It all comes down to the money.
That seems to be the consensus of political commentators this week on the Brexit negotiations after the latest EU leaders’ meeting. The future relations between neighbours sharing one continent and centuries of entwined cultural development depend on ‘how much?’.
Later this week we’ll be commemorating the Christian King Alfred.
Alfred had a vision for an England no longer divided between warring states, prey to foreign raiders, but one where Danes and English lived at peace, sharing common baptism into Christ.
In the days when he was on the run in the marshes of Somerset, that vision could have seemed a bitter joke. By his death, the arts of peace were flourishing and the single nation was coming into being.
A remarkable feature of Alfred’s renewed kingdom was the unified currency: mints striking silver pennies with Alfred’s head on them at numerous newly-fortified burghs around Wessex. It thrived as a medium of exchange and allowed trade to flourish, including beyond England’s shores. It represented an economic foundation for the peaceful spread of Christian teaching. And it was done in Alfred’s image.
So Jesus’ antagonists in today’s gospel know what they are doing when they make money the centre of this religious struggle.
The occupying force wanted return on its expenditure in Judaea. It too had a coinage which was legal tender around the Empire – in the image of Tiberius Caesar, its Emperor. The Law of Moses forbids graven images, but here they are in the holy city of Jerusalem, in the Temple itself.
Not all Jews would have forced that issue, but no-one likes paying taxes. So: get Jesus to pronounce on their legality, and the Pharisees and Herodians can pull the rug from under the feet of this charismatic Northern prophet. Say ‘yes’ and he’s an imperial stooge; say ‘no’ and the Romans line him up for crucifixion like all the previous tax-rebels of the Empire.
There is something very awry here.
Pharisees and Herodians make for an unstable alliance. “We know you are sincere”, they tell Jesus, but they are not so themselves.
And they choose the holy ground of the Temple for a test of the faithful covenantal relationship to God which reduces it to a binary choice, a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s clear – and it’s clearly destructive.
So much talk of God has remained like this over the centuries. In this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we can’t be complacent about the methods or motives of Jesus’ enemies.
And he turns the tables on them in a very satisfying way. The trappers become the trapped. They have already compromised themselves using the hated currency, and now they are left the ones with a decision to make: which things are truly the Emperor’s and which are God’s?
Jesus is a formidable antagonist. But he is more than this. And it’s the more which gives us the light of faith.
In Germany recently one of our German Catholic Benedictine brothers at Trier gave Fr George a Euro note. It featured Martin Luther, and was perfect in every way, except that the monetary denomination was for zero euros. What a symbol of multiple meanings!
A sign of our continuing ecclesiastical divide, or its overcoming?
An ironic comment on Brexit or a token of sympathy?
Perhaps our best response is to enjoy the giver, and the unexpectedness of the gift.
The teasing open-ended nature of Jesus’ answer is an invitation. To his hearers, to his antagonists, but also to us, to all who seek joy and relatedness.
Truth is not to be defined by such binary choices. Nor have we fulfilled our obligations by making a decision – principled or otherwise – and sticking to it.
Do we pay taxes that get spent with arms companies? Or fund abortion? Or create welfare dependency? Or sustain the wealthy? Christians have argued over all these and will continue to do so. There are Christian establishments and Christian anarchists.
And Jesus introduces God into the debate: ‘Give’ – or perhaps more accurately ‘give back’ – ‘to God the things that are God’s.’
Can our right relations with others be measured by coin? No. Never. Being-in-relation is much more rounded and much messier than that. We need to know who we are in God and who the other is in God.
Weighing human beings by cost – that’s a learned adult attitude. It gives us seeming control.
Jesus reminds us the Kingdom of God belongs to children. Do they do that? Probably children have no such measure. At their best, they are full of wonder at each new turn, at the strangeness of the other.
Of course it’s more risky.
We can’t maintain control – and Jesus in giving this ambivalent answer to the Pharisees is not dodging the path of the cross that lies before him.
And we can’t be sure of our own righteousness. We find we get things wrong. Perhaps God likes us to get things wrong. We’re learners.
‘Give back to God the things that are God’s.’ Jesus has coined a saying that can last us a life-time.
Here’s another: –
‘Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added to you.’ Seeking first the kingdom of God. That’s revolutionary. It relativises all our human power structures, including our revolutionary ones.
Jesus didn’t overthrow Caesar. Jesus gathered friends and taught them to love God. Then in time those friends taught Caesar to love God.
This is what St Paul sees the Christians doing in Thessalonica: “your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
St Benedict – didn’t rally the Empire against the barbarians. He gathered monks and formed a school of the Lord’s service. And the barbarians joined in.
And a parish church is another such gathering of human beings in relationship to God and each other, learning about what it is to love, about what it means to see each other in God. And to see God in each other.
Caesar’s image is on the coin,
But the image of God is imprinted in each human face.
Give back to God the things that are God’s.