Milborne and Dewlish
Sunday 22nd October 2017
1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22
March 31st 1990 was a memorable day. Anger at the long-opposed community charge – known informally as the poll tax – grew to such a pitch that there were riots, following a large demonstration in Trafalgar Square. It was, perhaps, the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher’s government. I’m sure most of you here remember it.
609 years earlier, following a series of three poll taxes imposed by the King, Wat Tyler and others launched the Peasants’ Revolt, and marched on London.
Poll taxes are not popular. It might seem logical to charge every person the same amount, since all people are equal and make use of the same services, but in a society where rich and poor live in very different situations, it may also seem unjust that the rich are not expected to contribute more than the poor.
Inequality has always been a serious social issue.
In the time of Jesus, poll tax was also exceptionally unpopular. The Roman occupiers charged every man and woman a denarius. This tax to the Romans was administered by the Jewish leaders they had put in place, but was put into the coffers of the Empire.
One can imagine how it felt to be giving up a whole day’s wages to the powers that had taken away the right of the Jewish people to govern themselves. It caused a lot of resentment and, like Thatcher’s poll tax, which I remember being a lot in the news long before the riots, it was one of the topics of local conversation, a sore point.
We may wonder why the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians chose this particular issue – it’s because it was a live one of the times and a big problem for ordinary people.
Perhaps this week’s equivalent is should we scrap universal credit or not?
Roman coins bore the image of the Emperor and wording that suggested that he was divine, thus breaking for Jewish people two of the great Ten Commandments – they were to have no other gods but God, and they were not to have graven images or idols. Because of these sensibilities, the Jews were allowed to mint their own copper non-idolatrous coins.
The whole purpose of the question was to try Jesus catch out.
It reminds me a little of the recent attempts to trap the Archbishop of Canterbury – and incidentally Tim Farron, Teresa May and other politicians - into saying something newsworthy about the issue of same-sex relationship earlier this month.
The Guardian’s headline on 2nd October this year on this story was “Justin Welby unable to give 'straight answer' on whether gay sex is sinful”.
The archbishop admitted that the was struggling with the issue because the two views on this matter are, in his words, “irreconcilable”.
A slight diversion – let’s get back to Jesus and the question he faced: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Perhaps the headline might have said “Jesus refuses to give straight answer on Roman tax.”
It’s interesting to note that the Pharisees teamed up here with the Herodians. This suggests immediately that there is more to this question than seems at first glance.
The Pharisees were opposed to the tax; however the Herodians only had power because it had been divested in them by the Roman Occupiers, so we can assume they were OK with it, even if only tacitly.
If Jesus agreed with the Herodians that the tax was lawful, he would possibly face a lynching from his own people who resented having to pay it.
If he declared it illegal, though, he could be had up for treason.
So he leaves the answer open. He allows for the conversation to be opened up rather than closed down. But he does so very cleverly. In avoiding the trap, he also catches out the Pharisaical disciples, who show how compromised they have already become.
Show me a coin, he says. They produce a Roman denarius – remember these were the coins that broke two of the Ten Commandments so shouldn’t have been handled by Jewish leaders, and certainly not in the Temple the house of God.
Whose image is on it, he asks. What has the image of the emperor belongs to the emperor; what has the mark of God belongs to God.
What does the Jewish Psalm say?: The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.
What does Genesis 1 say about human beings?: So, God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.
All that we are and all that we have is in God’s image.
As so often, Jesus leaves the people who are trying to entrap and attack him to answer their own question. He so often turns the reflection back on to those who ask him questions, and he does this not just when people are trying to catch him out but also when they are asking him a genuine question.
But the challenge to the Pharisaical disciples and Herodians is a challenge to us too. Give to God the things that are God’s.
We live in a very ungenerous society. I am always overwhelmed with enormity of the generosity of people who have very little but are willing to share with others. Time and again those who live in real poverty are those who give most – not in real terms but in proportional ones.
In the past the Church of England has carried out surveys into giving, and it is a general finding of these surveys that the poorest dioceses are the ones with the most generous givers.
Everything we have comes from God, and yet it seems to be that the more we have, the more fearful we become about losing what we have.
The difference comes from a difference in attitude. If we see everything as mine, then it becomes hard to let go of it, but if we can begin to remember that everything we have is God’s, and has come from God, then it does become easier to share.
The Pharisees and Herodians were out to get Jesus, not to welcome his teaching whatever he said. Their hearts were full of mischief, so they were never going to hear the true meaning of the message he gave them. At this point in Jesus’s life, they were intent on destroying him.
How we lead our lives comes from our hearts and on what they are focussed and tuned into.
If we set our hearts on getting, we will become grasping selfish people.
If we set our hearts on giving, we will become generous people who can make a real difference in how we live.
Generosity springs from thankfulness, from an attitude that doesn’t take for granted what we have, but recognises that all we have comes from God and directs our praise to God.
It’s a transformation that would make a big difference to the impact Christianity could make in this village, in this benefice, in this country.
At the moment much of the media portrays Christians as judgemental in attitude and disapproving of society. And they are out to get us, just like the Pharisees and Herodians were out to get Jesus.
But I don’t think we help ourselves. We shut down the conversations when we don’t like them; we become less than generous in listening to the views of others.
We always asking for money and support but is our own house in order How many of us for instance give truly sacrificially to the work of the church and to those in need? Remember that the Church of England’s guidelines to give 5% income to church and 5% income to charitable causes are the starting-points rather than the end ones.
There is a Christian duty to be generous with what we have. But we are asked to go further than our duty. Someone has described three types of giving: there’s the grudge giving where we feel we “have to” give, where we are compelled to give for whatever reason; there’s the duty giving when we feel we “ought to” give – perhaps that is where the 5% idea comes in – or more biblically traditional the tithe – ten per cent.
And then there is the thankful giving, where we give because we “want to”, not because we ought to or have to but because we want to. It’s a giving that comes out of recognising the blessings we have been given, and which transforms us. Generous giving takes practise but the more we try it the easier it becomes.
It’s the kind of giving that Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Corinthians pleases God: God loves a cheerful giver, he writes.
How willingly do we give what is God’s back to God?