It was a shock to arrive home from worship at lunch time today and read the news of David Frost’s sudden death. Not that I knew him, of course, but for eight years of my ministry I lived in what was known locally among Medway Methodists as ‘the Frost manse’. He had grown up there when his father, the Reverend Paradine Frost, had been the local Methodist minister. (Hence David’s middle name of Paradine and his production company being named Paradine Productions.) If Sir David was at the forefront of the British satire explosion in the early 1960s, their roots were not in his Cambridge University days, as some might claim, but in his young character. I can think of a church member who was in Sunday School and Youth Club with him who said how mischievous he was then, and an organist at the crematorium who confirmed similar stories from his school days.
While I was living there, BBC2 filmed a tribute night to Sir David. It included a scene where he stood outside ‘my’ manse. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in at the time of filming, and I only learned about it later from a friend, Jen Doragh, who sometimes comments here.
One thing he deserves to be remembered for, I believe, is the deeply moral streak he brought both to satire and to political interviewing. Without That Was The Week That Was, there would be none of the moral critique you find in the satire of people like Ian Hislop. Although people will remember his interviews with Richard Nixon and with Margaret Thatcher after the sinking of the Belgrano, his 1967 grilling of the fraudster Emil Savundra was surely a landmark in broadcasting. He paved the way for the searing scrutiny of public figures we see today. It is a shame that not all of today’s political broadcasters have the subtlety that Frost showed at times.
Rest in peace, Sir David.
In the time from Margaret Thatcher’s recent death to her funeral last Wednesday, I have been involved in three funerals. We hosted a funeral at the church, prior to a burial at Brookwood Cemetery, because the chapel there was in too distressing a state for the family. We have had the funeral of a church member’s mother. I am preparing for another funeral tomorrow, too: I had taken an elderly lady’s funeral a year ago, but when her daughter died younger than most, her children asked for ‘the minister who conducted Granny’s funeral.’
None of these three people was famous, and certainly not like Mrs Thatcher. Yet they all share one thing in common with her, as we all do. Death comes to us all, as today’s reading in Ecclesiastes reminds us:
All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. (Verse 2a)
The same destiny overtakes all. (Verse 3)
“Lying here, she is one of us,” said the Bishop of London in his address, and while the trappings of a ceremonial funeral seemed designed to separate the grocer’s daughter of Grantham from mere mortals, death remains the great fact and great equaliser.
When you are younger, you may live as if you are immortal. As you grow older, reality dawns on you. It may come in the death of a friend or loved one; it may come as you notice signs of decay in your own body. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes invites us to ask this question: how do we live well in the certain knowledge of death? I offer two main thoughts this morning.
Firstly, live life well. This seems to be the Preacher’s main advice in the passage:
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun – all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labour under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (Verses 7-10)
You could easily interpret this along the lines of, ‘This life is all there is, so you might as well make the most of it.’ Even if you substitute the word ‘temporary’ for the word ‘meaningless’ as I’ve suggested in previous weeks, you would still be talking about ‘this temporary life’ and ‘all your temporary days’. It might boil down to little more than, ‘God has only given you this life, so get on with it.’
But that’s rather worrying, isn’t it? And this is one of those Old Testament texts where the Christian has to bring in the New Testament for a fuller understanding. Left on its own, this passage is not fully Christian. It needs filling out with New Testament revelation. Ecclesiastes reminds us of the finality of death and that we need to live life well before dying, rather than just wait for death. However, the story of Jesus Christ reworks this into a fuller picture.
What is that fuller picture? Simply put, it is one word: resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is far bigger than a promise of eternal life for all his followers (although I do not deny that!). It is the promise of a new world to come, a new creation where God makes all things new, just as he made the body of his Son new after crucifixion. It is the foretaste of new heavens and a new earth.
In other words, we are not dealing with some ethereal life, floating on clouds, playing harps. If harp playing is a requirement, then only one person in this congregation has an eternal future! Rather: it is a physical and material future, seen in the way the Risen Lord cooked and ate fish.
Therefore, to eat and drink, to love and to work well, as the Preacher suggests, are appropriate preparations for the life of the age to come. When we enjoy God’s good creation with thankfulness, we tune in to the coming age. When we love and when we work hard, despite the struggles they involve due to the presence of sin in this world, we tune into the life to come.
Sometimes we are tempted to think in life that what we are doing is worthless or pointless. ‘Why am I giving myself to this?’ we ask ourselves. We might even ask God the same question. However, that is where one of Paul’s greatest insights into the meaning of the Resurrection comes into play. It’s a verse that some of you know came to be very important to me during an extremely hard season in my life. It’s the final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle’s great chapter on the Resurrection. Just when many of us would expect him to point at the climax of his argument to God’s glorious future, he instead brings us back to this earth with a practical application:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)
Aligning yourself with God’s will ‘is not in vain.’ Death will not destroy it. Somehow it will be taken up in the work of building for God’s kingdom. If God has given you a task to do, there is an eternal purpose to it. If God has given you something to enjoy, then do so with gratitude and generosity, not with greed, for that generosity and gratitude is the grain of the wood in his kingdom.
But what is true is this: one day, the opportunity in this life to build for that kingdom will be gone. We have limited time, and as the Preacher says at the end of the passage, ‘no one knows when their hour will come’ (verse 12). So take the opportunity. Do you have an opening to good or to celebrate God’s gifts? Take it! Remember the slogan from the Robin Williams film from 1989, ‘Dead Poets’ Society’; ‘Carpe Diem’ – seize the day. In the face of death but with the hope ofresurrection, that is what the Christian will do in order to live life well, in a manner that pleases God.
Secondly, prepare for death. On the day of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral, Giles Fraser had an excellent piece in The Guardian entitled, ‘How to bury Margaret Thatcher’. If you saw a title like that by a left-wing clergyman like Fraser in a paper like the Guardian, you would probably expect something vitriolic. Not so. Fraser spoke how when he was on the staff of St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘Operation True Blue’, the plans for Mrs Thatcher’s funeral arrangements, were on the books all the time he was there. We know that Mrs T had made certain requests about her funeral, as indeed many more humble people do. But I am not talking about leaving a list of requests for the service – although I have to say that if you do so, it is helpful to your relatives after you have gone.
No: I am talking about preparing for our deaths in squaring our relationship with God in Christ, and all the consequences of it. Fraser tells of how last Sunday, the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, Mark Oakley, told a story in his sermon about the funerals of Habsburg royalty in Austria:
As the funeral procession approached the closed doors of the Imperial chapel in Vienna, a voice from inside would ask, “Who is it?” The grand chamberlain would read out a long list of grand titles. The voice from the church then replied: “We know him not.” The chamberlain would try again, with a shortened version, and received the same reply. Finally, the chamberlain knocks on the door. Again comes the question, “Who is it?”, and this time, eschewing all pomp and ceremony, he answers: “A sinner in need of God’s mercy.” “Him we know; enter,” comes the reply.
Here is how we prepare for death: as ‘a sinner in need of God’s mercy.’ The Preacher in Ecclesiastes writes here as if there is nothing after death:
Anyone who is among the living has hope – even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!
5 For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
6 Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun. (Verses 4-6)
However, as I’ve already said, the Christian has received further revelation, the revelation of an empty tomb, and we believe in a life to come, preceded by a Last Judgement. We do not intend to present ourselves before God, clutching a eulogy to our lives that exaggerates our good points and airbrushes the bad bits. We are not to be the Pharisee at the temple, telling God how well we have lived for him, but the publican standing at a distance, saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Is that to be morbid and to be miserable? Is that to engage in what I once heard somebody call ‘worm theology’ – ‘O Lord, I am but a worm’?
No. It is to cast ourselves on the grace of God. I’m sure you know the old mnemonic for the word ‘grace’: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. In other words, we are forgiven through Christ’s death on the Cross and made new in his Resurrection.
Or put it this way. Here is a slogan I saw the other day on Facebook:
Grace is the face love wears when it meets imperfection.
We prepare for death by remembering that we are sinners in need of God’s gracious love in Christ. We are, as the late Brennan Manning called himself and all of us, ‘ragamuffins.’ If we come boasting of our good deeds, we shall only be exposed as the hypocrites we are.
There is no room for cover-ups. In his book ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’, Manning tells of being in a group for alcoholics with a man who kept presenting his drinking problem as not too bad. However, the counsellor practised tough love and ruthlessly exposed his lies and deceit, even to the point of having left his daughter in a car on her own during freezing weather while he went on a bender for hours. The daughter developed frostbite and permanently lost her hearing. Only when the man had been brought to honesty about his sins and had put away his egregious attempts to present himself in a good light could redemption come.
It is the same with us before God. If we try to come as good people, decent people, valued pillars of society, God will not be impressed with us. But if we present ourselves as sinners needing forgiveness, and sinners willing to be transformed by the resurrection of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, then just as the imperial chapel was opened to the dead body of Habsburg royalty, so the court of heaven is opened to the deceased pilgrim in Christ.
It’s interesting we come to a passage about justice six days after the death of Margaret Thatcher. Did she uphold the rule of law for the sake of good order in society, or did she use the Police to batter ordinary working people?
I’m not going to express an opinion on that debate. I have my views, and while I tend a certain way about Mrs T, my beliefs can’t be summed up in just a sentence or two.
But we come to the writer of Ecclesiastes, living in a vastly different society from ours, yet asking similar questions about justice and authority to ones that many people ask today. After all, as The Who sang in ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’,
Meet the new boss,
Same as the old boss.
So we’ll look at the questions Qoheleth (‘The Preacher’) raises in this passage. We’ll have to take some of his answers further in order to set them in a New Testament context, but I couldn’t pick just one New Testament passage to complement this one, because there are a few we need to take into account.
Firstly, he advises his readers to keep the law. It’s for a mixture of reasons, though:
Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. 3 Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. 4 Since a king’s word is supreme, who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
5 Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm,
and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure.
6 For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter,
though a person may be weighed down by misery. (Verses 2-6)
It all starts off rather well: obey ‘because you took an oath before God.’ Whether this is like an oath in a court of law, or whether it simply indicates that someone on principle has declared before God that they will obey the king, it is something that takes promises to God seriously. Those who make serious promises to God should keep their word. No-one should be frivolous about their vows to the Lord. If we are not going to keep a commitment to him, we should not say that we will.
Now this has an indirect effect on a just society. Justice requires truth-tellers. Justice requires those committed to honesty. Whether you take an oath to God in court or simply make an affirmation because Jesus said ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no’ in the Sermon on the Mount, false testimony leads to injustice.
But at the same time, just promising to obey the king because he wields power as Qoheleth implies in verse 3 is insufficient in itself. It may be a minimal reason for doing right, but on its own it is no more than a pragmatic reason, based on fear. It’s the social cousin of the parents who say to a child, “Because I say so!”
Ultimately, the New Testament has an even stronger reason for commending a general principle of obedience to the authorities. Paul describes it in Romans 13, where he says that the authorities are instituted by God for the purposes of justice. They are both to punish the wrongdoer and reward those who do right. This is seen by Paul as promoting a stable and healthy society.
Now don’t you think it’s quite remarkable that a man of Paul’s experience should say such positive things about the state? He is someone who on more than one occasion suffered at the hands of the judiciary for the wrong reasons. He was arrested under false charges. He was thrown into prison on trumped-up charges. He was not always protected when he was attacked. Yet despite this, he still wrote about the basic need to submit to those in authority.
I am sure that various questions are forming in your minds about this. One would be: how does this black and white language about rewarding the righteous and punishing the wrongdoer relate to Christian belief in forgiveness? Allow me to tell you a story.
During my ministerial training, I celebrated my thirtieth birthday one Sunday. Another student and his wife invited me over to their flat for a wild celebration over … beans on toast. At the end of the evening, they offered to call a cab for me, but I declined. I felt I knew what I was doing as a city boy – and I didn’t want to shell out unnecessary money as a student.
Big mistake. On the way back to the hall of residence where the single ministerial students lived, I was mugged by a young thug. The first thing he did was to smash my glasses, and he then compounded it by hitting me in the eyes.
When I struggled back to the hall, one student phoned up my bank to cancel my plastic money, and another (who was a former solicitor) took me to the police station, and stayed with me into the early hours while I was interviewed and gave a statement.
I am sure the young hooligan was known to the local community, but the police never made an arrest. I was asked at a later date whether I would have given evidence in court, had he been apprehended. I replied, ‘Yes, just so long as I was sure first that I had forgiven him in my heart.’ It is my conviction that we need to forgive for the sake of our hearts, and to uphold justice for the sake of a stable society.
But there is another question Christians will pose about law-keeping, and it’s this. Do we really have to give our loyalty to an unjust government? How do we cope with Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 when obeying a government would put us into conflict with things we know elsewhere are God’s will?
In 1981, while apartheid was still entrenched in South Africa, a black Christian community worker from Soweto, visited London. While he was here, he was interviewed by Simon Jenkins, the editor of a small magazine called Ship Of Fools that is now a large Christian website. During the interview, Jenkins asked him, ‘How do you respond to Paul’s words in Romans 13 about submitting to the governing authorities because they are given by God?’
It is very clear that the South African government is a government which has not been appointed by God, and if God has appointed that government then he must be a very, very unjust God. Personally, I believe that God has nothing to do with the appointment of the apartheid government in South Africa. If I believed that God had appointed that government, then I should not be against apartheid.
Mbeje’s words point, I believe, to the fact that Romans 13 is not the only word in the New Testament about our attitude to authority, just as the call to obey the king in Ecclesiastes 8 is not the only thing the Preacher says about the subject. As well as Romans 13, there is Revelation 13, where Rome is the Beast. They lead us to the second of the two themes in our reading, then, namely the imperfection of justice. In the rest of the chapter, we read about the wicked being praised (verse 10), delayed justice (verse 11), and some occasions where the wicked get what they deserve but others where what they deserve and what the righteous deserve get reversed (verses 12-14). No wonder nobody can make sense of this, he says (verses 16-17).
And this is why I called this sermon ‘Justice and Meaninglessness’ on the sermon series outline. Things don’t always go as they should. We bring up our children on a ‘happy ever after’, people get what they deserve basis, where every story ends with goodness being praised and wrong being punished, but as we grow up we soon discover life doesn’t always cash out like that. For me, I think it was watching an episode of the TV cop show ‘Softly, Softly’ which ended with the police not catching the criminal. I started to ask questions of my parents. How could it be? This was real life, they told me.
And I’d be surprised if there were anyone here today who doesn’t recognise that. Life isn’t fair. The good don’t always win. Bad people get their way. How can this be?
No wonder Qoheleth says in verses 14and 15,
There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. 15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.
Note that word ‘meaningless’ that keeps cropping up in Ecclesiastes. The failure of justice always to win can make life seem meaningless. It just seems like a counsel of despair. The commendation to enjoy life then becomes little more than ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’.
But I take you back to the beginning of this series. On the first Sunday of the series, which we introduced with an all age service, we also had an evening service where I looked at chapter 1 in more depth. I pointed out that the familiar words, ‘Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless’ in Ecclesiastes may better be translated, ‘Breath of breaths, everything is temporary’. If you plug that meaning in here, then actually we have words of hope. The failure of justice to prevail at all times is not meaningless, it is temporary. As Christians, we believe that a new world is coming, ushered in by resurrection and final judgement. The imperfections of justice are not for eternity. Sheep will be separated from goats.
And you know what? This is an Easter theme. Paul in Romans 1 speaks about the Resurrection of Jesus as being God’s vindication of his Son. An injustice was done at the Cross. Throughout the Book of Acts, preachers such as Peter remind their hearers of that. But on Easter morning, God reversed the injustice. The world had said ‘no’ to his Son, but he said ‘yes’. It’s another case where the Easter event is a foretaste of all that is to come in the fullness of God’s kingdom.
Let us remember that the imperfection of justice is temporary. That can spur us on to work for justice with a sense of hope. It is also, then, why the Preacher commends ‘the enjoyment of life’ to his hearers. The Christian can enjoy life, even in the midst of an unjust world. It isn’t a closing of deaf ears to the cries of the suffering. It isn’t a making the most of life before it all disappears. It is instead defiant laughter in the face of evil. Eating and drinking and being glad in the midst of our daily toil is one sign on our part that we believe a new world is coming, and that God has served notice to quit on the forces of darkness.
 Ship Of Fools, issue no. 8, December 1981, p 36.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
Jon Ronson has a powerful column in today’s Guardian about the tragedy of the debt mountain in our nation. He traces it back, not only to the scandalous behaviour of financial institutions in the way they target the most vulnerable, but to one man who admits he thought he was doing something good but unleashed a monster. That man is the well known evangelical Christian Lord Griffiths. He sounds repentant. I hope he is.</p.
But Lord Griffiths is no longer in political power. (He was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher.) Might we dare hope that another Christian politician, Gordon Brown, might make tackling this a priority?
And might we Christians tackle the underlying issues with a witness that you can be fulfilled without having all the latest things? Of course that would undermine our entire economy, which is not based on need but upon want …