Philippians 3:17-21 Matthew 22:15-22
For our citizenship is in heaven; and from it we await a Saviour,
the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Church of England sets aside the Sunday closest to November 11 for a solemn remembrance of those who served and offered up their lives in the great wars to preserve freedoms. We give thanks today for them, and also we take this moment of solemn remembrance so that we never forget the dangers that can overwhelm states that can lead to the horrors of all out war.
Our readings vary each year depending on where Remembrance Day falls in the Church year. Today’s Gospel has an interesting political connection.
Jesus speaks to us today in this short encounter about our relation to heavenly and earthly authorities.
The background for today’s Gospel is that the religious authorities in Israel, the Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, all had different reasons for feeling threatened by the teachings of Jesus. Jesus openly challenged their authority and their ability to teach – in fact the only people we see him strongly criticizing were the religious authorities…and they did not take it well. They were trying to find ways to have him arrested, and to put him to death.
These religious authorities tried a number of times to come up with a question that whichever way he answered he would be condemned.
The Pharisees and the Herodians, united in their opposition to Jesus, came to him speaking kind words trying to flatter him, and then the deceitful question comes. But Jesus sees the trap – why do you put me to the test you hypocrites! The question was important in their day, whether taxes should be paid to the Roman occupiers of Israel or not. There was one group of Jews, the zealots, who had fled to hills to wage a guerilla war against the Romans. They refused any kind of engagement with the Romans. If Jesus agreed with them, by saying don’t pay the taxes, the Jewish authorities would be able to give the Romans a reason to arrest him as an agitator. If Jesus says yes, pay the taxes, he will be branded as a Roman sympathizer and thus a traitor to the Jews.
But Jesus gives the perfect answer – who gave you these coins? Caesar gave them in order to enable commerce and that has many benefits – so the demand for taxes is not unfair in itself. Jesus affirms the political order – not the oppressions of the Roman government, who had cruel tortures and brutal means of establishing and keeping rule, including crucifixion. But he is saying that God’s work in human history is beyond the boundaries of the Jewish religious authority. And God’s providence today is at work mysteriously in the establishment of governments around the world, it is not limited to the Church or Christian societies. So he tells the Pharisees and he tells us, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Or as St Paul says elsewhere, “Pay taxes to whom taxes are due.” [Rom 13:7]
But there are limits to the authority of the state, and that is why Jesus speaks also about giving to God the things that are God’s and it is our higher calling. As the coins in that day bore the image of Caesar, and so should be returned to Caesar, so do our souls bear the image and likeness of God – so we are to give ourselves back to God, in our worship, and in our obedience to the moral law, which is the call to love God and our neighbour as ourselves. As we return to look upon God, and keep our eyes fixed there, returning again and again to look upon Jesus, we find that the image and likeness in us, which is faded by sin, will be restored perfectly in time. This is our sanctification.
What does God tell us to do? He calls us to holiness of life personally. And God also speaks to us throughout the Bible of the need to challenge injustices in our midst. And so part of what we are to render, or to give to Caesar, is our insights about justice and our challenges to any injustices we see, we are not to be silent and bear quietly with oppressions.
Jesus tells us the way that we are to engage in societies to bring about change – he speaks of us as being leaven in the midst of a lump of dough [St Matt 13:33], to bring about its perfecting. Or he speaks of us as being the light of the world – not to be hidden [Matt 5:14-16], or as being the salt of the earth, mixed in to purify and to heal, and to preserve things from spoiling [Matt 5:13]. And St Paul spoke two weeks ago about us battling with principalities and powers [Eph 6:10f], that is, with the ideas that take hold of societies, confusing us, leading to injustices. Our normal way of engagement with the world – is not to ignore it or to be uninvolved but rather it is to affirm what is good, and to transform society to make it better.
When situations arise in our country or in a neighbouring country that are leading to the hindering of human flourishing or the wholesale destruction of human life, we need to be ready to stand up and make our voices heard, and we need to be ready to be engaged even in war but only as a last resort.
The phrase a “just war” comes from St Augustine’s City of God, written in 426 AD, and principles around what is a just war have been elaborated through the ages – Thomas Aquinas gave these principles in the later middle ages:
“According to Aquinas, three requirements must be met. Firstly, the war must be waged upon the command of a rightful sovereign. Secondly, the war needs to be waged for just cause, on account of some wrong the attacked have committed. Thirdly, warriors must have the right intent, namely to promote good and to avoid evil. [Summa Theologica pp. pt. II, sec. 2, q. 40, a. 1] Aquinas came to the conclusion that a just war could be offensive and that injustice should not be tolerated so as to avoid war. Nevertheless, Aquinas argued that violence must only be used as a last resort.” [Summary from Wikipedia]
All this to say that the giving up of one’s life in the fight to overcome oppression has and can be seen as a way of fulfilling the command of Jesus, when he said, Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. [St John 15:13]
In my ministry in Canada I have spoken with veterans of the second world war and they remember fondly that time – the daily putting one’s life on the line – how there was a sharp clarity about what was most important, a purifying of their actions, and a comradery that they never experienced since. God grant that we, in our generation and in our time, may know when and how to step up against oppressions in our midst.
May we, blessed as we are with peace locally, seek purity of heart, the uncovering of the image and likeness of God in our souls, with the same wholehearted self-giving as they did.
The height of Christian perfection is not just about our souls refashioned into the image and likeness of God. St Paul speaks this morning about the perfecting also of our bodies – Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Our bodies bear in them many wounds from this world and all of us are in need of healing. When we sin against others, our bodies bear in them the marks, we are drawn by the same sin again. It is truly encoded in our brain's neural networks! Sometimes even when others sin against us in our bodies, our bodies can bear in them the marks of those wounds, and we can be led to sin.
But Jesus promises not only a spiritual healing, but also physical healing of the effects of sin. And in the resurrection life we can expect perfected heavenly bodies like Jesus’ glorious body, and that it will clothe our souls that are refashioned in God’s image and likeness. So that all the impulses of our souls and also of our bodies, the passions we looked at, will be in the service of love. We are to seek true glory, we are to sometimes go apart, we are supposed to get angry at injustice, we are to covet heavenly treasure, we are to physically desire what is good in a good and perfect way.
These are the promises of God. He is taking up everything, He is engaged in every way in the created order – our souls, our bodies, and in the wider societies that we live in. Love is breaking in, and we are citizens all of us, of that heavenly realm.
In hearing God’s word today and Sunday by Sunday, and letting it sink into our hearts, and in the Holy Communion of Christ’s Body and Blood, heaven and earth are joined in a mystical union, a union that is hidden but also being made manifest. God is bringing about, our heavenly citizenship. This is the height to which we are being brought.
Let us prepare ourselves now for the ongoing work of Jesus perfecting us body and soul, and then engage in the task beyond ourselves of being leaven in the lump, the light of the world, the salt of the earth!
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2