The kind of sermon I’m preaching today has proved a little controversial in the past. In Bucharest we had a fair sprinkling of diplomatic staff and advisors coming to church. One such, a good friend, had been one of Tony Blair’s advisors in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, he’s now in Brussels and my sermon on “Jesus is Lord” led to a “spirited discussion” shall we say.
Because what passes almost unnoticed by so many people is that saying something like “Jesus is Lord” is highly political. Because to say that Jesus is Lord is to say quite pointedly that all the Kings, princes, Presidents, Governments and states on earth are NOT Lord. By saying Jesus is Lord you are nailing your colours to the mast and saying my primary loyalty is to another kingdom, not yours.
So used to we at thinking that politics and faith are separate we don’t even recognise when we are being subversive.
Trying to keep the two spheres of activity entirely separate has been always been helped by a particular interpretation of today’s passage. An interpretation that has allowed church and political leaders to give each other mutually exclusive realms.
Needless to say I believe that this interpretation misrepresents what Jesus says – in fact I think it turns it on its head. Anyone who knows anything about the life of Jesus knows that he was hardly flavour of the month with the authorities, and it was an unholy alliance between Temple and state that conspired to murder Jesus as an enemy of the state.
I would contend that in this fascinating little exchange, when examined closely is revolutionary and subversive. The Pharisees, realising that all these parables that we have been hearing these past weeks were aimed at them they decided to send some of their young acolytes together with some young Herodians (Why some Herodians? to represent the state) First of all they flatter Jesus and then to try and entrap him. In asking him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not, they hope to snare Jesus. If he says "yes" then many of the people would be disillusioned with him for many thought it treasonous to pay taxes to Rome and the young supporters of the Pharisees would have been able to bury him in derision. If he had said "no" then technically he is guilty of treason and the Herodians are there to make that accusation would stick and have him arrested. But instead Jesus asks for a coin which has Caesar's image (icon) on it and famously says "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God the things that are God's". Impressed and non-plussed by this sleight of hand his questioners withdraw.
As I say many have tried to use this cameo as ammunition to keep church and state entirely separate or even to relegate God to an entirely separate realm and to imply that the Bible sanctions complete obedience to the state, but a deeper and truer meaning is implied by Caesar's icon(Greek) - his image. For in reality according to the Jewish tradition, and of course Christian tradition as well, all human beings are made in God's image. We all bear God's image and therefore we all of us ultimately (Caesar included) belong to God. There is no separate realm - political or otherwise - that is not also part of God's realm. Because God is God, the Lord of creation.
So because we all have a prior loyalty to God, it doesn't matter what sphere we are operating in, economic or political, our primary loyalty is to God and his kingdom and his values.
As I wrote this week this does not deny governments their legitimate and necessary sphere of activity, but it does set our allegiances into a primary and secondary order. God first, the state second. Our ultimate loyalty can never be the state, not from this exchange or from that statement “Jesus is Lord”. If and when states act in a way that denies the divine image in all people by the way it treats people then our duties as citizens of those states, whose first loyalty is to God, become very clear. We must act as the conscience prodding the sides of our Governments. If any Governments anywhere try to discriminate against people, and act unjustly, or deny people their God given freedom we must recognise that they bear the same image of God that we do and stand with them.