God. For us, politics is building the polis, the community, in which God’s own children can live in dignity and happiness, as we await God’s gift of the heavenly city, in which all politics will be finished. Religion cannot be reduced to politics, but it has consequences for how we understand the point of politics.
The question in the Gospel today is: Is it lawful to pay the Roman poll tax? This is a specific tax, not one that could be paid in kind. Other taxes were property taxes and customs taxes. This one is to be paid in a specific coin, not any old coin. Other Greek and Jewish coins were circulating, but not tax-worthy. Paying the coin gets you on the Roman database, the census, as a colonial subject. It makes you visibly accept the burden, or the yoke, of oppression. The denarius spoke for itself in many ways. Jesus is not an undue respecter of persons. He does not look to the “face” of man. Will he treat with respect the head of the emperor on the coin? The superscription includes the letters DIVI that proclaim the emperor as “divine”. The denarius is not just a neutral transfer or gift of money for the coffers. It is a tribute. It honours the ruler. It’s not just a piece of metal and its value is more than merely financial.
Jesus says of the coin, “It is his; give it him; give to God what is God’s.” God’s tribute, not precisely defined, is not harmed, or denied by the giving of Caesar’s tribute. The inner dynamic of God’s presence through his Spirit is working through the social system. With hindsight we see the undercurrent of God’s working through the Roman Empire which will in the end break out in the Emperor Constantine’s conversion and the fall of the Roman Empire, and the money has become worthless and placed in museums, but the faith has retained, indeed grown, in value because it is not and never has been about accepting an imposed system, but about accepting the presence of God in us and us in Him. The Herodians belonged to the world of wealth and power. They are so blinded that they do not see that the man they are trying to trap is himself the very image of God made human. We belong to the world of poverty (in the eyes of the world) and service – we are not to ignore politics, but to subvert it to the values of the true, lasting Kingdom, and when the pounds we now spend are worthless and in a museum, the faith we have will still be more valuable than the pearl of great price.