Sermon on Luke 20.27-40 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

Two weeks ago we did a participatory Bible study. You read the gospel, thought about it for a while, and shared your reflections and questions with those next to you and then with all of us.

This week I want to reverse that and go into greater detail about what I think is going on and throw it over to you to think about it. But also, I am going to go back a step to examine both the story in this morning’s gospel text, from St Luke Chapter 20: 27-40, and the one that came directly before in verses 20-26.

The passage just before today’s reading is, I think, much more familiar than the other; in fact, probably almost everyone knows it, and probably all think they know what it is about. The other, which I just read, is equally prone to misunderstanding.

I am going to begin with the really famous one, which comes first.

Jesus’ words ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’ are words which have sunk deeply into the English language. And they are generally taken to mean that there is a distinct political sphere in life and then there is a religious one.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, went very close to saying just this recently when he insisted his religious beliefs didn’t interfere with his political convictions.

There is always a danger in taking words out of context, so we do need to take a step back.

Both these passages report incidents where people are trying to catch Jesus out. They are not asking straight questions but, in one case, setting a political trap – and a very dangerous one.  And in the other, they are trying to make Jesus look foolish.

Back to the question about tax. St Luke is clear about what he thinks is going on. He later tells us that, at his trial Jesus, was still accused of forbidding the payment of tax to the Emperor – Caesar Tiberius. But here we witness Jesus being more nuanced, although we can easily imagine how hostile witnesses might be able to misrepresent him.

We only need to go back 25 years to 7 AD to see how controversial paying tribute to Rome was. It was another Galilean called Judas who led a revolt because of an Imperial tax levy. For the Jewish population, there was additional offence caused by what was written on Roman coinage: Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.

This was a political and religious hot potato. The denarius was a coin signifying being occupied by an imperial power, and making what for Jewish people was a blasphemous claim: that the debauched man ruling now not from Rome, but from the decadent island of Capri, was some sort of god!

So, Jesus’ refusal to answer their closed question trap – ‘Are we or are we not permitted to pay tax to Caesar?’ – was shrewd for a number of reasons: first, because by asking them to show him such a coin, he was demonstrating that they had already made their minds up that it was okay, so were not entirely neutral about the matter; and second, he sidestepped the treacherous political territory by treating the coinage as mere property and nothing more.

His twist, at the end, is to contrast the trivial matter of what is owed to Caesar – especially when it comes wrapped up in the form of an insincere and malicious question – with what is owed to God. Pay to God what belongs to God, is something else. Righteousness, truthfulness, integrity and what the divine is really all about – those are more important considerations.

And this priority is underlined in the very next incident – the one from the gospel for today. The Sadducees were the Jerusalem aristocracy, and we would today call them traditionalists. There is little trace of the idea of life after death in the Hebrew Scriptures. Incidentally, this is why the belief of Freud and others is so blatantly wrong. If religion is a comforting illusion to evade the reality of death, how come there is no afterlife in the oldest religious scriptures?

So, the questioners are again not totally sincere. They don’t believe the premise of their own question, as they don’t believe there is life after death; so who might marry who in such a state is not of real interest.

Again, Jesus avoids the yes or no response and reframes the conversation. He does say that after the resurrection there is no marriage; to imagine otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of life after death. But once again he raises the stakes.

Much more important than the mechanics of the afterlife is the nature of God. God who is the God of the living and the dead.; of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Here is Jesus’ focus.

This does reflect on what I said earlier about life after death. Historians of religions have argued that the idea that life continues but in a new form after death developed not because people were fearful of death but because they could not believe that their relationship with God and God’s concern for them ended at the graveside. Jesus had the knack of frequently answering questions by saying, in effect, ‘That question is not big enough or serious enough.’ Here is a much more important question. What do you owe to God? What difference does it make if a woman has been widowed and remarried several times if you believe that God has as much care for her – and for you – as he has had for all people long dead, and if you believe that love endures for ever?

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