October 22, 2023

God or Caesar?

God or Caesar?

Sermon Trinity 20, 22 October

Readings: Is. 45. 1-7; 1 Thess. 1. 1-10; Mt. 22. 15-22

Theme: God or Caesar?


The relationship between religion and politics is one which has shaped societies since the advent of civilisation. The first reading from Isaiah today speaks of the Persian king Cyrus as ‘the anointed of the Lord’ who will liberate Israel from its Babylonian captivity and allow the people to return home to Jerusalem. This is in many ways surprising because Cyrus is not one of the people of Israel as a Persian ruler, but God nevertheless uses this foreign king as an agent, indeed as his ‘shepherd’ (Is. 44. 28),  to bring about the restoration of the city of Jerusalem and the return of the exiles to their land.

A classic statement about religion and politics is given in our Gospel from Matthew, where the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians are sent to Jesus to ask him about whether it is right to pay tax to Caesar or not. Jesus replies with the answer that one should give to God what belongs to God and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. How are we to understand this relationship between religion and politics as Christians?

In Christian history the theme of religion and politics has manifested itself in many forms. For the early Church, as a disempowered minority in the Roman Empire, it sometimes meant a struggle for survival amongst a series of local persecutions. Having allegiance to anyone other than Caesar could be a threat to the imperial establishment and at times led to persecutions. Under the Emperor Diocletian (284-305), for example, there was a general persecution of Christians throughout various parts of the Roman Empire from the late-third Century.

At other times, the relationship between religion and politics, for Christians, has assumed a very different form. From the acceptance of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine (306-377), Christianity gradually took its place in the imperial political structures of the empire, and Christianity and politics would become intimate bedfellows. This close relationship between religion and politics reaches its high-water mark during the Christian Middle Ages, when to all intents and purposes, Christianity and politics fuse into one reality—we use the shorthand term of ‘Christendom’ to denote this. During this period of Christendom, we see the rise of the Christian King as one of the two great offices of the Church in the West, with the Pope being the other. This ruling of things temporal and spiritual by Emperor and Pope would eventually break apart during the period of early modern secularisation when the Emperor takes on specifically political functions and the Pope specifically religious functions.

This separation of powers, in the West at least, lasts until the French Revolution, when the attempt to place religion into the private sphere, out of any public role in society, takes on its characteristically modern form. Such a European story assumes different characteristics in various parts of the world following several waves of colonisation and secularisation, and today, we find ourselves in a world in which religion and politics are once again struggling to find a way of relating to one another which serves the peace, stability and common good of peoples.

Here in Europe, the rise of militant forms of Islam has dominated our media and created an image of religion, tout court, as backward, anti-modern and undermining of the stability of civil society. Christianity, in this context, is struggling to find its place in a situation in which the secular liberal agenda paints a picture of it as a reactionary force that seeks to play by its own rules and to profit from its cultural and social heritage. In the light of these contemporary challenges, how are we to understand Jesus’s injunction to ‘render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s?’

The first thing we can say is that in the light of our reading from Isaiah, it is evident that God uses political powers outside of the specifically religious sphere to achieve God’s purposes. King Cyrus of Persia is a classic example of this. He will open the way for the return of the Jews to Jerusalem following the period of their Babylonian captivity. It will be Cyrus who will help to establish righteousness in the world and Isaiah even speaks of him in messianic terms. So, God uses earthly powers for heavenly purposes. This is the first lesson that we can learn from our readings today—Caesar has a place in the realisation of God’s plan.

Jesus’s enigmatic reply to the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians indicates that the political and the religious domains are always to be held in tension with one another. Various attempts to fuse one with the other, whether this be secular attempts to force a utopian vision of society on people, as in Marxist-Leninist societies of the former Soviet Union, or religious attempts to create ‘heaven on earth’, as in various sectarian movements which retreat from society and create their own vision of the ‘pure community’, inevitably end up in persecution and infringement of the liberty and dignity of individuals.

The general framework for thinking about this relationship between religion and politics for us Christians is that of the Kingdom of God, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. In other words, the Kingdom, which the last few weeks of our readings have been reflecting upon, is a reality which is both present to history and transcends it. It is both here and now and still yet to come. This ‘both/and’ status of the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus is one which gives us the key lesson from our readings for today. For us Christians, we are to work for the realisation of the Kingdom of God on earth, but we should never think that we shall complete this. Our work for the Kingdom only ever produces a partial realisation of it. It will only be at the end of time that this will be complete. When the Lord returns, he will inaugurate the final and complete realisation of this kingdom, here ‘on earth as in heaven’.

So, perhaps our final take-home lesson from today is that of patience. All our efforts to bring about the Kingdom require us to realise that we are only servants of the Lord, servants of the King of history. It will be for the Lord Jesus to consummate this at a time that has been chosen by the Father. In the meantime, we should work eagerly and diligently to do what we can to ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s’.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.