20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 22 2017
Exodus 33.12-23; Psalm 23; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Give back to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
What are we to make of this quick response to the question posed to Jesus by an unlikely combination of Pharisees and Herodians?
Shortly before the outbreak of the Great War, Cecil Spring Rice, an Anglo-Irish diplomat based in Sweden as British ambassador, wrote a poem setting out how as a Christian of his culture and class he owed his loyalty both to his country and to the city of God, the kingdom of heaven.
His first verse goes like this:
I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters, she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And around her feet are lying the dying and the dead;
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns;
I haste to thee, my mother, a son among thy sons.
In January 1918, sobered by the industrial slaughter of the Great War, he reworked this verse to speak less of swords and guns and more of sacrifice and love. But the war dead in their millions did not move him to question his unqualified patriotism:
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
His first verse is coupled with a second:
And there’s another country I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
In its revised version, “I vow to thee, my country” became a British patriotic hymn, a national anthem, often sung at Armistice services.
Looking back dispassionately after a century in which more than 100 million died in war, we may wonder how the noise of battle, and the often reluctant sacrifice of the dying and the dead, are to be reconciled with the ways of gentleness and the paths of peace.
In May 1988, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came to a large hall inside New College, Edinburgh, set just below the Castle on an artificial mound. There she delivered an address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
The Scottish media promptly christened it the “Sermon on the Mound”. Wikipedia cautions that it is “not to be confused with the Sermon on the Mount”. No one in the Assembly was in danger of doing that.
Her address sets out Mrs Thatcher’s vision of the Christian faith. It ends with a section on religion and politics, church and state, on which she says she has found nothing comparable in insight to Cecil Spring Rice’s “beautiful hymn”.
“It begins,” she says, “with a triumphant assertion of what might be described as secular patriotism, a noble thing indeed in a country like ours” and goes on to speak of that other country to which the church owes allegiance.
From the leader of a government that had given us the Falklands War and whose neoliberal policies were causing untold misery to the poorest and most vulnerable in Scottish society, this patriotic piety was hard to take.
Speaking on Radio Scotland, my late teacher Duncan Forrester pointed to the striking contrast between Mrs Thatcher’s individualist Anglo-Saxon nonconformity and the powerful biblical images of the kingdom, the city, and the new Jerusalem – “all models of fellowship, in which each person is bound to God and to others in bonds of love and mutual responsibility”. He disparaged “I vow to thee, my country” as an English nationalist hymn never sung in the Church of Scotland.
Imagine, then, my surprise when seven years later I opened my new copy of CH4 to find “I vow to thee, my country” included as hymn 704.
And imagine my redoubled surprise last week, when I found hymn 704 associated in the index with our Gospel reading.
We cannot capture God in a word. Even when God becomes the Word made flesh, God still eludes our grasp.
But the book of Exodus reveals God to us through a series of names. At the burning bush – the particular symbol of the Church of Scotland, pinned to the blue curtain behind me – God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses’ ancestors. “I am who I am,” God says; or perhaps better, “I will be who I will be”.
The Ten Commandments begin with the ringing declaration, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”. You are my people, and I am the God who sets you free.
Exodus 29 tells us that God delivers the people so that God may live among them. The point of liberation is so that God can be close and near, living with God’s people.
The whole series of names culminates in today’s reading. God’s presence will go with God’s people – anticipating the first chapter of Matthew, in which God is Immanuel, God with us in the form of a new-born child. And God says, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”
God wants to be with us; and the arc of God’s presence bends towards mercy and grace.
But God wants us also to be with God. In our opening passage from his letter to the young, mixed and mostly gentile church in Thessalonica, Paul rejoices that they have turned from idols to serve the true and living God.
Among the idols from which we must turn today are the false gods of ethnicity, nationalism, and empire.
In Jesus’ day, paying taxes to Caesar was one of the hottest questions in Judea.
“Imagine how you’d like it,” says Tom Wright, “if you woke up one morning and discovered that people from the other end of the world had marched into your country and demanded that you pay them tax as a reward for having your land stolen!”
The Arabs of Palestine don’t have to imagine it. In the first Intifada, the Christians of Beit Sahour led a tax revolt in which their goods were confiscated and many of them went to jail.
When Jesus was a boy, a man named Judas led a revolt on precisely the same issue. The Romans crushed it ruthlessly, leaving crosses with dead and dying revolutionaries littering the countryside.
So the question the Pharisees and Herodians put to Jesus is far from academic. They want to impale him on the horns of a dilemma. Say that taxes should be paid to Caesar, and lose all credibility with the people. Say that taxes should not be paid, and we may denounce you for incitement. Your cross awaits you.
But Jesus of Nazareth is not taken in by their flattery, not so easily caught by a trap question. “Show me the coin you use to pay the tax,” he asks; and they do that.
He does not touch the coin – a denarius bearing the image of an emperor with divine pretensions: “Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus”.
If you are already caught up in this idolatrous system, he says, by all means give back to the emperor what is his; but our calling as God’s people is to give God what is God’s. What that means is standing in front of them, but they are too compromised to see it.
And a few days later, the chief priests and the elders of the people hand Jesus over to Pilate, the emperor’s representative in Judea, who delivers him to the cross.
Western Christians too often settle complacently for an easy harmony between Christian faith and nationalism.
But if we agree with Jesus and the Jewish Bible that God is Lord, if we agree with Paul and Matthew and the New Testament that Jesus is Lord, then no one and nothing else is.
The hymn we sing in closing this morning is filed in CH4 under Christ risen and coming again; and that’s not wrong. But it’s only one-third right.
From Christmas to Easter, from birth to death and resurrection, Mary’s boy child is already Messiah, the Lord’s anointed. And as he came then to break oppression and will come again to break it for good, so he comes today.
We are not fated to live until the second coming under the reign of sin. Great David’s greater Son comes now, as he came then and will come in the fullness of time, to set the captive free. He comes with succour speedy to those who suffer wrong.
And if this is not immediately obvious to us, it is perhaps in part because we do not believe it enough and do not act on it enough, believing it to be true.
Soli Deo gloria! To God alone be glory!
Francis Wright Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981)
Duncan Forrester, “Sermon on the Mound”,Third Way (August 1988), 13
Gustavo Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997)
Dennis Olson, “Commentary on Exodus 33.12-23”, Working Preacher
Margaret Thatcher, “Speech to General Assembly of the Church of Scotland”, Saturday May 21 1988
Wikipedia, “I vow to thee, my country”
NT Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings Year A (London: SPCK, 2001)
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2 (London: SPCK, 2002)
O God of blessings, all praise to you! (CH4 177)
The Lord’s my shepherd, I’ll not want (Psalm 23, CH4 16)
Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud (CH4 133)
Womb of life and source of being (CH4 118)
Hail to the Lord’s Anointed (CH4 474)
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2 (London: SPCK, 2002), 86