Isaiah 45.1–7; Matthew 22:15-22
Render unto Caesar
Life is pretty challenging right now. I mean it’s always pretty challenging, life is always full of risk and uncertainty, but right now, risk and uncertainty really seem a lot worse than normal. Everything we do, everything we have done since March, has been done in a context of risk and uncertainty.
Yesterday, we moved into Tier 2, the High risk level of coronavirus. The incidence rate of coronavirus last week in Enfield was 84 per 100,000 people – back in August it was 3. When you look at those numbers it’s easy to see why we’ve been moved up a tier. So the risk we are facing is real, it’s there in black and white, in statistics.
And so today, every one of us in this church community had to make a choice – to come to church or to stay home. Each one of us had to look at the risk and uncertainty in which we are living and choose, either to stay home or to come to church. Each one of us had to make a difficult and ultimately uncertain calculation of the risks we might face in coming out and balance that carefully against our desire to come to church today.
Every one of those calculations was different. My risks are not the same as your risks. My answer is not the same as your answer.
Why am I stressing this today? Well, partly because I want to acknowledge that we are living at a time of risk and to reemphasise the importance of making sensible choices and following the covid protocols – stay 2m apart, sign the register, yes, I’m talking to you. And partly because I want to remind you that the people who run this church, your PCC, have done everything they can to make sure that church is as safe as possible.
But also because of today’s Gospel.
In some ways, our experience of life right now brings us closer to the lives of the people who were living in Jesus’ time. Not because of coronavirus per se, but because of the increase in our experience of risk and uncertainty. Living under an oppressive occupying regime with power beyond imagination is not our lived experience, at least not here and now. But some of the outworkings of that situation are now painfully familiar to us. Unpredictability. Powerlessness. Risk of death. Fear. Not really being sure if we are following the rules or not. Worrying about the consequences.
And so if we look at today’s Gospel in that light, in the light of a people who now know what it’s like to live in a state of heightened uncertainty and risk, then we start to feel something of the importance of the question Jesus is answering.
For the Jewish people, questions of authority were questions holding great uncertainty and risk. The Roman Empire was capricious and violent. Breaking their rules, showing any kind of disrespect, could mean you ended up on a cross on the side of the road, like thousands of Jews before you. And alongside that, failing to respect the codes and laws of your faith meant risking your soul.
This question that the Pharisees and Herodians put to Jesus was dangerous. It was political – political at a time when politics could get you killed.
So how to answer it? If Jesus said don’t pay your taxes, he could quickly have found himself in a Roman prison cell. But if he said pay them he would anger his own followers, not just the disciples but by now the many thousands of people who came to hear him speak and who could easily turn into a violent mob.
Who in fact eventually did turn into a violent mob…
The enemies of Jesus thought they’d done a pretty neat trick, finding a question like this. But in fact, what they had done was to remind everyone of the risk and uncertainty they faced in their lives. Everyone listening to this exchange would have felt the threat in the question because it was a threat they themselves lived with. This wasn’t theoretical – this was real life, risky and uncertain.
So when Jesus answers, he answers not only the question of the political operatives who pose the question, but a question important to everyone who was listening. And it’s a question all of us, living with our own risk and uncertainty, need answering.
And that question, when you boil it right down to the essentials, was this – what is important? Actually, properly important.
It’s not the taxes. It’s not the religious leaders. It’s God.
Calmly, simply, Jesus reminds everyone that there is more going on here than taxes. That while, yes, we might need to pay attention to the things that cause us fear and anxiety, we might need to pay our taxes, ultimately the answer is to give to God the things that are God’s.
Jesus turns our attention away from the problem and towards the answer. The problem in the reading is taxes, the problem we are facing – well, you know better than I do what problems you are facing. Coronavirus, yes, but all the other things too. Everything that worries you, that keeps you awake at night, all the risks you live with, all the uncertainty that leaves you anxious and afraid. All of that.
And the answer? The same for us as it was for the Pharisees and Herodians. The answer is God. Giving to God the things that are God’s.
Give God the glory. Give God the praise. Give God all the things you are grateful for. And all the things that worry you. Give to God all the uncertainty that 2020 has given you. Give God the risks you face, the fears you hold. Give them all to God. Give to God the things that are God’s.
Give God all that you have and all that you are. Amen.