Asking the right question?
Preacher: Revd Matthew Rushton, Canon Precentor, Rochester Cathedral
Readings: Isaiah 45:1-7; Matthew 22:15-22
In these uncertain and confusing times, those in authority are under particular scrutiny, as they make decisions that affect the lives and livelihoods of so many. Prime Ministers, First Ministers, Medical and Scientific Officers and all who exercise leadership have found themselves subjected to a barrage of questions about their approach to the current crisis – and quite right too.
Those of a certain age will remember a political comedy show called ‘Yes, Prime Minister’. In one episode, the Prime Minister, Jim Hacker, gives his advice on how to avoid awkward questions.
“If you have nothing to say, say nothing.
If you have something to say, say it, no matter what they ask.
Better still, pay no attention to the question, just make your own statement.
Then if they ask the question again, what you say is ‘that’s not the question’, or ‘I think the real question is’
and then you make another statement of your own.”
I think we may have seen these techniques on display in some of the press briefings over the past few months.
In our gospel reading today, Jesus is challenged by a very difficult question indeed, one intended to land him in deep trouble. The reply that Jesus gives could be regarded as mere deflection – he almost seems to be answering an entirely different question like ‘to whom should taxes be paid?’ But actually, this is a most brilliant display of political rhetoric, so its worth thinking about what he is actually saying. But it is also a fundamental statement about who Jesus is, what he has come to do, and how those who follow him are to live.
There‘s history behind this question about paying taxes. A few years previously there had been a revolt against the Roman occupiers, that was triggered by the payment of taxes. The penalty for the rebels was death, and Jesus, of course, already knows where his earthly ministry will lead – he knows he will pay the price for challenging the temporal authorities with spiritual authority – he has, in a sense, already won that argument. He’s not some political revolutionary. He’s not going to put himself prematurely in a difficult position by inciting dissent against the Romans, nor put himself in trouble with the Religious authorities for acknowledging political power above God. But he’s also no coward.
He signals quite clearly what he is going to do – he’s going to expose the Pharisees and Herodians as hypocrites. He asks for the coin used to pay the tax, and they, falling straight into the trap, hand over a denarius – the fact that they even have such a coin in their possession shows that they themselves are already paying the tax. They’re not asking him a genuine question as a respected rabbi to inform their thinking, they have clearly already made up their mind, they have chosen to pay the tax – so its exposed as a manipulative, non-question.
But Jesus isn’t done with them yet.
The coin had an image of the emperor on it, and round the edge there would probably have been some writing, identifying the emperor as ‘Son of God, high priest’ and similar claims to divinity. Both the image and the writing would have been abhorrent to observant Jews. And you can hear the contempt in Jesus’s voice when he says ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ An innocent comment on the surface, but he is saying so much more, saying exactly what he thinks of the emperor.
At this point I like to image Jesus flicking the coin back at the Pharisees and them scrabbling to catch the hated currency – Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
Is he saying ‘pay your taxes if you want, but don’t confuse that with acknowledging an authority other than God.’ Well, yes, perhaps. But is he also hinting at paying the emperor back in his own coin? It’s ambiguous enough to have meant a whole variety of different things to those listening, from the innocent to the rebellious.
‘They were amazed’ we are told. I bet they were! Dumbstruck, terrified, and ready to get away from him as quickly as possible! No wonder they ‘left him and went away’ – lovely understatement there! The Pharisees and Herodians had tried to put him on the spot and get him in trouble with either the Romans or the Jewish authorities. They only managed to get themselves caught between their fellow Jews by collaboration with the Romans, and the Romans by initiating a potentially seditious conversation.
However, Jesus isn’t just a wise teacher and able preacher, and this rhetorical victory is only a temporary stay of execution. The same basic accusations and tactics will be employed when the mob accuse Jesus of breaking Religious laws and, failing that, putting himself against the emperor. That leads to him being condemned and crucified, but ultimately to the victory of the resurrection.
Jesus, in this exchange, has done far more than answer the question. He has tackled all the other, unspoken and far more incendiary questions the Pharisees would have been afraid to voice in public. Who on earth does this emperor think he is, making himself into a god. Fine, he may be the temporary and temporal authority, but so what? Salvation is not mediated through political authority.
The Pharisees asked the wrong question because they didn’t understand. Jesus answers the right question to set out something far more important than dealing with this jumped up emperor who thinks he’s a god. Jesus understands, as we now know, that the emperor was not a god; his empire, seemingly invincible as it was, eventually fell.
All megalomaniacs fall, however powerful and unassailable they may seem – they have their day, and then they are gone.
That does not mean that we disengage from the world, that we don’t stand against injustice and oppression – we are absolutely called to do just that. But we always hold in tension the realities and imperfection of this world, with the hope of life in all its fullness both here and in the world to come. This is a tension we have been living day by day during the course of this terrible pandemic.
In the six months when we were without any choral music at all in Rochester, I came to realise just how fundamental a part of my own worshipping life it is, perhaps in a way I had never realised before. I know that many people feel that about not being able to sing together in congregational hymns as well. There are many in churches of all denominations and styles who have been quite taken aback at how much their discipleship has been affected when they cannot sing to the Lord a new, or indeed any, song. Music asks different questions, inspires new perspectives – I often find that a familiar passage of scripture or spiritual writing challenges me in entirely unexpected ways when sung, whether in complex polyphony or simply by a solo voice.
I know how much you will have been disappointed at having to change your plans for the St Andrew’s Voices Festival and I am sure that what you have been able to organbise has brought joy and hope. I have to say that I worry for my colleagues in the world of music, whether professional or amateur, sacred or secular. I feel there has been a lack of appreciation as to how important the arts are to the wellbeing of humanity, that in trying to answer difficult economic questions, and manage the devastating ongoing effects of the pandemic, important questions of what kind of society we are actually seeking to preserve and defend have been ignored. Musicians are facing a not only a difficult future, but a threat to the very existence of their profession.
Music can be a place of dialogue, where that tension between the realities we face today and the hope of what we strive to become, can be explored.
The church, in all its diversity, must always be seeking to engage in that dialogue, and working in that unity which is God’s will. In the sacred music of the church, we are reaching for the songs of angels, the heavenly chorus whose music we can barely imagine but strive to hear nonetheless. And then we may be brought closer to answering the questions that we should be answering, and serving the world Christ came to save.