Sermon for Mirepoix
!9th Sunday after Trinity, Sunday 18th October 2020
Readings: Isaiah 45.1-7; Matthew 22.15-22
In these days, while the Covid-19 virus continues to stride around the earth bringing death, suffering and emotional and economic hardship, it is natural that we look to our leaders to find a way forward. Governments, the world over, have responded to the challenges of the pandemic in various ways and with differing degrees of success but most have recruited experts in infectious diseases, social behaviour, economics and IT to advise as to how best to manage the virus and prepare for the future. The challenge is immense. I can imagine, on a bad day, Boris Johnson – finding his tendency to bounce through every crisis temporarily punctured – may well wish he’d never gone for the top job. However Britain emerges from the pandemic, it’s unlikely now that he’s going to get much thanks.
I wonder if the first Emperors of Rome also had a suspicion, on and off, that being Caesar was a thankless task. After all, Augustus was poisoned, Tiberius always of a gloomy disposition became a recluse and died alone, Caligula was stabbed to death thirty times, Claudius was poisoned, Nero was forced to commit suicide, and of the three emperors who followed him, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, none reigned for more than a few months. Whatever the perks might have been, a sticky end invariably came with the job.
With politics being stressful, grubby and occasionally fatal, it’s not surprising that some Christian or quasi-Christian sects try to opt out of anything to do with politics. The Jehovah’s Witnesses do not expect their members to vote in an election; they seek only to live in a theocracy; there are many sects in the USA that choose to cut themselves off from mainstream society and wait for rapture, that physical removal from the world while Armageddon rages. Perhaps all of us have wanted at some time or other to escape from the cut and thrust of modern life, wishing only to be left in peace and quiet, alone with our books and our gardens: a sort of monastic retreat but without the hairy habit and the obligation to get up before dawn and trundle along to the chilly abbey for Vigils, the first service of the day.
It’s easier to be good if we’re left undisturbed…or so we might tell ourselves.
In both today’s readings, there is an explicit reference to the politics of the day. When the Pharisees pose their question to Jesus, they are not, of course, seeking an answer as to how best to navigate their way through the challenge of reconciling the spiritual and worldly dimensions. They are simply trying to trap Jesus into expressing a treasonable opinion. They are hoping he will denounce the payment of any sort of tax to the Roman conqueror, by way of ingratiating himself with the Jewish zealots.
But this conundrum of how to untangle the spiritual and the worldly was a real problem in Jesus’ day. If he was the Messiah, did that mean he would unsheathe a sword and liberate his people from foreign occupation? No doubt hundreds of his followers believed it did and their disappointment after his crucifixion must have been profound. Some may have lived another thirty years and seen the rebellion against Rome culminate in the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Did any of them remember that man Jesus saying, ‘Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar’? Had the taxes been paid instead of staging a rebellion, perhaps the Temple and the Jewish nation would have endured. But the taxes were not fair. In what sense could Jewish money be said to ‘belong to Caesar’? What was best?
There is never going to be a simplistic solution to this sort of dilemma: how justified is it to rebel against an oppressive regime? Even if one lives in a stable democracy, there are some who withhold that proportion of their tax which equates to military spending; they take the consequences. Do they achieve anything other than a clearer conscience?
Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees was neat and pithy. It was a good response to get them off his back. It wasn’t meant to be a blueprint for how to navigate the problem. But his answer does suggest a recognition that we live in a complex world (and it has never been more so) where we have to reconcile different forces. If we enjoy the benefits of a particular social set-up, I think Jesus is implying, we have to pay for them. Meanwhile, there is nothing to stop us arguing for change, should we believe that to be desirable. But there is a tension.
I think it is interesting the way that the Pharisees approach Jesus, telling him that they recognise his honesty and his reputation for having no regard for rank. Maybe that was another dig at him for consorting with prostitutes and tax collectors rather than men and women of the Pharisees’ own rank and position. But this does suggest that, while Jesus is happy for Caesar to be paid for the services he provides, he does not necessarily approve of funds going to prop up position or status. Perhaps there is a clue here about the criteria taxpayers should press for, when taxes are levied.
If Jesus recognises that God and Caesar are separate entities, that sort of distinction is wholly absent from the passage from Isaiah.
This passage comes form that part of the Book of Isaiah written about 200 hundred years after the historical Isaiah was writing. The author of this passage, known to scholars of the Bible as Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah was writing in the same vein as his predecessor but under very different circumstances.
This first part of chapter 45 is very similar in format to Psalm 110. Psalm 110 begins, “Yahweh declared to my Lord, ‘Take your seat at my right hand till I have made your enemies your footstool. Yahweh will stretch out the sceptre of your power; from Zion you will rule your foes all around you.”
You can see how this chimes with Chapter 45. Both are Messianic, praising the one anointed to bring about God’s purpose. But while the Psalm is just vaguely prophetic, Second-Isaiah, extraordinarily, names this figure as Cyrus, the King of Persia. It was Cyrus who was responsible for allowing the Jewish people, dragged into exile by the Babylonians, to return to the Promised Land. Not only was Cyrus their liberator, he also provided funds for the rebuilding of the Temple.
For the Jews living at this time, around 536 BC, Cyrus – the Caesar of his day – was equated with the Messiah. As far as Second-Isaiah was concerned, Cyrus was chosen by God to advance God’s purpose and he used all the imagery, drawn from Psalm 110 and other Biblical passages, to make this Messianic significance clear.
From this passage, it would seem we are to understand that, far from there being a separation between the spiritual and the worldly, the two can be entwined. God can use political figures to effect change. More controversially (in the light of Jesus’ teachings) he can use conquest and repression to change the world order.
In the middle of the 5th century BC, that meant the overthrow of the Babylonian Empire and the growth of the Persian Empire. The Chosen Race benefited from this transition. But, as history tell us, that did not mean the beginning of a time of enduring political or religious freedom for them. Over the coming centuries, they would be dominated by Alexander the Great and his successors, and then by Rome. After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, the Jews would be stateless for nearly two thousand years. Only with the establishment of modern-day Israel after the Holocaust, would they once again have a home.
So what’s going on here? Was Second-Isaiah mistaken in lauding Cyrus as a Messiah? Was he just using some familiar literary metaphors to write a eulogy for the Persian King, as thanks for his favour to the Jews? If God was using Cyrus to restore the fortunes of the Jews, what was the point if those fortunes were going to be so short-lived? And if Cyrus was God’s instrument, does that condone his methods? Or should we see the cruelty and genocide, which runs through so much of the Old Testament, and apparently dispensed with God’s blessing, as simply a metaphor for the spreading of the Truth?
It’s not easy to work through. And for me, that’s the point. That’s the only way I can make sense of the tangle.
We are mortal creatures, part of the natural world in the same way that orcas and baboons and chaffinches are. But we are also remarkable in that we have the capacity to apprehend a spiritual dimension. We can imagine. We can create. We can dream. And just as we can be moved by music and beauty, we can also be stirred by glimpses of a dimension which is neither natural nor mortal but supernatural and immortal. We have, if you like, a foot in both camps.
The natural world, this physical space we inhabit, needs to be managed. There is no question about that. The more people there are, the greater the pressure to get it right. We cannot do without our Caesars and we need to give them appropriate support. But not if, by doing so, we cut ourselves off from the spiritual.
William Morris, a leading proponent of the Arts and Crafts Movement said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. I think we need to adapt that principle so that, with every step we take – both as individuals and as nation-states – we ask whether it takes us closer to managing the world better or helps align us with the spiritual.
Jesus refused to give the Pharisees (or us) a clear answer to the question they should have asked him. Why? Because he wanted to school us in the business of resolving these dilemmas for ourselves.
Only in that way can we grow the skills of discernment. Only in that way can we mature as his disciples. It’s what he wants.