Materials for Worship at Home on Sunday 22nd October

Nerys writes: I’m sure  you’ve noticed that the word ‘amazing’ has changed its meaning in recent years and largely lost its power in everyday speech. Advertisements talk of ‘amazing prices’, ‘amazing quality’, ‘amazing colours’. Young people will say that they have been to ‘an amazing concert’, and heard ‘an amazing singer’. None of this has the sense of astonishment or bewilderment that is so often associated in the Gospels with Jesus. It is not surprising that his actions caused amazement, but his words also gave rise to a similar reaction. The multitude who heard the Sermon on the Mount, the crowds in the synagogue at Capernaum and in his home town of Nazareth, even his own parents overhearing him as a young boy in the temple – all were amazed at  what he said and we find the same reaction in today’s  Gospel reading, Matthew 22.15-22.

The Pharisees were confident that they had discovered a way get rid of this young man who was becoming such a thorn in their sides. They must have burnt a lot of midnight oil planning this trap. They had even joined with the followers of Herod – a group they bitterly opposed – to come up with a  perfectly formulated question which would cause him to  discredit himself by his own words before the large crowds of worshippers in the temple courts. Whichever way he answers their question, he is sure to alienate some of the crowd and find himself in big trouble. They think they’ve got him. They flatter him, trying to lull him into a false sense of security,  before launching their attack.

Yet, within a few seconds, they are the ones scrabbling red-faced for answers to his questions, with their clever strategy completely destroyed. They are amazed – and shamed – by what they have heard from his lips and have no option but to scurry away with their tails between their legs.

What was it that Jesus had said this time that caused such amazement even among his enemies? Was he just clever with words, or did he speak some  divine wisdom and truth that we also need to hear?

On the surface, the Pharisees’ question was to do with money. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? But there was much more to it than that. It wasn’t just that the people of Israel didn’t like paying taxes, or that this tax represented for them the oppression of foreign occupation. Devout Jews believed that using the Roman coin,  the denarius,  to pay the tax was idolatry, an offense against God.

This is why, before saying anything else, Jesus asks the Pharisees to bring him the coin in question, stamped with an image of the emperor’s head  and inscribed around the edge with words that would send a shudder through any believer – Caesar, Son of God. This request is, in fact, the beginning of his answer because when these religious leaders produce the coin, they are admitting their hypocrisy, showing everyone that they themselves were handling the hated currency. ‘Whose is this image?’ Jesus asks. ‘And who is it who gives himself an inscription like that?’ He doesn’t say anything that could get him into trouble but the questions he throws back at them show very clearly what he thinks of Caesar’s presumption and of their complicity.

Well then, he continues, ‘you’d better pay Caesar back in his own coin’. What did he mean? Was he inciting a revolution or was he,  as he stood there with the coin in his hand, simply saying that the tax should be paid? The deliberate ambiguity of these words is so clever.

The Tribute Money by Rubens

But then, almost as an afterthought, he adds  ‘and you’d better pay God back in his own coin too.’ Amazement! With these words a new and completely different dimension is added to the question and the dilemma is resolved. The Pharisees are now looking like fools. They are meant to be experts in religion but they never thought to introduce God into the debate. If we give back to Caesar what is his, we need also to give back to God what is God’s  – and every Jewish child would know what that meant. It was clear from the words they recited every morning and evening: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, is the only  LORD. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. The first duty of every Jew is to offer to God the worship, love and service of their whole lives as our psalm today, Psalm 99,  makes clear.  Caesar’s claims are as nothing before the all-embracing claim of the one true God.

Everyone is amazed. Once again, it appears that this young man knows more about their heavenly Father than all the religious leaders put together. And he has spoken with an authority which surely could only come from God himself. As the Pharisees leave with their anger and hatred undiminished, it doesn’t occur to them that Jesus’s response might be a last appeal by their God who loves them,  for them to change their ways and turn back to him. They hadn’t wanted a real answer to their question, so they didn’t hear it in this way. But, if we look at the wider context, Matthew allows us to see the situation in a different light. He has carefully placed this episode after a series of parables about people who refuse to give God his due, who will not recognise his Son and rejoice with him.

So here we have the true Son of God, standing before us just days before he will give himself up to death. He isn’t interested in wriggling out of personal danger. He isn’t interested in leading a tax revolt. Jesus is  on his way to embody God who is love,  whose face was hidden from Moses but which will be unveiled at last and made known personally to all his children. He is on his way to defeat for ever through his self-giving love, the power of all the Caesars of this world by defeating once and for all the power of  evil and death.

The risen Christ is standing before us this morning, asking us to consider afresh how we should respond to God, source of everything we enjoy including life itself. Will we turn away like the Pharisees or will we, like the young Christians addressed by Paul in today’s epistle, 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10, repay God by becoming imitators, sharing God’s love and goodness with everyone we meet? The choice is ours.

This week we are called to pray in particular for a just and sustainable peace in Israel and Palestine. You may wish to use this prayer issued by Christian Aid.