First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 23

William Loader

Pentecost 23: 19 October Matthew 22:15-22

The is one of the most famous of all anecdotes told about Jesus and one that is frequently misunderstood. It lends itself to being used to justify a separation of the affairs of religion and the affairs of commerce and government. This is why the church ought not to be involved in anything that has to do with politics, they say. Religion is for the private sphere. In the same way 'My kingdom is not of this world' (John 18:36) serves to bolster the view that the church is about getting to heaven, not about how things are run here. By appealing to such interpretations, some politicians resort to telling the church to get back into its box when it asks difficult questions.

I am sure Matthew would be astonished at such interpretation. He has just been giving a theological commentary on social and political events which had rocked his community, the sacking of Jerusalem. It was almost impossible to separate politics and religion in Israel, because the Old Testament sanctioned national interest and national institutions, not least the temple system. This was why the question made sense, mischievous as it was. It was a big issue. What do you do about Rome, the pagan power, which now controlled the promised land and in the eyes of many polluted it? Do you pay taxes to such a regime? Does that not sanction the power? Withholding taxes was one of the ploys advocated by devout rebels of the day. What is a person to do? What were Christians in Nazi Germany to do? What are we to do in the light of terrorist attacks in the present day?

The Pharisees were generally experts in knowing how to apply the Scriptures to everyday life so they knew this was a highly controversial issue which was likely to expose the naiveté of uneducated preachers. The link with the Herodians is interesting because it suggests collusion between at least some Pharisees and the supporters of the family and descendants of Herod who were puppet governors of Jewish territories: Herod Antipas in Galilee in the north and Perea across the Jordan from Jerusalem and Judea; and Philip further north in and beyond Galilee. They were encumbered with the task of quelling riots and dampening down resentment against Rome. A dangerous alliance was confronting Jesus. Mark says the same alliance plotted quite early against Jesus (3:6), but Matthew changed that, omitting mention of the Herodians. But they are here now and hearers of Matthew might have in mind the ugly story of Herod the Great and his murderous intent, played out in the story of the magi in chapter 2. Perhaps Matthew's community is still being administered by one of Herod's line (Agrippa II?).

Jesus' answer is clever, like many of his single responses. Often they take the form of two liners or two parts contrasted or setting each other off. Give the emperor what is the emperor's and to God what is God's. The assumption is that the coin bore an imperial inscription. Jesus' response does not advocate withholding taxes. He is prepared to pay taxes and to urge that his followers do so. This does not mean that such a response is always appropriate. It is impossible to generalise like that from a single anecdote. There will also be times when it is appropriate to throw tables over and drive out money changers.

The quick witted reply of Jesus bristles with ambiguity in its second part: and to God what is God's. It is like some of the parables which evoke penny-dropped experiences or pass over people's heads. One reading does indeed see Jesus dividing reality up; in one area we have one loyalty; in another area we have another. But it all depends on what we mean by 'what is God's'. Surely all things are God's! - almost by definition, if God is God and God is one. Then Jesus' reply is profoundly subversive. If everything is God's, then in all things I will seek God's will and that will entail measuring all things, including governments, by the vision Jesus has given us of God's rule or kingdom. God's compassion knows no bounds, so it will always be an irritant to regimes which stifle it and it will stand in conflict with oppressors, whoever and wherever they are.

This is why Christians of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany challenged the Nazi ideology and its practices. Others justified keeping their vows to the state by using such texts to divide up reality into compartments. But there would not have been any Christian to tell the tale if the Confessing Christians had not exercised discretion in the way they resisted the government. Jesus was not stupid either, when confronted with the invitation to suicide for his cause, as here. Hence the deliberate ambiguity of his reply. Strategies for change in society require common sense. Jesus was not joining those who had reached such a point of religious despair that they saw the call to open conflict as the only option. Their ascendancy brought Israel down and devastated its heartland.

With this passage we must expose the fallacy of dividing reality into God's area and other areas. It invites us to reflect on this primarily in relation to big issues of the day. It also relates closely to individual spirituality: 'Seven whole days not one in seven...' Let the transforming love of God also affect my relationships, my budget, my planning; our family, our congregation, our community, our nation, our world! The words of the testers spoken in patronising sarcasm (22:16) were in fact correct; he teaches the way of God in truth!

Today's big issues are inseparably bound up with politics and for people of faith it is important to consider all aspects. Indeed as people of faith we are called to look beyond our own advantage or our own region or nation's advantage to the question: what is good for all? These days we cannot ignore the major issues which we face in climate change: our future and the future of generations to come is at stake. How can that not be spiritual and political? Deeds of terror which have set the agenda of recent years need to be set into a broader perspective. Why is world poverty less serious than headline catching terrorist attacks? There is a wider and deeper mourning which, while decrying acts of terror, also senses the less articulate pain which people suffer through poverty and the massive structural injustices of our world. We need to hold open the God-space for people so that they can make the journey through immediate pain, without falling to the slogans which reduce the issues to terror alone or to 'other religions'. Only so can we help stop the cycle of violence. Flip the coin: God's actually on both sides!

Epistle: Pentecost 23: 19 October  1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

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