Saturday, October 18, 2008

Pentecost 23A - Give to Caesar

I’ve heard it said that anxiety, that free-floating sense of impending doom, a dread of something indefinable just waiting to happen that attaches itself to a new object of fear as soon as the last dreaded event doesn’t happen – that anxiety is the defining characteristic of the 21st century.  Globally, it’s what we do best.  And each tsunami of fear that attaches itself to a new object threatens to paralyse us.  Of course, way back when, it used to be the long impasse of the Cold War.  The threat of nuclear annihilation.  Then the threat of Islamic jihadists.  The threat of global warming.  The spectre of cities without adequate sources of water.  Oil’s running out.  Electricity prices up 40% next year, folks.  Global recession, the share market diving through the floor.  And each new object for our global panic attack is megalithic.  Each new threat is on a global scale, this one’s going to bring the whole house of cards crashing down, for sure.  I haven’t seen a similar survey done in Australia, but a study done in America earlier this year found 80% of adults were worried about how the global economy was going to affect their ability to provide for their family’s basic needs.  Sixty percent said they were feeling angry and irritable.  Over fifty percent said they were lying awake at night worrying.

I heard the other day an economist pointing out that the current financial and economic crisis – the slide into recession that there doesn’t seem to be any concrete reason for but we are powerless to prevent – that essentially what we are experiencing is a crisis of faith.  At its centre, he said, the global financial meltdown is happening because financial institutions no longer trust each other to extend credit.  This word, credit, comes from the Latin word, credere – it means to believe or to trust.  When you think about it, that’s the basis for a credit card or any other sort of credit transaction – a relationship of trust between the borrower and the lender.  It’s a transaction of faith – another Latin word that’s related to all this is credo – I believe – which of course is the first word of the Apostles’ Creed.  The scary thing is that the current worldwide financial meltdown is precipitated and fed by what we believe – about each other, about the future, about the world we live in.  So far, all the thousands of billions of dollars that the governments of the world have poured down the plughole haven’t changed that, in fact, the “spend your way out of trouble” approach doesn’t even start to address the crisis of faith that lies at the heart of our present troubles. 

A financial crisis that’s actually about trust.  A global epidemic of anxiety that’s actually, deep down, about what we believe in.  An environmental crisis that’s actually about learning to see creation not as a commodity but as an infinitely extended network of relationships.  Is there solid ground underneath our feet, or is it all a mirage?  Are these just matters for politicians and diplomats, for bankers and climate change scientists?  Are they just problems for the secular world to solve or do they represent an underlying crisis of faith that dares us, as Christians, to offer a word of hope?  Is it Caesar’s coin, or God’s?

Here’s the first thing, the word of hope that’s consistently spoken to people in the Bible whenever they find themselves thrown out of the orbit of national or personal security.  It’s the promise that human life, indeed the life of all creation, matters to God, the promise to God’s people in exile, travelling through the desert away from slavery and towards an uncertain future, that we hear in our reading from Exodus this morning: ‘My presence will be with you, and I will give you rest’.  Or as Jesus puts it, ‘Don’t be afraid.  Even common as muck, five-a-penny sparrows are known and loved by God who sees when they fall.  How much more does God love you’.  Have faith in God, have faith also in the future into which God is leading you.  It’s a reminder that we get our true security not from external things, not from relying on our own selves, but from giving ourselves in relationship with one another and with God. 

So the question is a trap.  Both Matthew and Mark point out the obvious, that it’s a loaded question, dreamed up late at night by an unholy alliance of Pharisees teamed up with the pro-Roman king Herod’s spin-doctors, designed to land Jesus in it whatever he answers.  Wouldn’t play too well with the crowds for Jesus to support the idea of paying taxes to the hated Roman occupation forces, also not too good for his health if he looked like he was advocating a tax-strike.  And so Jesus, being politically fairly astute himself, replies with a third alternative.  ‘Just give Caesar what belongs to Caesar’.  Hard to argue with, and fair enough, all the coins of the realm do have Caesar’s head stamped on them.  It’s fairly clear – Jesus isn’t advocating civil disobedience in this circumstance.  He’s prepared to pay his taxes, even to a regime that he, like most Jews, would have seen as illegitimate.

Yet it isn’t a blank cheque.  We know that, for Jesus, the time is going to come soon enough for tipping the money-changers’ tables over and chasing them out of the temple.  There’s an implied limit in this – just give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

‘And give to God what belongs to God’.  Here’s the sting in the tail of Jesus’ reply, a loaded answer for a loaded question.  This half of Jesus’ response is fairly dripping with ambiguity, in fact it gets quoted even today by people who don’t get the point just as much as by those who do.

Just give God the God-stuff.  You hear it all the time from politicians of every political hue who wish pesky church leaders would just stick to their prayers and stop meddling in public policy.  ‘I don’t argue theology with you’, they’ll say.  ‘So stop trying to lecture the rest of us about the morality of locking up asylum seekers, or about how public housing and unemployment are issues that God has got something to say about.  This is Caesar-stuff.  Butt out.’  Or words to that effect.

Rubbish.  The point, of course, and it’s a point that the Pharisees knew for themselves just as much as Jesus knew, even if Herod’s minders didn’t get it, is that it’s all God-stuff.  Which means, too, that this pointed little tale can’t be used either by preachers to suggest to their flock that they can buy all the swimming pools and take all the holidays to Bali that they want, just so long as they give God his share, the magic 10%.  Jesus knows it, the Pharisees know it, you simply can’t divide reality up into compartments, God’s interested in being prayed to and sung about and kowtowed to, and the rest of the time, well, just pay your taxes and you can get up to whatever else you want to.  It doesn’t work like that.  It’s all God-stuff.

Politics, the discourse of the obligations and responsibilities men and women owe one another, the duty of care we have for one another, our commitment to one another, to our environment and to the future we are building for our grandchildren.  This is a coin with God’s head on it, is it not?  Ultimately it is a conversation about faith, about believing and hoping in and through one another, a conversation about justice, about compassion and finding the meaning of our own lives in what holds us together.  The tax system, the sharemarket and the banks, not just long lines of improbably big numbers sliding down computer screens all of which, inexorably, add up to the fact that I’m worse off today than I was yesterday, but actually a credo of integrity, trust, and belief in the future.  It’s God’s coin, which doesn’t just mean that how Christians operate in these areas is part of how we live the gospel, the practical living out of what we sing and talk about, theoretically, on a Sunday morning.  It also means that, as Christians, we have to take our place in the marketplace of political and economic argument.  We have to offer God’s perspective because we’re stuck with a message of hope.

So, where is God in this?  I’m reminded of Jesus, fast asleep in the bottom of the fishing boat while frantic disciples battle the storm and bale for all they’re worth.  It’s hard for us, even as disciples, to really believe God’s love holds us secure when common sense tells us the boat is sinking.  And the story reminds us that God is in control even of the waves that threaten to overwhelm us.  The anxiety that rocks the boat of our new century is not let’s pretend.  It’s not fictional and it’s not all in our minds.  The monsters of our nightmares cause real human suffering, real suffering to God’s creation that St Paul tells us, groans as if in labour.  But Jesus offers the disciples in that boat – and us as well - a new perspective, a view of creation and of history as filled with God’s purposes, and of ourselves as infinitely precious in God’s eyes.  We’re stuck with a message of hope because the reality – as opposed to the free-floating anxiety of our fears – is that God is with us, and for us.  Sharemarket crashes, extreme weather events, terrorism and global warming are the signs of our times, no doubt about it.  But the God of creation is the God of all that.  The ultimate reality of our lives is not the terrors we invent for ourselves, but God’s love that, finally, has the power to draw all things together to their true end in new and restored relationship.