Matthew 22:15-22 Isaiah 45:1-7
19th Sunday after Trinity
Wherever and whenever there are people on this earth there will be politics. And wherever and whenever there are politics, there will be problems. There are political tensions on this side of the world at present over the battle against the Coronavirus; and there are political tensions on another continent over who is to win the presidential election, to name but a few. And it’s none of it very subtle. Heavy debates and trick questions galore! You could almost say that wherever you go, the air is filled with political tension; it’s all around us. Now that is nothing new: So let’s have a look first at Isaiah 45, verses 1 to 7.
At the time of the prophet Isaiah, the people of Israel were in a bit of a pickle. Several times already they had wandered off and chosen to follow idols, denying that God was the only god, even though he was the one who had saved them from their life of slavery in Egypt. People’s memory seemed to get shorter by the minute; as soon as life threw some kind of challenge at them, they ran away, thinking the grass was greener on the other side of the fence. Not exactly the kind of nation that God had intended them to be! And so, God intervenes. Not only does he send a prophet to let the people know what is going to happen, but he also makes use of the political situation of the time. Cyrus the Second (558-530 BC), founder of the Persian Empire, is designated by the Lord as his ‘anointed’ or messiah and commissioned to conquer Babylon and other nations, and to do all this on behalf of the people of Israel. Isaiah 45 is the only biblical passage in which ‘messiah’, i.e., anointed ruler, refers to a non-Israelite. Cyrus is here appointed as the Lord’s shepherd, and becomes God’s instrument, to make it very clear that it’s the Lord alone who dictates the course of history. As an aside: Cyrus later attributes his success to a Babylonian god, but his victorious achievements will include the release of exiled Israelites and the restoration of Jerusalem, so we can see how God’s intervention works.
Fast forward more than 550 years, and we find Jesus, the ultimate Messiah – with a capital ‘M’ – in the first of a series of debates with the local leaders. The enmity between Jesus and his followers and local leaders is now no longer hidden but rather quite overt. The Herodians, who team up with the Pharisees here, were the political supporters of the Herods; and because the Herods were from a non-Jewish area, many Jews did not regard their clan as legitimate rulers of Israel. Again: politics. So, this bunch of Herodians and Pharisees’ students come up with a plan to entrap Jesus. They are prodding him with a question that they hope will get him confused and muddled up, and, ultimately, make him incriminate himself. The question of tax is always a good one to divide people. In this case, to approve of the tax, which was being levied by a hated oppressor, would be offensive to Jewish nationalists. But to disapprove would be treasonous. Either way, Jesus is going to trip up, or so they think. Trick questions that put people on the spot have been around as long as there have been public and political issues. And the double edge of this one is immediately clear. Jesus’ reply is one that turns the tables. It shows that the leaders are carrying the hated coinage with the face and the inscription of the emperor themselves. What’s more, though, is that they have been found wanting in giving to God what belongs to God. Jesus countered the challenge of the Pharisees to him with a challenge in return: Were they, rather than Jesus, compromised? Had they really given full allegiance to God? Had they not rather been playing games, trying to keep Caesar happy while talking about God?
If politics make one thing clear it’s that you can’t be in two camps at the same time. Either the one or the other will find you out and throw you out. Sitting on the fence, we may call it, but that always turns out as a bit uncomfortable, apart from the risk of falling off, on the side where you really don’t want to be.
Jesus was going to fulfil God’s plan of salvation regardless of personal or political danger. He was continuing to walk straight ahead; and the kingdom of God would defeat the kingdom of Caesar, by the victory of God’s love and power even over the empire of death itself. In the light of our present day situation, personal, political, and even global, the question to us still is how we give to God what is God’s, so that we are truly safe and his mission is carried out in the world. May our prayer be that we don’t trip up. Amen.