Sunday, October 19, 2008

Alex's birthday today and we have both been feeling a little fragile after a fantastic night out with friends involving too much alcohol and too little sleep...

In laws have been here today - we took them out to a very slowly served lunch at the Papermill, but the food was great.

An interesting service service this morning... I hadn't marked that Tim was down to preach, so I prepared, only to discover that Tim was raring to go... which was fine....

Anyway, just in case toy are interested, here is what I would have preached...

Governments this week have plough more and more money into the banking sector. both here and abroad, to try to keep both the national and global economies afloat.

More and more of us are finding, with this climate of financial uncertainty that our money does not go as far as it used to - because of increased food and energy prices.

And yet, religious communities find it sometimes hard to talk about money and it’s place in life for fear of offending, especially when we are asking for it! This morning’s Gospel alludes to the fact that conversation about money even back in Jesus day could be controversial. Yet here, Jesus sidesteps the controversy and clearly teaches from God’s perspective the place money should have in our lives, the control we should or should not allow it to have, and in that sense, speaks in a very contemporary way into our 21 century lives.

The Pharisees are confident that they have found the perfect question to ask Jesus. Whichever way he answers this, he will alienate some of his followers, and that is exactly what the Pharisees want: they want to erode Jesus’s power base, without dirtying their own hands. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?

So, they calculate, if Jesus replies that taxes should be paid to the illegal Roman usurper, he will anger those of his followers who hope and believe that he is the Messiah, the one who will reassert God’s direct rule over his people, and get rid of the Romans. But, if he tries to please that group by saying that taxes should be withheld, he will be liable for arrest by the civil powers, and he will frighten off the ordinary people, who want no trouble with the authorities, but who just come to Jesus to hear about God and to find consolation and healing. “Got him!” the Pharisees chortle.

However, if they think they will lull Jesus into a false sense of security, they are quickly proved very wrong. Within seconds, they are the ones scrabbling for an answer, their careful strategy completely destroyed. Once again, as in all their dealings with Jesus, they are made to look like fools, who do not know their own business.

They are supposed to be the religious leaders, but they never thought to introduce the question of God’s rights into the debate. It is Jesus who does that, as though he knows more about God than they do.

Since that has always been the heart of their hatred for him, they go away with the situation completely unchanged, but their own anger growing to the point where it will not be contained for much longer.

Apparently, it does not occur to them that Jesus’ answer is a real one, perhaps because their question was not real, and they didn’t want an actual answer. But Matthew, through his careful placing of this story, and through the build-up of the question and answer, makes us pause. What does the answer mean?

People often dwell on the “render to Caesar” part of the story, to abstract some of kind of Christian response to a state authority or the place of money in our lives. But it is not Caesar whom Jesus introduces into the conversation — he was put there by the Pharisees. The Pharisees are pretending to want guidance about our duty to “Caesar”, but they are patently refusing guidance from Jesus about our duty to God and that is teh heart of what Jesus teaches us this morning. Jesus’ point is that it is God who determines what is Caesar’s and what is not, and it is God who is Sovereign over the state, tax, money itself and indeed everything. Ultimately no one can serve 2 masters and all that matters therefore is our duty and obdeience to God.

In Matthew’s Gospel, this confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees comes after a series of parables about people who refuse to give God his due, and who will not recognise and rejoice with his Son. So, when the Son stands, now, in front of this group of religious leaders, and says: “What do you think your duty to God might be?”, the answer is plain. Their duty is to use all their supposed knowledge of God to recognise the Son, and allow others to do the same. But this is the one thing they are absolutely determined not to do.

Why, why, why do they hate him so? What is it about Jesus that so challenges them? It is not enough to say that they thought he was a mad impostor. Jerusalem was full of mad religious impostors, but they did not require large conspiracies on the part of the Pharisees to remove them. No, the trouble with Jesus was precisely that they could not be sure that he was an impostor.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that they really did not want God to get that close. And they were right to fear. It would certainly be much easier if God were like Caesar, so that we knew for sure when we had paid our taxes. But, if God is actually like Jesus, then we might need, painfully and humiliatingly, to recognise him over and over again, and give him everything not just what we consider to be his share. This is where the rubber hits the road - we so off try to fob God off with his bit on Sunday, our £1 in the collection plate, best suit and tie on. God, it seems to me from what Jesus clearly says here, does not care a jot about any of that. What actually matters is what’s in here (pat chest). Caesar wants his temple tax and that’s all that he cares about, a small part of our financial lives - but God wants us to have a relationship with him through Jesus, and relationships if they are really to work, require the investment of our whole selves. Amen.

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