Reflection and Prayers
Politics, Protest and Peace ~ Part 1
A Taxing Question
Three weeks on Tuesday, our sisters and brothers across the pond go to the polls. This election has been dubbed the most important in US history and certainly the contextual backdrop – the country being both literally and metaphorically on fire – does suggest that the outcome will have a decisive and divisive impact in the States and beyond. In a year during which we have been reminded just how interconnected humanity is across the globe, it is abundantly clear that the US position on trade, health, climate change and a range of other issues influences the lives of billions of people around the world – not least of all the British Prime Minister who is reported to have a fascination with the current White House resident – whilst last month’s commemorations marking the 400th anniversary of The Mayflower’s maiden voyage served as a reminder that the faith-based migration of our foremothers and fathers changed the course of the American continent forever. Although already inhabited, it didn’t take long for the British to plant a flag and claim ownership of the land. British America subsequently thrived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and it had no shortage of Welsh culture, most notably in Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Idaho, the latter of which held an annual eisteddfod until the First World War.
Over the years, the relationship between the colonies and the colonizer ebbed and flowed as royalists and separatists debated the case for and against continued obedience to the crown. It is said that as late as 1763, the majority of Americans revelled in their identity as Britons as they celebrated the British victory in the Seven Years’ War and their contribution to it, and yet, just twenty years later, they were celebrating victory of a very different sort when the Treaty of Paris officially ended the revolutionary war. What was the cause of such a radical turn in identity and worldview, we might well ask? What provoked the passion to overthrow an Empire and turn the world upside down? Tax, actually! ‘No taxation without representation’ was the rallying cry of the American separatists and has been at the core of revolutions and referenda for millennia.
In today’s reading from The Bible, we hear how Jesus dealt with this very issue…
read by Claire Hughes
Okay, so Jesus and the gang are in the Temple, causing a little mischief with scandalous stories and upturned tables. He’s come to Jerusalem on a mission and knows that the religious authorities are out to get him so when a group of Pharisees and Herodians sidle up to him, he’s not fooled by their faux politeness. Nor should he be as they think they’ve got him cornered. You see this is a pincer movement from the left and the right. On one side we have the Herodians – so-called because of their support of Herod Antipas who was named king of the Jews by Rome. The Herodians basically supported the Roman government and therefore were pro paying taxes to Caesar. If Jesus said that the Jews shouldn’t pay taxes to Caesar, he’d be done for sedition. Then you had their natural opponents, the Pharisees, who were committed to every detail of Jewish law and opposed paying tax to their oppressors, for religious reasons. If Jesus said that the Jews should pay taxes to Caesar, he’d be seen as a Roman sympathizer. So it looked to be a lose-lose situation for Jesus. Pretty smart of his opponents, really. But Jesus was certainly no fool. He called them out on their attempt to entrap him, asked for a coin and said, ‘give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God’. The Pharisees were speechless for Jesus had avoided the ‘gotcha’ and spoke truth against which no-one could argue. It was the first century equivalent of a mic drop.
But apart from marveling at Jesus’ mental dexterity, what might we learn from this encounter? What might it have to teach us about tax, politics and God today?
Well perhaps we can start with money! You see, the Pharisees were predominantly against the paying of taxes to Caesar because of the nature of the special coin that had to be given as payment. It was a Roman denarius which had an image of the Emperor on one side, the inscription for which read ‘Tiberius Caesar: august and divine son of Augustus, high priest’. Simply put, the coin made an idol of the Emperor. It said that Caesar was divine – that he was a god – and therefore, to observant Jews, it was a symbol not only of oppression but of blasphemy. Which shows just how badly the Pharisees wanted to catch Jesus out – joining with those whom they considered blasphemers and traitors and actively hoping that the rabbi from Nazareth would blaspheme too!
I wonder if you can think of a present-day Caesar who demands absolute power, claims to be superhuman and likes to brand things with his name. I wonder if you can think of Pharisee and Herodian figures who will abandon principles to try to defeat and shame their opponents; who prefer certainty and slogans over debate and discussion. I know I can. And I also know that I find comfort, reassurance, sometimes frustration and always wonder in the way that Jesus doesn’t give us easy answers. How he responds to questions with further questions and weird stories. How he doesn’t hit us over the head with 1001 rules to follow but teaches in parables and poetry, inviting us into the discussion; challenging us to think deeply; welcoming us into a sacred school, the curriculum of which is love. By teaching as he does, Jesus encourages us to enter the dialogue which, in this instance, is to consider how we spend our money; how we honour God or the Empire by what we spend, save and invest in. The truth is that sometimes our financial actions might be subversive. At other times we too might collaborate with the Empire. We are a mixture of Pharisee and Herodian and Jesus warns us to be wary of smug certainty and instead to think again on what our use of money says about our faith. As Joe Biden has often said, ‘Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value’. I wonder what our budgets say about what we value, both as a church and as individuals. I wonder what divine statements our bank statements make.
‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God’.
What do we give to Caesar or to God, then? As one commentator put it, the answer is only simple if you think Caesar is God…or, perhaps, the devil. And that’s so often where we get to in our politics. You’re Pharisee or Herodian; Republican or Democrat; you’re with me or against me. Just last month, Trump proclaimed that Joe Biden was ‘against guns, against our energy, against God’ and whilst it’s easy – oh so easy – to mock and condemn him for such a simplistic and false narrative, I must admit that there are times when I fall into such thinking. Times when I divide people into right and wrong; us and them. Times when I judge other people’s faith because of their political views; because, well, voting for that person or that party must surely make you ‘against our energy, against God’, right?!
But however much I do believe that our politics and faith cannot be separated; however much I think that Jesus had a radical manifesto as announced in a synagogue in Galilee (Luke 4:14-30) and outlined in a sermon on a mount (Matthew 5-7); however much I want to laugh, shout or cry at some of the Empire policies shown in the States and on these shores; I have to also remember to give to God what belongs to God. I have to remember what bears the image of Caesar and who bears the image of God. I have to remember that every one of us was made and is loved by God and that – urgh! – we’re called to do the same. Isn’t that horrendous?! Isn’t it also wonderful?!
It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t challenge our politicians or speak truth to power. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t petition and protest. On the contrary, as Ray’s beautiful anecdote about Vaughan’s daughter reminded us last week, we should probably be petitioning and protesting more!
But giving to God what is God’s – acknowledging that we all bear God’s image – does mean listening to other worldviews and speaking with respect; it means guarding ourselves against certainty and easy judgments; it does mean daring to say –
‘Republicans and Democrats – you are loved. Tories and socialists; separatists and royalists – you are loved. You who voted to stay in; you who voted out; you who want to shake it all about – you are loved. You who are feeling strong in your faith; you who are only here because it’s raining outside; you who are barely hanging on, you are loved. You who got a good night’s sleep; you who feel ‘as fit as a butcher’s dog’; you who ‘feel better than you did twenty years ago’ – you are loved. You who are in hospital; you who have incurable illnesses; you whose bodies carry decades of pain – you are loved. You who have secretly enjoyed lockdown; you who dread the next few months; you who don’t know how you’ll even get through tomorrow – you are loved. You who feel encouraged by this sermon; you who feel this list has gone on long enough now; you who stopped listening and started thinking about lunch five minutes ago – you are loved.
Whoever you are; however you vote; whatever your story – you are loved with a radical and ridiculous; divine and dangerous love that will never let you go’.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Prayers of Intercession –
written by John Henson
Dear God, we tend to take Jesus’ words to mean that we should pay our taxes, which most of us do. We are also told in scripture to pray for Caesar, that is, all those with political power, and for those who work for them and do their bidding. Help us to realize that it doesn’t matter what political party they belong to, or whether they are democratic or autocratic, good in our opinion or bad, we should still co-operate with you in your work of grace and love by means of our prayers. Our leaders cannot do their best job without your help. So we offer our prayers to you for them now. They are many. We pray for them all.
Jesus on one occasion, wishing to pay his taxes, asked Rocky to catch some fish so that both he and Rocky could pay what was due. We who work or receive benefits thank you God that we live in a society where a system of government ensures stability and public services that make life easier for us. We give thanks for our health service, our education services, and our social services. Help us not to resent higher taxation that improves life chances for all.
Some political leaders have a professed Christian faith, though it may not necessarily be obvious in their political actions. Others profess no religion of any kind. Our Christian faith calls us to pray for them wisdom, health and well-being, no matter what their faith or lack of it. But because in Jesus you have showed us that there is life after death, we must pray not only for their bodies, but for their souls. You love us all, good or bad. We are not to judge others. You are the kindest judge. Yet Jesus did warn consequences for those who ill-treat or neglect others. So we pray that the Good News products of peace and love may enter and work in the spirits of the world’s political leaders before it is too late.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our leader and governor, our saviour and our friend and who taught us to pray, saying…
Ein Tad/Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory. Forever and ever. Amen.
Go, in the power of the Spirit.
Go, and do not try to separate politics and prayer.
Go, not to escape, but to engage with God’s world.
Go, to live hopefully, as people of resurrection.
May the God of Peace inspire us,
May the God of Justice empower us,
May the God of H ope encourage us to live the Good News this week and all our days. Amen.
Sing praise to God on mountain tops
And in the earth’s lowest places
From blue lagoon to polar waste
From ocean to oasis,
No random rock produced this world,
But God’s own will and wonder
Thus hills rejoice and valleys sing
And clouds concur with thunder.
Sing praise to God where grasses grow
And flowers display their beauty,
Where nature weaves her myriad web
Through love as much as duty
The seasons in their cycle speak
Of earth’s complete provision
Let nothing mock inherent good,
Nor treat it with derision.
Sing praise to God where fishes swim,
And birds fly in formation,
Where animals of every kind
All life that find its home on earth,
Is meant to be respected.
Let nothing threaten, for base ends,
What God through grace perfected.
Sing praise to God where human-kind
Its majesty embraces,
Where different races, creed and tongues,
Distinguish different faces,
God’s image in each child of earth
Shall never pale or perish
So treat with love each human soul,
And thus God’s goodness cherish.
John L. Bell & Graham Maule
© 1989 WGRG The Iona Community (Scotland)
Tune: THE VICAR OF BRAY