A reflection for Trinity Nineteen

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Offered for Sunday 18th October 2020


Reflections Script

Trinity 19

October 18th 2020

Although, in theory,
you can get almost every piece of information needed
from the internet, I still on occasions return to the old standby
'Books', especially the good old dictionary!
In my much used and repaired 1976 edition
of the Concise Oxford Dictionary,
'Ambiguous' means 'Obscure;
having double meaning; of doubtful classification;
of uncertain issue!
Put a little clearer
"unclear or capable of being understood
in two or more different ways."

For Example
Sarah gave a bath to her dog wearing a pink t-shirt.
Is the dog wearing the pink t-shirt or is Sarah?
I have never tasted a cake
quite like that one before!
Was the cake good or bad?
Did you see her dress?
Is she getting dressed
or are they commenting on her dress choice?

Finally an example of 'Ambiguity' from Literature
In Shakespeare' Romeo and Juliet,
Mercutio is dying from his wound
and attempts to remain lighthearted.
The word "grave" has an ambiguous meaning:
'Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man'.
With absolutely no ambiguity.

Let us Pray

O God,
we are your children and you love us:
so deep is your love
that nothing we have done,
or thought to do,
can take away the peace you give;
so strong is your love
that no passing trouble
shall tear us from your arms;
so precious is your love
that all our life shall be lived
in your service -
and yours shall be the glory,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen


Keeping in tune with the introduction.
How many times have we heard people say
that Christianity and politics don't mix?
For instance, The New York Times says that
the former South African President
P.W. Botha warned Archbishop Desmond Tutu
"against distorting 'the true message of Christ'
by bringing the Church's spiritual power
into the 'secular' struggle against apartheid".

Martin Luther King wrote from his prison cell
in Birmingham, USA,
of his disappointment that some Christians
did not support the demonstrations against racial injustice
because they viewed racial discrimination as "social issues,
with which the gospel has no real concern".
On the wall of one of my former Vicarages,
I had Desmond Tutu looking down from a poster
with his quote
'When people say that religion and politics don't mix,
I wonder which Bible it is they are reading.'

Some have used a line from Matthew 22,
"Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's,
and to God the things that are God's,"
to support the thinking behind these examples:
the secular and the spiritual are totally separate.

However, others have understood the line to mean the exact opposite,
a call to rebel against corrupt governments.
Indeed, there are few biblical passages
that have provoked such radically different responses.
It's no wonder there are such varied views
on the interpretation of this verse,
for Jesus had to speak in a deliberately ambiguous way.

He was being set up by two opposing groups,
the Pharisees and the Herodians,
who were not natural bedfellows,
who had come together to try to catch him out
with a question:
was it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?
If Jesus had answered "yes" there would have been
an absolute uproar in the crowd
and Jesus would have lost respect amongst the ordinary people.
This tax was hated by the Jews
because it had to be paid directly to the emperor,
usually collected by their fellow corrupt Jews,
and so acted as a constant reminder
their land was occupied by a foreign power.

On top of that,
it had to be paid in Roman coins.
These had an image of the head of the Emperor Tiberius
on one side surrounded by words describing him as
"the son of the god, Augustus".
This reflected the emperor-worship
which was encouraged by Rome
but considered idolatrous by Jews.

On the other hand,
if Jesus had declared taxes could not be paid to Caesar,
he would have been seen by the Romans
as inciting rebellion
and faced immediate arrest and possible execution.?

Jesus realised it was a trap,
so he responded with an answer that could be taken either way.
"Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's"
could be taken to mean "pay Caesar the tax
because the coin you pay it in bears his image
and so belongs to him".

However, "give to God what is God's"
could be understood to mean that
"everything belongs to God
and therefore Caesar has rights to nothing".

If Jesus' response is so ambiguous and has such passionate
and opposing interpretations',
what can we learn from this passage?

Well, Jesus' response can get us thinking:
thinking about what we do believe belongs to Caesar
and what belongs to God;
about when we should support secular authorities
and when we should challenge them;
and about the ways in which they fulfil God's will
and the ways they thwart it.

The idea this passage suggests Christians
should keep out of political issues
can be ruled out by looking at the rest of the Bible.
The principles we find there inevitably
have political dimensions.
For instance, the Bible teaches that God formed the earth.
This has political implications if we are properly
to care for what God has made.
The Bible teaches we are all created in God's image,
which shows us inequalities such as racism need tackling.
The prophets criticised their society's treatment
of the poor and this has political implications
for our society too.

Back to one of my heroes, Desmond Tutu said,
"In biblical times there were no false dichotomies
as between the sacred and the secular,
the profane and the holy,
the material and the spiritual."

If we are to work out when secular government
needs challenging then we will have to put effort
into discovering what God thinks about
the issues facing society.
We will need to study the Bible
and read what others have written about it.
We will need to know what is going on in our world
and pray for wisdom to know how to respond.
As Martin Luther King wrote from his prison cell,
the early "Church was not merely a thermometer
that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion;
it was a thermostat that transformed" society.
May God help us to be a similar force for good

To Summarise

Jesus was asked a question
intending to get him into trouble.
To avoid strife from either the Jewish people
or the Roman authorities,
Jesus gave them an ambiguous answer.
This means it is difficult for us to know
what Jesus really felt about paying taxes to Caesar.
However, his answer does challenge us to think
through when we should support secular authorities
and when we should challenge them.
In order to work through such issues
we need to study God's word and pray,
as well as keep abreast of what is going on in the world.

Our Blessing

As we go out into the world,
may we be filled to the brim with
God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit
prepared to rely of his word
and prayerfully follow his direction
and working through us
and making a difference in the world
we live in.
and the blessing........