Sermon 19 October 2008

They must really have thought that they had got him at last. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere” they said. (I bet he knew they were up to something by their tone of voice). “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?”. Some people are just too clever for their own good.

But Jesus, aware of their malice asks for the coin and looks at it.

His answer “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” is one of the cleverest things he is recorded as saying. But what does it really mean?

I can think of a number of things that people have said he meant, but what did he mean?

I wonder what you expect a preacher to preach about using this text this morning.
Perhaps you are expecting me to preach about the credit crunch. Gloomy news is a gift for gloomy preachers after all.
I’m not going to say too much about it, except to say that I find the nationalisation of much of the banking system something of a surprise. Many of us have a whole new relationship with the state now that the taxes we pay to the government come from bank accounts controlled by the government. It is a more profound change than we yet realise, I suspect.

Are you surprised to hear me say that from the pulpit? Perhaps Jesus’s comment about rendering to Ceaser is about the separation of religion and politics and you find the mingling of the two makes your uncomfortable.

More commonly, I have heard people preach on this text as though what Jesus had in the back of his mind was a Church stewardship campaign – holy fundraising. Nothing wrong in that, of course. We don’t talk about money enough in churches and we speak even less of cheerful giving. All too often we think we are buying a service when we give to a local congregation rather than thinking that we are taking part in an act of thanksgiving.

I’ve heard people preach on this text and bring up that kind of thing. Is that what Jesus was talking about? It seems unlikely, though no doubt the temple in Jerusalem needed its roof paid for by someone.
I think that this is a rather more penetrating thought that the young Rabbi is teaching us this morning. I’ve a feeling that this is more about what kind of society we live in and the relationship between what we call the religious and what we call the secular.

And this is as pertinent today as ever it was then.

We are being told to believe that there is a clash of cultures between secular society and religion. You would think that these two realms existed on different planets sometimes. Frightening language is used. In church circles I often hear people expressing alarm at growing secularism. In political circles I hear alarm sometimes at growing fundamentalism (which is assumed to be the only real form of religion there is).
I don’t fear secularism. I think a secular state is likely to be a good deal more humane than a great many religious states have been. Looking at Scotland, I don’t want to go back to living in a theocracy – or a Calvinocracy where people who claimed to be God’s servants ruled the nation and decided what we could do. (It was no fun for Episcopalians, that is for sure).
A secular state is not a bad place for moderate Christians to practise their mission. It is likely to be particularly fruitful for those who preach God’s Welcoming Reign rather than God’s Imperial Kingdom as part of the gospel.

And what of fundamentalism? Well, I know it is rising again. People want the easy answers and petty certainties of a magic textbook for living. And the temptation is to reduce the great scriptures of the world of the world to harsh hearted morality stories or wee books of spells. (The Bible, the Koran, the Vedic Scriptures are all treated like this by someone or other).
It won’t do though.

When Jesus took hold of the coin and spun it in the air, he was looking into the eyes of the Pharisees and the Herodians. He was looking fundamentalism in the face.
But more to the point, fundamentalism was looking him in the eye too. And it was they who went away disappointed.

We read this morning in the book of Exodus, of Moses hiding himself as the Lord passed by. He was unworthy to look on the glory of the Lord. No doubt we have much to learn about reverence and a great deal to learn about worship and holiness from Moses the father of faith.

But I’m glad we moved on. I’m glad that Jesus moved us on. I’m glad that God moved us on. Moved us on by becoming the God with the human face. Jesus who walked in the highways and byways and taught good news with a spinning coin in his hand and a twinkle in his eye – he is God.

Not a God you have to hide from. Not a God you have to put yourself in a cave to avoid. Not a God whom you cannot face. A God who is like you, with you, looking at you.
It was that kind of a God who asked for a coin and looked the fundamentalists in the face and came up with his answer – Give to God what is God’s and Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s.

You may want to try to keep the sacred and the secular apart. You may want to try to construct different parts of life that God is excluded from. You may think that faith and politics, to pluck an example from nowhere, have nothing to do with one another.

But I can see a coin spinning in the air. And I can see the flash of light coming from it which Jesus used to illuminate the world in one clever phrase which has never been forgotten.

And my hunch is that the sacred and the secular are not different realms to be kept apart at all cost. To keep them apart at all cost is to let the fundamentalist Pharisees have their own way.

What Jesus has taught me by tossing that denarius in the air is that the sacred and the secular are simply different ways of looking at the same world. God’s lovely world.

Indeed, the sacred and the secular are just different sides of the same coin.


  1. Shame your manipulation of a coin during the gospel was not captured for the video.

  2. Harry Monroe says

    O dear, what would have happened if it had landed on its edge, and would that have affected the content of the sermon?

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