Matthew 22: 15-22
Some of you will remember the film ‘Chariots of Fire’, made back in the mid 1980s. The film is based on the story of Eric Liddell, a runner who competed in the Paris Olympic Games in 1924. Eric was one of the fastest runners of his day and was scheduled to compete in the 100 metre sprint. However, he was also a devout Scottish Presbyterian who believed in strict observance of Sunday, and when he discovered that the heats for the race were going to be run on a Sunday, he pulled out and refused to compete. Eventually he ran in the 400 metre race – a distance he had never competed at before – and surprised everyone by winning the gold medal.
The film dramatises the story a little. In actual fact Eric knew about the Sunday races months beforehand, but the film has him only finding out on the boat on the way over to Paris. The film also adds a dramatic scene where senior members of the British Olympic Committee, including the Prince of Wales, try to persuade Eric to compromise his principles and run in the race. But Eric Liddell refused, and spent that Sunday morning in church instead.
Whether or not we agree with Eric’s principles about the observance of Sunday, we can appreciate the difficult position he was in and we can admire his resolution to put nothing ahead of obedience to God’s commandments as he understood them. And this does raise the question of ultimate loyalty. If push comes to shove, what comes first: my loyalty to God, or my loyalty to my country?
Over in Iran right now a little drama is going on; a Christian pastor, Youcef, has been in jail for months, accused of the crime of apostasy – that is, of converting from Islam to Christianity. Apostasy is a capital offence in Iran and so Pastor Youcef has been on trial for his life. If he will renounce his Christian faith and convert to Islam he can go free; if not, dire consequences may be ahead for him.
This sort of conflict between loyalty to Christ and loyalty to those in civil authority is of course just ‘business as usual’ for Christians in much of the Islamic world, but we’re not used to the idea that it may become an issue for us here in Britain.
As we think about these questions, today’s gospel reading gives us food for thought. The scene is the Temple courts in Jerusalem, in the week before Jesus’ death and resurrection. Since he entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey a couple of days ago, the tension has been mounting between Jesus and the Jerusalem leaders – the priests, the Pharisees, and the political establishment. He has had a series of disputes with them and has told some parables which read like sharply-worded criticisms of them and their regime. Now, the leaders are going to try to trap Jesus by asking him some trick questions, questions to which he could easily give answers that would get him into trouble and arrested.
The first question concerns an issue dear to the heart of most of us - taxes! The Pharisees and the Herodians brought Jesus a question: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Just a couple of background points. First, the Pharisees and Herodians were political opponents. The Herodians were supporters of the family of King Herod; they were in league with the Roman occupation and as a result had gained a lot of advantage and wealth. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed that it was totally wrong for God’s chosen people to be under foreign rule. So for these two groups to actually be co-operating against Jesus shows how dangerous they thought he was, and how desperate they were to get rid of him.
Second, the tax in question was imposed by the Romans on every adult in Judea. The tax caused wide resentment, as you can imagine. So this was not just an academic question the leaders were bringing to Jesus. If he said, “No, it is not lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar”, he would be declaring a rebellion against Rome, and there would be no way of avoiding violence and bloodshed. On the other hand, if he was claiming to be leading a ‘Kingdom of God’ movement, there was no way he could endorse the paying of taxes to Caesar. Thirdly, the coin in which the taxes were paid was a Roman silver coin. The head of Caesar was stamped on the coin, and also an inscription claiming that Caesar was the son of a god and supreme high priest. These coins had caused huge unrest in Judea. Jewish law forbad the making of graven images, and the head of Caesar on the coin was interpreted as being just such a graven image.
So how does Jesus respond to the question? Well, of course, he sees right through it; he knows they are trying to trap him. So he responds: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites! Show me the coin used for the tax!”
This was very clever. First of all, by asking someone to show him the coin he was making it clear that he didn’t actually have any of that tainted Roman money on him. Would they own up to having Caesar’s money in their pockets? Jesus has made a point without saying anything. He’s said, “You’re trying to trap me into a position of disloyalty to God, but I’m not the one who’s carrying Caesar’s money: you are!”
The story continues: ‘“Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s”. Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s."
This is not just a clever, ambiguous reply that gets Jesus off the hook. It’s actually a profound theological principle that gives us a place to start when we consider the question of conflicting loyalties between God and the state.
On face value Jesus seems to be endorsing the tax – enough to get him out of trouble with the Romans, anyway. But then he goes on to say, “and give to God the things that are God’s”.
What are those things that belong to God? David says in Psalm 24 The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, so ultimately, God has a right to our unconditional loyalty and obedience.
But earthly countries do not usually like being put in second place, as Eric Liddell found out.
Tempting as it is to go further with this, I am not going to speculate this morning about what other specific issues might bring our loyalty to Christ into conflict with our loyalty to our country. I simply want to point out that, as our country and the other countries of the west become more and more secular, more and more Islamic led and less and less Christian,it is likely that there will be more issues on which we find that we are standing apart from our fellow-citizens. And when those issues arise, loyalty to Christ will demand that we continue to stand apart. We cannot sit on the fence - we will have to choose.
I leave you with a Jewish moral story:
A rich but miserable man one visited a rabbi seeking understanding of his life and how he might find peace. The rabbi led the man to a window looking out into the street and said “What do you see?”
‘I see men, women and children,’ answered the rich man.
The rabbi then took the man and stood him in front of a mirror. “What do you see?” he asked.
‘I see myself,’ the rich man replied.
“Yes”, said the rabbi. “It is a strange thing is it not? In the window there is a glass and in the mirror there is a glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver and no sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others and you see only yourself.”
May God give us all the strength of will to speak out and to stand up for that which is right and true today and in the days to come.