Render to God

Render to God

Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the Year. Fr Bruno Clifton offers a radical reading of Christ’s saying on taxes to Caesar.

Assyria and Babylon, the two monsters of Israel’s nightmares; the two-headed beast of their defeat and failure; the end of God’s promise that the line of David would last forever: Assyria and Babylon have fallen. The Persian king, Cyrus the Great, has conquered. The entire Middle East is under the sway of this man.

Before Xerxes approaches Sparta, before Alexander the Great rides to the Black Sea, the world is that of Cyrus. Even God calls him his ‘anointed’, his Messiah. For this is the word by the God’s prophet, Isaiah: ‘he has taken by his right hand to subdue nations before him and strip the loins of kings, to force gateways before him and their gates be closed no more’ (Isaiah 45.1). And the gates are not closed. They can be run through.

So, the history of the Middle East, as indeed with every human civilisation, is that of conquest: from Assyria and Babylon to Persia, Macedonia, Rome, Byzantium to the dar al Islam and the Turkey of today. Empires that rise and fall, empower and subdue… and tax. The empire in charge of Jerusalem and the Jews of the first century, Rome, levied a tax that went overseas. The conquerors get paid for their oppression. In a nation that has lost its land, this is the last insult, but in Roman Palestine they must reckon with the Jewish religion. The battle against Roman oppression is ideological.

Regardless of the complicit paying of tax, in the Jewish religious sphere of the law of tradition that governs life, there is no demand to be met. It is simply another part of the injustice the Jews suffer as long as they are without their land, and so, impermissible. In this encounter, against Jesus are not just the Pharisees who present the ideological objection, which, as we know is a volatile foundation for opposition. But also against him in this trap are the Herodians, who support the Romans and so receive riches, power and favours. Any answer Jesus gives will be dangerous: supporter of fundamentalists or betrayer of the Jewish law? It’s a question of genius and the Pharisees know it. The triumph is already palpable. Their repetition of Jesus’s ‘honesty’ is like Mark Anthony’s eulogy of Caesar in Shakespeare’s play. ‘Their speech is softer than butter… their tongue a naked sword’ (Psalm 55.22).

But this is the real question that is thrown back. What belongs to Caesar? What belonged to Cyrus 500 years ago that was then Alexander’s, then Caesar’s? What does Cyrus ‘the anointed’ have now? Nothing belongs to Caesar… anymore than anything belongs to those who barter with the very coins under dispute. This encounter is another example of how the point of God’s revelation and love has been missed by us, the people he has chosen. To be God’s people, to become a child of God is to be called towards the promised land of sharing God’s life, not struggles of territory and taxes. ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’ (John 4.21, 24).

Because everything belongs to God. Which leaves us with a greater problem than that posed by the Pharisees. ‘Who knows the mind of the Lord? Whoever gave him anything that he had to pay it back?’ (Rom. 11.34-35). Giving what is God’s back to God…? That can only be our entire self, to be remade and reformed to be perfect in the love of our Father. Can we give ourselves, all that is ours without holding back anything? No, not without the love of God, but then, we could never do anything without him, could we? For, even Cyrus the Great needed God. ‘Though you do not know me, I arm you that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that, apart from me, all is nothing. I am the Lord, and there is no other’ (Isaiah 45.5b-7).

Readings: Isaiah 45:1,4-6 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5 | Matthew 22:15-21

fr Bruno is Vice-Regent of Blackfriars Hall and Studium, Oxford, where he teaches Biblical Studies.