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Caesar

Matthew 22:15-22

I can’t read this passage without remembering someone else’s assessment of Jesus’ teaching here. A certain Mrs M Thatcher once commented that Jesus ‘got it about right’ when he taught we should ‘render unto Caesar’. I suppose she thought Jesus would be grateful to receive her endorsement.

I can’t say I turned to her for scholarly help in preparing for today’s sermon – can’t think why – but I do want to say that there is more to this passage than just isolating Jesus’ ‘Render unto Caesar’ saying. I think we have to talk about the opponents and Jesus before we consider Caesar and God. Which means there are four elements to our thoughts today.

Opponents
What a motley crew the opposition was. An unholy alliance between two parties that thought little of each other. The working-class Pharisees and the ruling-class Herodians. Perhaps their distaste for each other is why the Pharisees send their disciples along to do the dirty work in partnership with people they detested as religious compromisers. Their common cause is hatred of Jesus. For the Pharisees, he is undermining their view of pure faith. For the Herodians, his teaching about the kingdom of God threatens their privileged place in society, next to the hated Romans. For very different reasons, Jesus has to go. Principles will be put aside for the sake of this common cause.

So they become unscrupulous and cynical in their approach to Jesus: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” (Verse 16) Like they truly acknowledge Jesus as a true teacher. And in saying he shows no deference and has no partiality, they are saying, “Go on Jesus, be bold, be careless – incriminate yourself.”

What does this have to do with us? It provides a warning against those times when we are more concerned to scheme for our own purposes than to seek the will of Christ. It happens from time to time in large-scale and small ways in church life. Sometimes we opt for politicking to get our own way, rather than prayer to find God’s way. Just occasionally, it’s more sinister.

That’s what happened to me in my first appointment. I’ve talked before about running into a serious problem with unsuitable children’s workers. In today’s climate, with plenty of ‘Safe From Harm’ procedures in place, it never would have got into the pickle it was. But sixteen years ago, things were different. Of the three troublesome people, one was known to be a Freemason. I’m always suspicious of Freemasonry in the church – not just because of the secrecy concerns, but because there are so-called ‘Christian degrees’ of Freemasonry that say the Cross of Christ was a mistake. This Freemason was clearly in league with one of the church organists, whom I also believed to be a mason. They were caught having private meetings before church committees, where they were discussing tactics. Socially, they had little in common as people, but it wasn’t their claimed Christianity that united them. It was their membership of the Lodge.

At that level of seriousness, this is the kind of problem I’ve only encountered rarely in church life. But it does exist. And even if none of us plumbs the depths of those Freemasons, let all of us examine our hearts that we avoid manipulation for our own causes in favour of an over-riding concern to walk in the ways of Jesus.

Jesus
Oh, the irony. Jesus is sincere. He does teach the way of God in accordance with truth. He does show deference to no one and regard nobody with partiality. He is all the things his opponents say about him so insincerely, so slyly, so cynically.

But there’s a shock coming for his inquisitors. Instead of holding nothing back with regard to Caesar, he shows no deference to them! This is one of those times when we would say someone lets fire with both barrels. He has his opponents in his sights, and shoots. He is aware of their malice and labels them ‘hypocrites’ (verse 18).

And I wonder whether this is why some of us are reticent to get close to Jesus. We know he doesn’t merely teach the truth, he is the truth – pure truth, the truth of God. We know he is unbiased. And we know we are so very different. Instead of truth, we have our subtle manipulations of the facts. We are good at ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. We know how to present ourselves in the best light, rather than the true light. Unlike Jesus, we are biased – mostly in favour of ourselves. Sometimes we favour ourselves so much that it is even at the expense of those we love. Deep down, we know that a close encounter with Jesus would expose our deceit. So we come just near enough to about be considered Christians, but come no further in case his light exposes our darkness.

However, surely we are called to come closer to him – just not in the self-serving way his opponents do in this story. I’m not saying he’ll ignore our sins, but I am saying he’ll treat them in a different way from those he calls hypocrites here. The hypocrites are those who want to catch Jesus out or use him for their own ends. We approach him, I trust, for different reasons. And yes, as we draw nearer to the light of the world, more of that light will shine into our darkness. But it will not be accompanied by condemnation of our motives. Jesus will expose our darkness to evoke our repentance and thus make us more like him.

Might we dare come closer in prayer, Bible reading and other spiritual disciplines? As Paul says in Romans, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance – not his anger.

Caesar
So let’s get around to the substance of Jesus’ reply to his critics. Little do we realise how extraordinary this exchange is, when Jesus asks them to show him a coin, and they produce a Roman one with Caesar’s image on it. To Jews, that image of Caesar was idolatrous. More specifically, this story seems to happen in the Temple (21:23). What a place to bring the image of an idol! These were the same people who had protested to Rome about Pontius Pilate setting up idolatrous images in the Temple – and which made Pilate so politically weak a few days later when they demanded Jesus’ execution!

Hence when Jesus tells them to ‘render unto Caesar’, it’s a bit more than saying, ‘pay your taxes’. As the late Professor F F Bruce pointed out, he is saying that for a Jew it is appropriate to get rid of a coin with an offensive human image on it.

If we only interpret this passage as a call to be law-abiding citizens (and I’m sure that’s why Margaret Thatcher liked it), we miss the power of what Jesus said. Stop bringing your idols to worship, he says. Throw away your idols. It’s a radical call to evaluate how serious we are about true worship. No wonder his enemies were wrong-footed by his answer. It puts them on the spot.

And it confronts us, too. What thrills our heart more than Jesus? Is that our idol? What do we spend most of our time daydreaming about? Could that be our idol? The recent financial crises have exposed a lot of contemporary idolatry, but there is more to idol-worship than money. Who or what do we love most? If the answer isn’t Jesus, then we’re in idol territory. 

What needs relegating in our lives, because we have promoted it above Christ? What needs disposing of, because it is as unclean in the sight of God as taking into the Jewish Temple the image of a Roman emperor who claimed deity? Will we let the Holy Spirit show us?

God
What might it mean, then, to ‘render to God the things that are God’s’? Surely we can’t say that some things belong to Caesar and other things belong to God. That would imply that not everything in the world belongs to God, and that conclusion makes no sense from a Christian perspective.

It comes back to the question of image. Caesar’s image and inscription may have been on the coin, but what is on us? We are made in the image of God. The image of God is upon us. He has inscribed himself upon us. [So C H Giblin.] We owe him everything – our lives, our very selves.

This is the point at which Jesus’ opponents walk away (verse 22). Devout as the Pharisees are and respectable pillars of society as the Herodians are, they cannot stomach Jesus’ radical call for total commitment to God and his kingdom. This isn’t religion on their terms: this is faith and discipleship on God’s terms. It’s the point at which the rich young ruler also walked away. He couldn’t take the ‘giving to God what was God’s’ in his case.

There is a story told from the Soviet occupation of the former Czechoslovakia in 1968. A Russian soldier entered a church building during worship, brandishing a weapon. ‘Leave now if  you’re not prepared to die for your faith,’ he shouted. Some of the worshippers left, others stayed. Then the soldier laid down his gun. ‘I am a Christian, too,’ he announced, ‘And I knew I would only be safe with those who were willing to lay down their lives for Christ.’

So who are we like? Jesus’ enemies were devoutly religious and well read on the one hand. And they were the sort of people who made society run smoothly and who would be top of your list as dinner guests on the other hand. Yet, when it came to the crunch, religion and respectability were found wanting for one fundamental reason. They had not given over their hearts and affections to God and his kingdom, only to a picture of God and the religious life they had devised for themselves, and which suited their own inclinations and circumstances. Religious externals, however Christian or even Methodist they look, do not wash with Jesus. They mean nothing without the heart.

Maybe the Soviet soldier is the model Jesus calls us to emulate. Not that I suggest we burst into church next Sunday with an AK-47! But he was sold out to Christ and the kingdom of God. And that is what Jesus calls us to when he says we need to render to God the things that are God’s.

For what belongs to God, if not our entire lives? We are made in the image of God. The image has been disfigured by sin, but Jesus is the perfect image of God, and salvation is about remaking that image of God in us. 

So if we’re strictly honest, the model to follow isn’t even that member of the Russian army. It’s Jesus himself. As the perfect image of God, he models what it is to ‘render unto God the things that are God’s’. If we want to know what true faith is, it’s to imitate him.  Whatever the word ‘Christian’ means to many today, it originally meant ‘little Christ’. True ‘rendering unto God’ involves growing into little Christs under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Today’s Caesars can have their pathetic taxes, but God can have his little Christs.

Are we included?

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About Dave Faulkner

I'm a British Methodist minister, married with two children. I blog from a moderate evangelical-missional-charismatic perspective, with an interest in the 'missional' approach. My interests include Web 2.0, digital photography, contemporary music and watching football (Tottenham Hotspur) and cricket.

Posted on October 18, 2008, in Religion, Sermons and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

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  2. I am always supicious of people who clearly do not understand Christian Scripture or Theology yet try to preach it. Stick to something more wholesome like Sexton. You sound more qualified.

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  3. bigcircumstance

    Aaron,

    Disagree with me by all means, but do not resort to childish, petty little comments like these. If you disagree, say exactly why. You fail to do so. I do not know whether you are a Christian, but I consider your comment does not come up to scratch in terms of biblical standards for expressing disagreement or correction.

    If you had followed the hyperlinks, you would have seen that I was citing authorities for my particular interpretation of the passage. Two citations were taken from Donald Hagner’s Word Biblical Commentary on Matthew 14-28. One was by Professor F F Bruce, possibly the greatest English-speaking New Testament scholar of the last century. Bruce was fallible, but if you presume to know better than him, you’d better have good grounds. The fact that you fail to say why you disagree suggests you are resorting to sloganeering and mud-slinging, rather than intelligent debate.

    For the record, I am amply qualified to interpret Scripture and Christian Theology. I hold a BA degree in Theology from Trinity College, Bristol, and an MPhil degree for a thesis in Christian Doctrine from Manchester University. What qualifications do you hold? I trust you have several, if you dare to say what you said.

    Having spent several years in academic study, I am quite used to vigorous debate between people who hold wildly differing convictions, but it is unChristlike to engage in slurs upon the characters of those whose opinions you consider to be wrong.

    I will give you one last chance to state why you think I am wrong in a civil and decent manner. If you fail to do so, I shall ban you from commenting on this blog.

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  4. I thought he was saying that YOU sound more qualified to preach than Thatcher does.

    FWIW, I found the idolatry angle intriguing, and consistent with Christ’s behavior in other passages – both adversarial and loving.

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  5. bigcircumstance

    Oops. Aaron, if Clix above is right then please accept my sincere apologies. I’ve re-read your comment and it makes sense in the light of his explanation. Let me know if that’s what you meant and I’ll delete my rant.

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  6. Your C.V. fails to impress me in the least. Anyone can buy a degree. I am a Methodist Minister and Freemason and have encountered many Methodist Ministers who could not preach their way out of a paper bag, nor use the logic God granted them in anything approaching a consistent manner.

    Your response proves this. You are incabepable of applying logic or recognizing a criticism in kind and annoyed when you are slammed in the same way you slam other people.

    It is you “sir” who resort to sloaganeering and repeating odious and untterly false stories of which you obviously have no understanding or experience. Any congregant of yours should run as fast as possible away, perhaps to the Catholic Church which, although I disagree with their position as well, has a far better understanding of Freemasonry than you.

    It astounds me that a Methodist Minister will resort to printing falsehoods and still consider himself to be a Minister of God let alone a “Christian”. Regardless of your rather limited understanding of Bruce, who tended to focus his study and criticism on things he could prove contextually and historically, I put no stock in any of your commentary as you seem to feel the need to slander and lie about fellow Christians.

    By the way, BA Weslyan University 1998, MA Hartford Seminary 2002, DD Harvard University 2007. Son of five generations of Methodist Ministers and Freemasons. I’m sorry to have a history in the same denomination as you. Perhaps someday you will find Christ and preach his Gospel instead of slinging mud at targets you personally don’t like.

    In so far as banning me from commenting on this blog, it would be no great shame as it contains nothing of substance to comment upon. You are as ugly in your commentary and implications as your more obviously hatefull evangelical bretheran.

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  7. I do not doubt your ability to preach. I am offended as an ordained Methodist Minister to be tarred as somehow “less than Christian” because I am a Mason, by another Methodist Minister, who in commenting about “safe church” initiatives solving such problems implies that Masons prey on children.

    You have compounded my outrage by repeating an outright lie about the York Rite degrees suggesting that the cross is not necessary. Would you care to repeat where that little bit exists in the ritual or teaching? You can’t because it doesn’t. I don’t know who or what your source is but it is utterly false.

    Given that, why should I care to read any of your theological arguments.

    In any case I should think you more qualified than Thatcher.

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  8. bigcircumstance

    Aaron, I did not mean to imply that Masons prey on children. Perhaps I abbreviated the story too much, if that is the impression I gave. If that is the case, I willingly apologise.

    However, I stand by my point about the ‘Christian degrees’ of Freemasonry. I refer you to the research of the British Anglican priest John Lawrence, the son of a mason, who has written (to my knowledge) two books on the subject. In his Grove Booklet (Pastoral Series, number 10), pages 20-21, he says this:

    “For instance, in the ritual of the Rose Croix of Heredom, a so-called Christian degree, the events of Good Friday are related to the candidate by the ‘Most Wise Sovereign’ (!) and he continues by describing Christ’s death thus: ‘Since Masonry has experienced such dire calamities …’ This is the basis of the degree: the fact that Christ’s death was a ‘dire calamity’. No mention is made of his resurrection – simply that what he did in dying for our sins on the cross, was a calamity. It is because of this ‘loss’ for Masonry that the brothers pledge themselves to retrieving the situation by their labours!” [All punctuation is Lawrence’s.]

    That is why I believe Masonry regards the Cross as a mistake.

    As for academic qualifications, I didn’t buy my degrees, and I don’t suppose you did with yours.

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  9. Quoting John Lawrence who has been rebuked by the Anglican Church and in particular his own bishop is in and of itself an offence. His story about the basis of the degree in question is a gross lie and distortion and his tracts hatefull little books promulgating lies. Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is the focus of the degrees and they are the only Masonic degrees which are open only to those who profess salvation through Christ alone.

    I would be curious if you agree with Lawrence’s later research proving that the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides are, essentially, “anti-Christ” organisations for allowing non Christians to be members?

    Finally, I, unlike Lawrence, have taken the degrees in question where one must profess faith in Christ and His Sacrifice on the Cross.

    There can be legitimate discussion of Masonry, an organization tens of thousands of Methodists belong to. There have been carefull examinations done. Lawrence’s is not one of them. He is an ardent anti-Mason who was seeking to reap a fortune at a time when there was a debate going on over Masonry in the Methodist Church.

    I shall not take up any more space in your blog on this subject.

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  10. bigcircumstance

    Aaron,

    This is about more than John Lawrence. Some years ago, as I think you are evidently aware, British Methodism went through protracted debates about the relationship between Freemasonry and Christianity. The result was Standing Order 928 in our ‘Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church’, which reads as follows:

    “Masonic Services and Meetings. (1) Meetings of Freemasons’ Lodges or other meetings for masonic purposes may not be held on Methodist premises. (2) Services exclusively for Freemasons may not be held on Methodist premises. (3) If a Freemasons’ Lodge requests that a service be held on Methodist premises, the trustees may at their discretion either withhold permission or grant permission on the following conditions: (i) the service shall be one of public Christian worship held in accordance with Methodist practice and complying with the Model Trusts; (ii) the contents of the service shall first be seen and approved by the Superintendent; (iii) it shall be conducted by a person appointed by the Superintendent.”

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  11. Mike,

    I only just found your kind comment waiting in my spam queue. I’ve just de-spammed it and hence it’s only just appeared. Sorry.

    Christian Quill,

    Similar story to above – apologies. Thanks for the pingback.

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  12. I simply can not let this pass without notice. As you are no doubt aware Standing Order 928 is built of dust upon a foundation of sand, the ultimate in meaningless babble, largely as a result of the outcry of the laity at the puffery of the evangelicals towards Masonry. No Masonic Service exclusively for Masons has ever been held at any church anywhere ever. No such thing exists. Freemasons do not hold church services for themselves. Ever. Never have. They have no clergy to lead one and no theology to guide one.

    This Standing Order was passed, as you are also aware, to shut up the evangelicals, and quiet the laity who were enraged at the implications made toward faithful Methodists of long standing.

    Nothing outside of a tiled lodge meeting is ever closed to the public and the same are never held on chrch property unless that property is rented to a lodge. Standing Order 928 resulted, as you are aware in virtually no impact upon any Masonic body.

    It is widely regarded by the Methodist laity as well as a number of clergy as a joke. And you are surely aware that there are still lodges that meet on property rented to them by the Methodist Church, one of which I am a member of since joining the UGLE. We meet in tiled sessions in a old church annex. Non Masons not welcome.

    I shall not even trouble you with my thoughts on the ilk of trustees who would deign prohibit a Masonic Burial Service for departed Brother.

    So I fail to see your point, but it is your blog.

    I really did not mean to highjack this post.

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  13. bigcircumstance

    Aaron,

    I fear we’re just going to have to agree to disagree on this one. We would end up going down all sorts of tangents that would take us further and further away from the overall theme of the original post here, in terms of our differing estimations of Masonic beliefs, the Methodist Conference and evangelical Christianity.

    I hope you feel you’ve had a fair opportunity to express your convictions. God bless you.

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  14. bigcircumstance

    PS – just to make it clear to all readers, I am at this point closing comments on this post.

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