“Who has used up all the handwash in the bathroom?”
Debbie asked the question, but she knew the answer.
“I did!” said Mark.
We should be pleased that our son is very good at washing his hands after going to the toilet. It’s just that he doesn’t think one squirt from the liquid soap dispenser is enough. He doesn’t accept that with water its effects will multiply. So he pumps the dispenser about three times on each occasion.
Our only problem on hand washing with Mark comes when I have to take him in a public toilet and he thinks the electric hand dryer is going to be too noisy. Only one thing is allowed to be loud in this life, and that is his voice! So confronted by a noisy hand dryer, he may want to dry his hands on his t-shirt instead, and complain vigorously if I don’t do likewise.
It’s easy to read today’s Lectionary Gospel with modern eyes and think it’s a story about hygiene. In which case, we would be as offended as the Pharisees and the scribes at the actions of Jesus and his disciples. In a time when we are even more concerned about safe, healthy practices in our churches due to swine flu – witness Anglicans and Catholics not using a chalice for communion and some Christians not wanting to share The Peace – this story may seem even more disturbing.
But the background is different. The religious lawyers of Jesus’ day had taken the Old Testament laws, imposed their own interpretations on them, and then made those interpretations a binding tradition on all Jews. Washing your hands before eating bread was not about physical cleanliness but about avoiding ritual defilement. And that seems to be something that never worried Jesus too much. After all, he shared table fellowship with ‘sinners’, making him unclean in the first place.
So the issue here is this: what shall we do with tradition? Is there still a place for it? Do we overturn it, like angry teenagers? What is its place, if any, for the disciples of Jesus?
What, then, is tradition? Put simply, tradition is the wisdom and truth that generations hand down to succeeding generations. Here’s an example. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection, he speaks of passing on what was handed down to him. You could more literally translate it not simply as what was ‘handed down’ to him but as what was ‘traditioned’ (to coin a word) to him.
At its best, then, tradition is a good, helpful and even necessary thing. Truth and wisdom is handed down to us. Then it is our responsibility to hand it on to the following generations.
But because tradition is the means by which we hand something on, it cannot be the be-all and end-all in itself. If you like, tradition is a goods train, but it is only the train, and not the goods. What is important is that the goods get to their destination.
And that’s why when the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day made so much insistence on the regulations they had devised, they were putting all the stress on the train and not on the goods.
John Wesley said there were four sources of truth for Christians. They were Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. But he was clear that Scripture trumped all the other three. Tradition, then, for Methodists, has to be about the ways we hand on scriptural truth. If it faithfully conveys the biblical gospel, though, then tradition has done its job.
The problem comes when tradition gets ideas above its station. There was a story that illustrated this in the new issue of Christianity Magazine:
A church I know is dying from hypocrisy. And although I’m watching it from a distance, it’s still painful. The congregation is small, though very faithful, and the minister is a natural evangelist. But whenever someone is converted through an Alpha course or pub ministry they don’t stay in the church for long. The members soon show them that they are inadequate for their new faith: they know nothing about the depth and traditions of Christianity; the fumble their way round the Bible and prayer book; they don’t have the gravitas or decorum for respectful worship; and those who have children can’t control them properly. The old faithful, who are becoming fewer in number, can’t understand why the new believers don’t make more effort to be like them and to support the church like they do. They can’t see that they are suffering from that peculiar form of hypocrisy identified by Jesus – doing all the ‘right’ things for all the wrong reasons. And this results in repelling people from God.
What are we to do, then, if we are to stop tradition being used to damage people, as Jesus clearly thought was happening in his day, and was obviously happening in the church I have just mentioned?
I think there are two measures we must take. I have hinted at the first, but to underline it, let’s return to the Bible passage. Hear the words of Jesus again:
He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!’ (Verses 6-9)
Jesus quoted the Scriptures and accused his opponents of abandoning Scripture (‘the commandment of God’) in favour of human tradition. So our first remedy must be to place tradition under Scripture, not outside or above the Bible.
If we’re going to place tradition under Scripture, then we need to do two things. The first is that we need to soak ourselves in the Bible. The second is that we then need to subject our traditions to biblical teaching, and ask whether they do indeed carry the Gospel into our world, or whether they contradict it.
That’s why I’ve spent much of the last four years urging people into spiritual discipline, including Bible reading. It may be using daily Bible reading notes as I do. It may be using our imagination to enter the situation and the characters as Ignatius of Loyola taught. It may involve persistent chewing on whatever grabs us in a particular passage. But whatever approaches we take, the bottom line is that if we are serious about following Jesus, we will be serious about immersing ourselves in the Bible.
Then, when we do, we can examine our traditions. Do they convey the Gospel on a two thousand year journey into today’s world, or do they turn ‘human precepts [into] doctrines’ (verse 7b)? You could raise a lot of embarrassing questions about the way we do church without a lot of difficulty. A lot of the things that consume our time or tie us down have very little to do with the Gospel and should be open to all sorts of criticism. Are we in danger of Jesus quoting the same words from Isaiah about us that he did about the Pharisees and scribes: ‘In vain do they worship me’ (verse 7a)? Would he tell us that we ‘abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’ (verse 8), even ‘rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep [our] tradition’ (verse 9)?
So – the first thing we need to do is place tradition underneath Scripture. This means we soak ourselves in the Bible and then examine our traditions carefully in the light of the Gospel.
But I said there were two measures. It’s not enough only to place tradition below Scripture. Why? Because you will have come across those kinds of Christian who know their Bibles well but lob verses of Scriptures at others like hand grenades. You’ll know how people have been wounded by other Christians cutting them to shreds with the Bible. So while, for example, I hold a traditional Christian view that the only place for sexual relationships is in marriage and that marriage is between a man and a woman, I am also aware of the way homosexual people have been damaged by the church.
Our second measure, then, is this. Having placed tradition under Scripture we must then guard our hearts. Jesus, in quoting Isaiah, says it’s a matter of the heart:
This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me (verse 6b).
Where were the hearts of those who criticised Jesus and his disciples? Far from God. It’s the danger we face, too. If we do not stay close to God, then it doesn’t matter whether we are issuing edicts of tradition or firing bullets of Scripture, if we are not in close and vital contact with God, we’ll achieve nothing for the kingdom of God, however zealous we are. More likely we shall cause pain and put people off church, rather like the elderly people at the church I mentioned earlier whose actions have driven new converts away.
So how do we guard our hearts and draw near to God? I am reading a book called ‘Wrestling with God’ by an American pastor, James Emery White. On Friday, I read the chapter entitled ‘The Distance of God’ where he discusses many reasons why people may feel far from God. By no means all of them are our fault, but he asks some people, ‘What are you doing to stay close?’ and suggests some basic activities that will draw us closer to God:
- Are you praying?
- Are you spending time reading and reflecting on the Bible in order to apply it to your life?
- Are you involved in worship?
- Are you connecting with people whose relationship with God challenges and encourages your own?
- Are you engaged in some kind of ministry to others?
- Are you carving out time for spiritually oriented reflection?
If the answer to any of these queries is ‘no’, then there’s no wonder that God feels distant. Our relationship with God must be nurtured and developed. We can begin a spiritual life, but we must also develop it. God continues to ask the question, ‘Who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?’ (Jeremiah 30:21)
Most or all of us are people who have begun a spiritual life, mostly many years ago. What is each one of us doing to develop it? We cannot be complacent. We cannot stand still – because we won’t remain where we are, we shall slide backwards, further away from God. There is great danger to our souls if we do not develop our spiritual lives. I have to challenge myself and say, just because I have followed certain spiritual practices for many years, am I still in a vital, living relationship with God, or have I drifted into stagnant water?
We are faced with a challenge, then: those who fail to nurture their spiritual lives become Pharisees. Not only do they waste away spiritually themselves, they hurt others by their harsh application of tradition.
On the other hand, those who do develop their life in the Spirit are disciples of Jesus. Feeding on Scripture and intentionally growing their relationship with God, they are like the image in Psalm 1 of a tree by the water.
Which, then, are we: Pharisee or disciple? It’s our choice.
 David Instone-Brewer, ‘New Testament Scandals #9 Hypocrisy’, Christianity, September 2009, p52.
 James Emery White, Wrestling With God, p53.
Jesus answered [Nicodemus], ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ (Verse 3)
What is it to be a ‘born again Christian’? We’ve become very used to hearing the phrase. The first time I remember hearing it was in my early teens, when a friend at school who went to a Baptist church invited me to a youth event. As my friend Andy brought me into the hall, someone greeted me and said, ‘Am I shaking hands with a born-again Christian?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ because as far as I knew I was a Christian. As I did so, Andy looked on quizzically. Clearly he doubted me. I didn’t understand at the time why he should doubt that I was a Christian. In later years, I would understand that he was right to be uncertain.
In popular parlance, we think of the phrase ‘born again Christian’ in connection with some American Christians. The first time I heard ‘born again’ used in the public domain was, I think, when Jimmy Carter ran for President in 1976. He would say, ‘My name is Jimmy Carter and I am a born-again Christian.’
Or we think that ‘born again Christians’ are those Christians we disparagingly refer to as ‘happy clappy’. I am sad when we disparage other Christians in this way, but what does remain is a sense that you can have two or more kinds of Christian: born again Christians, and other Christians.
So people have come to think that ‘born again Christians’ are one kind of Christian. But Jesus doesn’t put it like that. Either you’re born again (born from above, born anew) or you can’t see the kingdom of God. If you are born again, you are a Christian. If you are a Christian, you are born again. It’s not about the style of Christianity, it’s about the substance.
So we’d better know from Jesus what the substance of being one of his followers is. To explore what Jesus tells us, let’s look at the conversation he has with Nicodemus.
Except it’s not a conventional conversation. Three times Nicodemus asks Jesus something, or makes a statement to which he is seeking a reply. And three times, Jesus doesn’t answer him but says something else. If you’ve ever been frustrated that Jesus hasn’t answered the questions you’ve asked, you’re in good company. But Jesus has to do this here with Nicodemus, because otherwise he won’t get him to see the most important truths about the life of faith.
So let’s look at the three exchanges here, and see what they open up for us about true faith, about what it truly means to be ‘born again’.
Religion or Revelation
Nicodemus is religious. He is a Pharisee, which means at the very least he was devout and serious about following the heart of his religion. He was also ‘a leader of the Jews’, so whatever exactly that was, he held a responsible position and was probably respected for his faith (verse 1).
Furthermore, we have certain stereotypes of Pharisees from the New Testament as being regular opponents of Jesus, but it doesn’t look like Nicodemus can be lumped in with that description. He comes to see Jesus ‘by night’ (verse 2). I think that means he knew other Pharisees didn’t like Jesus, but he sincerely wanted to find out more. However, because of opposition from colleagues he comes under cover of darkness to avoid detection.
Not only that, he’s done his homework.
‘Rabbi,’ [he says,] ‘we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ (Verse 2)
In other words, he’s been part of a Pharisees’ committee that has looked into the early ministry of Jesus, just as we read two chapters earlier that a deputation of priests and Levites came to investigate John the Baptist (1:19). He would have been at home in the Methodist Church: working parties, committees and endless meetings would have been familiar to him!
Faithful, respected, sincere and devoted: that’s Nicodemus. Just the kind of person you want to join your church. Isn’t it?
It’s not far from the upbringing I had. My sister and I were taken to church in the womb. Our parents were active members of our Methodist church. Dad was a steward and was the Circuit Manses Secretary. Mum sang in the choir and taught in the Sunday School. You could hardly go out in the street with Mum without her bumping into someone and saying, ‘Didn’t I teach you Sunday School?’ In fact, it was so ingrained that my sister once worked out that she and I were fifth generation, same congregation.
And you know what? I wasn’t a Christian. It took a church membership class where at the last meeting our minister took us through the confirmation service when something clicked. I realised that Christianity wasn’t simply about believing in God and being good. It was about the grace of God reaching out to us, and us receiving it through repentance from our sins, faith in Christ and a grateful commitment to follow him in the world. I believe the ‘something’ that ‘clicked’ was the work of the Holy Spirit.
And Nicodemus has to learn that all his sincere religious belief and work counts for nothing. Religion gets you nowhere, Jesus says. Put in all the human effort you like, it’s a dead end. You need to hear from Jesus by his Spirit. You need to hear that it’s his work, not yours, that makes you a disciple of Jesus. It’s not what you’ve done for him. It’s what he’s done for you. That’s where the Gospel starts. Nowhere else.
Reason or Spirit
All this talk about being born again (born from above) is befuddling to Nicodemus. He can’t get his head around it:
‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ he asks (verse 4).
It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t stand to reason. I don’t think he’s deliberately ridiculing Jesus, but he is saying that Jesus’ teaching makes no sense to him.
This is what happens when we privilege human reason over the work of the Spirit. There is an important place for human reason, and indeed Jesus elsewhere told us to love God with our minds. However, even the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom. And when we rely on our minds and our brains alone, we shall never discern the work of God and walk in the ways of Christ.
I’ve seen people do it, including in church circles. Often clever people, they ask all sorts of questions. They routinely criticise the preachers (not that we should be above criticism, mind). Unless they can intellectually justify something, they refuse to accept it. But the life of the Spirit doesn’t work like that, and I’ve seen such people make shipwreck of their lives, for all their brainpower. For it’s all very well using our minds, but even our thinking is fallen and sinful. Wernher von Braun, the greatest rocket scientist ever according to NASA, previously worked on inter-continental ballistic missiles for the USA and prior to that developed rockets such as the V2 for the Nazis.
Instead of limited and potentially sinful human intellect as our guide, Jesus calls us to follow the wild desert wind of the Holy Spirit. We must be born of water and the Spirit, he tells Nicodemus (verses 5-6). And just as you don’t know which way the wind blows, so it is with those born of the Spirit (verse 8). When we are born again, we don’t just pursue clinical logic, we submit to the Holy Spirit, who will take us into surprising places.
Being born again, then, is not just about the new birth. It is about the new life. A life empty of stale human prediction. A life where we ‘lean not on our own understanding’ but walk in obedience to the Holy Spirit, wherever we are led. Religion doesn’t understand that. Nor does reason. But the Spirit does.
Understanding or Faith
The last exchange, and Nicodemus still doesn’t get it: ‘How can these things be?’ he asks (verse 9).
Jesus replies, you still don’t understand –you, the teacher of Israel? If I talk about earthly things (birth, water and the wind), how will you ever believe in the things of heaven? (Verses 10-12) And he goes onto talk about that which most of all requires faith rather than human understanding: the Cross.
If you want to do everything by logic and understanding, you’ll never end up at the Cross. Yet Jesus knows it will be the central event in history. If you wanted good PR for a new religious movement in what we call the first century, you wouldn’t have picked the Cross. As Paul was to tell the Corinthians, it is foolishness to the Greeks and a scandal to Jews. Where is the fine-sounding rhetoric so beloved of Greeks at the Cross? Where is the wondrous miracle that conquers the enemies of God that Jews longed for?
Yet to those with faith in Christ, nothing speaks more eloquently than the agony of the Cross, where Christ dies in our place. And yes, it does conquer the enemies of God, as Jews would have hoped, but in a more radical way, dealing with the sin of the world by absorbing its cost, not lashing out.
And it’s as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. The philosophers adored by the Greeks of the first century were the rock stars of their day. They were treated rather like the way our culture hangs on the words of celebrities. Those who are born again choose the wisdom of the Cross to guide their lives, not the vacuous pronouncements of the famous.
Likewise, those who are born again live at the Cross and are not persuaded that ‘might is right’. Killing abortion doctors – however evil abortion is – does not sit with life at the Cross. Nor do the recent statistics from America which showed church attendees as more likely to approve of torturing suspected terrorists. To be born again involves a commitment by faith to believe in the redeeming and transforming power of suffering love through Christ.
It’s not enough if we are born again to say that the Cross is where we find the forgiveness of sins – although we do. We must then allow Christ and his Cross to shape the way we live and speak.
We began by wondering what it means to be ‘born again’. Is it one particular style of Christian?
There is no evidence in Jesus’ teaching that this is the case. He applies the image of being born again to all who wish to be his followers. It is a challenging image.
For those who are born again reject the idea that religious devotion earns a ticket to heaven. Rather, we bow the knee and accept that God has done something for us in Christ. It isn’t about what we can offer. Is that us?
Those who are born again deny that we can proudly think our way to God. We depend, instead, on the work of the Spirit to reveal Christ and to lead our lives in unpredictable directions. Again – is that us?
Finally, those who are born again give short shrift to the empty example of the famous and the violent world of superior force. We find life at the Cross, and we continue to live at the Cross. Once more – is that us?
So: are we born again?
Mark’s favourite word at present is ‘Why?’ We had heard that all children go through a ‘Why?’ phase. Mark’s, however, is different from what other parents have generally told us. It isn’t a case of ‘Why must I do that?’ or ‘Why not?’ It’s more academic. He deploys ‘Why?’ to ask questions about the world. And when we’ve answered why one thing happens, he asks why that is so. Relentlessly he pushes back our logic, sucking our brains dry. On Friday afternoon in the car, he wouldn’t stop in his quest to know more about speed cameras. I am convinced that one day soon, we’ll have to explain the Big Bang to him. And questions are at the heart of our Lectionary Gospel reading today. The Pharisees send a lawyer to ask Jesus a question. Jesus asks the Pharisees a question. Furthermore, it’s the climax to a series of questions between Jesus and his critics. Questions – and how we handle them – are vital in spiritual growth.
So today I want as much to explore the use of questions in general as I do the particular questions in this exchange.
People Questioning Jesus
There are all sorts of reasons, good and bad, for asking Jesus or God a question. The Virgin Mary asked a question of the Archangel Gabriel when he turned up with his world-shattering news of her pregnancy. However, it was a question allied to a spirit of obedience to God. When we question out of a desire to pursue our faith and discipleship further, that is a good thing.
Job questioned God as a result of his suffering. He didn’t get an answer to this question about why he as an innocent person suffered. He only learned that, yes, innocent people do suffer. And although he receives a kind of rebuke from God, he is nevertheless rewarded for a faith that is not contradicted by asking hard questions.
Even the lawyer in this story might have had good intentions. In Mark’s account of this story (which is most likely Matthew’s source), Jesus commends him for not being far from the kingdom of God. Yet in Matthew, he is just out to test Jesus on behalf of the Pharisees (verses 34-45). Was he a stooge of the Pharisees? We don’t know.
What we do know is that the Pharisees had unholy reasons for questioning Jesus. Matthew is only interested in noting this sense of conflict, where the Pharisees not only think they can put one over Jesus, they are keen to succeed where their rivals the Sadducees failed (verse 34). Their motives are not good. This is all about pride and putting one over their opponents.
When I first studied Theology, it was among Anglican ordinands. I had more theological knowledge than some of them, due to my Local Preacher training. There were two occasions during early lectures when I asked questions of the tutors, less to learn and more to show off. Once it was when a New Testament lecturer was giving an outline of Luke’s Gospel, and I made sure everyone knew I realised that Luke gave a special place to women. The other was in an Old Testament class, where the tutor recommended a particular Bible atlas and I said, “Oh, the one you edited?” They were unworthy moments and I am ashamed of them.
If we are not careful, we might ask questions that are less to do with wanting to draw nearer to Christ and more to do with pride. They might involve puffing up ourselves and putting others down. Before we question Jesus, it is worth questioning ourselves. What are our motives? Do I ask out of humility, a desire to learn and if necessary a spirit of repentance? If so, I am asking a question in such a way that spiritual growth has a real chance to happen.
But if I want to show off in front of others, or if I am deluded enough to think that with my intellect I can impress God, then the chances of growth are less than zero. Indeed, to have such concerns is to show no interest in growing in grace.
What, then, of the actual question here? The lawyer asks for one ‘greatest commandment’, but Jesus gives him two. Jesus won’t be confined by our questions. Sometimes we ask the wrong questions.
Let me make brief observations about each of his two ‘great commandments’. With regard to the first commandment, I find it interesting to read this passage in a week when we have heard about the first atheist advertising ever to appear on London buses. One of its most prominent supporters and financial backers is – surprise, surprise – Richard Dawkins. In supporting the campaign, he was stupid enough to say this:
“This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think – and thinking is anathema to religion.”
Thinking is anathema to religion? What he surely means is, you haven’t thought unless you’ve come to the same conclusions as me. Sixth Form arrogance. Against that background, I read Jesus saying that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The word ‘mind’ is additional to the original (although the Hebrew will have implied that the total person is involved in loving God). I cannot find God by thinking, but I can dedicate my thinking to God as an act of loving worship. Be trusting of God, but the Sunday School song never said, ‘Jesus wants me for a zombie’.
The second commandment is about love of neighbour. One of the problems with the atheist bus campaign – along with religious advertising, too – is that it reduces everything to slogans. That’s exactly what Jesus doesn’t do. The proof of his ‘campaign’ to love God is not a slogan. Proof comes in love of neighbour.
In early September, the American ministry journal Leadership has this poll on its website:
When it comes to evidences of true worship at your church, which of the following do you pay most attention to?
- People singing enthusiastically.
- People praying fervently.
- People fully attentive to the sermon.
- People coming for confession or prayer afterward.
- People committing or recommitting themselves to Christ.
- People serving others during the week.
- People so captivated that they invite others to join them at church.
Other: click here to let us know what indicates to you that people are worshiping
Much as I like enthusiastic singing, fervent prayer and close attention to the sermon, I can’t understand any measurement of true Christian love that is less than a measurement of action that happens afterwards. People who put their faith into practice after church – they can ask questions.
Jesus Questioning People
In my early years as a Christian, a popular slogan was ‘Jesus is the answer’. There was a famous song with that title by the gospel singer Andraé Crouch. It’s a comforting song about the hope troubled people can find in Christ, and of course I believe that.
However, I have come to believe also that it is just as true to say that ‘Jesus is the question’. He didn’t always spoon-feed his listeners. He told parables that would only make sense to the spiritually curious and committed.
And in this passage, Jesus questions his critics. He throws in a theological conundrum. It’s a little biblical hand-grenade that is meant to blow apart their preconceived ideas, their limited vision and their prejudices. In summary, it’s this: if the Messiah is the son of David (as was commonly accepted), how can David call one of his own descendants ‘Lord’ (verses 41-45)? The problem was that in Jewish tradition a father could not call his son ‘Lord’. Yet here was Scripture saying just that. And if it were true, what possible grounds could there be for denying the Lordship of the Messiah? And if Jesus were the Messiah, what would that mean for the Pharisees’ treatment of him?
To change the metaphor, it’s checkmate to Jesus (verse 46).
And Jesus is still about the business of asking questions as a means of either eliciting spiritual growth or letting people confirm the hardness of their hearts. Sometimes, we are seeking his guidance and he doesn’t appear to be answering. That may be because he is making us wait for an answer, but is it also possible we are not hearing what he is saying? So set are we on receiving an answer that will make everything fit into place that we miss what he is saying. Instead of giving us an answer, Jesus replies with a question.
Not only that, it’s something Jesus calls his followers to do, too. Take the rôle of the minister, for example. One traditional expectation of a minister is that this is the person who will dream the big dreams, see the great visions and impart them to the congregation. One Anglican rector friend told me he believed his job was to be like Moses coming down from Sinai with the tablets of stone.
But what if that isn’t the minister’s calling? Suppose instead the minister invites people to engage their situation with a holy imagination? That may be more effective, because it will help call forth what God is already doing in the midst of the congregation.
Or take the rather modern preoccupation that the exposition of Scripture in a sermon or Bible Study group is meant to be a way of reading answers off the page to today’s dilemmas, or coming up with a set of biblical principles on how to make life work. Is that right? Might it not be more faithful to the Bible if instead the minister preaches the great story of Scripture to the people, saying, this is ‘the story we find ourselves in‘. If that is the case, then how do we see our world? [Source for last 3 paragraphs]
If we allow Jesus to question us, he might shake up some of our cherished beliefs and practices. Those moments when we sense a discomfort, that something doesn’t quite fit – those are times when we might well need to be especially attentive to the voice of Christ. Is he asking us a question that will take us on a journey into deeper biblical faithfulness and away from those human traditions which have become unhelpful?
I believe Jesus is asking us big questions about our fitness for mission in today’s world. Do our structures, traditions, practices and even some of our cherished doctrines which we clam to have ‘received’ fit with a biblical reflection on where we are today? I for one am not sure they do, and I believe Jesus may be asking us awkward questions.
But then that’s just the sort of thing that might preoccupy me as a minister. For others, it might be other questions. He might be asking many people about their place, situation and calling in life. The spiritual writer Frederick Buechner observed that our call is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. If some of us are misfits on those grounds, then is Jesus asking us challenging questions about where we might best serve him? Has Jesus given us a passion for something that we are not using? If not, then what questions might he be asking us?
The alternative to Jesus asking us questions is simply for him to give us pre-packaged answers. But if he does that, then that is the end of the conversation. Orders have been given from on high, and that’s it. Now he has a perfect right to do that. He is Lord. But I suspect he often asks us questions instead of giving us answers, precisely so that he can engage us. Questions properly given and received promote conversation. Jesus asks us questions so that he can stimulate a combination of prayer and action.
And come to think of it, aren’t prayer and action the very things that drive us to ask the best questions of him? Will prayer and action be the reasons we have a relationship of questioning faith with our questioning Lord?
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?