Date for your diary – after Church on June 5th we will have a Congregational Meeting to consider our budget for 2016/7, elect Elders and Councillors, and deal with any other business required. Please try to be there!
Acts 18:1-4 | 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
I’m fairly sure that at no point in his later life, is Stan likely to get to get into an argument, and boast, as support for his position, that he was baptised by the Rev. Chris Goringe. If he ever does, I suspect he will get blank looks at best, and probably people gently edging away from him.
It’s just not an issue for us. Not a way of marking ourselves that even begins to make sense in our modern age. We wouldn’t even consider making an issue of who baptised us – indeed, I suspect most of us don’t even know.
We might identify ourselves, I suppose, with a denomination – I’ve certainly heard more than once the phrase “I’ll live and die a Presbyterian” (although I have to admit, I don’t really know what that means), and of course people will still identify as Catholic or Protestant – but it’s certainly not a label, a marker, that defines us; and for the most part, not one that shapes our position on matters of debate – at any rate, so much less than it once did.
For the ancient world, however, religious markers were central to identity – and a common way to define those markers was by the rabbi, the teacher, the guru, that you had come to follow. So as disputes and disagreements as to how best to follow the faith of Jesus Christ arose in Corinth (a cosmopolitan centre of the region), groups aligned themselves around a few big names: Paul, Apollos, Peter.
These were the groups; and who you were and which side you were on was marked by which group you aligned with.
We don’t use religious markers so much today, but we dp have, of course, plenty of other markers that we use to define ourselves. No longer “I follow Paul” or “I follow Cephas”, but you don’t have to spend long living in the Northern Suburbs to realise that the marker you bear by virtue of the school you attended is a powerful, significant, influential one.
And of course, when I say “living in the Northern Suburbs” I’ve just named another powerful marker that we look to when working out who someone is; where we live: the beaches, the northern suburbs, the west (not to be confused, of course, with the inner west), the shire – by the time we know someone’s address, we have – or at least think we have – a handle, a marker, a peg for them.
I recall that when I first visited Australia, as a backpacker in the late 1980’s, someone explained to me that this effect depended upon the city you were in – in Adelaide, they told me, what mattered was what Church you attended; in Melbourne, it was who you were related to; in Canberra the degree you had, and in Sydney, how much money you made.
And, of course, enfolding all of that is that marker we hold as Australian; with, of course, a sub-text that refines that status – recent arrival, or second or third generation (and if so, where from?)? first peoples? first fleet?
While the particulars are very different between ancient Corinth and modern Sydney, the desire, the instinct, to find your group, your tribe, and align with them, has never changed.
We all, still, want to know which gang is our gang.
Paul’s appeal to the Church in Corinth, echoing Jesus’ appeal to his friends in the garden of gethsemane in the hours before his death, is perhaps the most counter-cultural demand of the gospel. Be one. Be united. Be at peace with one another.
It’s the attitude modelled by Paul in his first visit to Corinth, as recorded in our reading from Acts: he stayed with a Jewish family, exiles from Rome by fleeing persecution by Claudius, but he worked, day by day and week by week to try to convince both Jew and Gentile (for Paul, the greatest divide of all) to join the way, the people of Jesus Christ.
But of course, Paul was just imitating the one who he sought to follow – for it was a striking characteristic of Jesus’ life that he paid little regard to religious, cultural, gender or ethnic barriers: dining with Jews and Gentiles, men and women, radical Pharisees and Roman collaborators.
Calling them, all the time, out of the boxes that we put ourselves and one another in; out of the labels and markers that divide ‘us’ from ‘them’; out of those divisions and into something new, something that he named as the Kingdom of God.
“In Christ,” Paul would write, “there is no male nor female, jew nor gentile, slave nor free”
All Paul’s time, all his energy, was dedicated to this goal, this mission; calling people out of the destructive, arbitrary divisiveness and competition that so commonly characterises human endeavour, and into a community of faith centred on the power of the cross and united into a common purpose: “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
No wonder he was so rapidly and deeply disappointed by these very human divisions and distinctions, parties and labels, springing up within the Church.
In the letter to the Corinthian Church Paul will go on to discuss and diagnose some of the debates that threaten to tear the early Church apart: but throughout the letter he offers only one remedy, one cure for the disease of division. “I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”. A message that is at the same time foolishness and the power to save.
I find it oddly reassuring that right from the beginning, the gospel was identified as foolishness by some – perhaps most – of those who heard it.
Because it’s not hard to see that “foolish” is a pretty common adjective applied to the Christian faith in the modern day – in fact, foolish is probably rather more generous than many of the epithets levelled at believers.
So it’s good to know that Paul, too, found his preaching of the gospel, his declaration of the good news of God in Jesus Christ, was greeted by many as foolish.
But before we find ourselves too reassured; before we congratulate ourselves too much with a little pat on the back for every time someone criticises us for our beliefs; let’s remember, just because you’re being criticised doesn’t mean you’re right. Sometimes, when people tell us that what we say about our faith is foolish, they’re right.
The foolishness of the cross, that Paul speaks of, is not just any old foolishness.
It is the foolishness of the cross – the foolishness that took Jesus to the cross. The foolishness that said “I will continue to walk this path, the way of God’s unconditional, reconciling love, even though it threatens the authority of those who hold power, even if it makes me a troublemaker, even if it labels me as a criminal. I will place love, justice, peace above the things the world holds dear.”
The message of the cross is the foolishness that says that love – giving, sacrificial love – can defeat the powers of the world, the might of the empire, the self serving selfishness of the powerful, the simple neglectful evil of ignorance. It is the foolishness that says that enmity can be overcome, enemies reconciled, wrongdoers restored and victims healed, that ‘us’ and ‘them’ can become ‘we’.
This is the power of God for our salvation: the foolishness that says that an executed Messiah can bring us peace with one another, with creation, and even with God.
This, to us who have chosen to join the revolution of belief, is the power of God.
Last week, as we read together the dispute that arose around whether it was right for the Jewish people of Jesus’ day to pay taxes to the Roman empire, I suggested that what Jesus did in his famous ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ was to push back against the tendency to jump too quickly to the details, to become obsessed with the minutia of the law, and to miss the bigger question of what the law was actually for. Jesus, I argued, took the question about tax and turned it back as a question about identity, about what belonged to God and what to human authorities; a question that was about the heart of faith, not its details.
And it seems as if at least one of the scribes listening heard Jesus’ words the same way; for he comes to Jesus with the question that is the most logical follow-up: if Jesus is encouraging people to move their thinking away from detail and towards the big things that truly matter, then what they need to know is what matters most.
So he asks Jesus “Which commandment is first of all”.
It’s a more subtle question than it first appears; because for many faithful Jews, especially amongst the Pharisees, there was an attitude to the law which said that to break any part of the law was to break the whole thing. The idea that one part of the law might be more important than another was, to them, a misunderstanding of the whole law. So the question invites Jesus to respond “no part is first; it all stands as a whole”.
But he doesn’t. What he does, in fact, is to pay the scribe who asked the question an almost unique complement: he answers the question. Directly as it was asked.
In the simple act of answering the question, Jesus makes the strongest declaration: “now that,” he says in effect, “that is a good question, a question worthy of an answer.”
And of course, the answer he gives is one that we are all very familiar with; one which has a better claim than any other declaration in the whole of the Bible as lying right at the heart of the Christian faith – for it is, after all, what Jesus declared most important! – love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. This is the core, the key; it is through this command that all of the others are to be interpreted, and any reading or understanding of the Bible or the Christian faith which leads you away from this love of God and of others is ultimately flawed. On the other hand, the scribe, who simply agrees with Jesus’ assessment that the love of God and neighbour is more important than all offerings and sacrifices; just for this declaration, Jesus pronounces that he is not far from the Kingdom of God.
And as it is in the light of this core truth of the gospel that we read the whole of the Bible, it is particularly the framework for reading what comes immediately afterwards. The contrast that Jesus draws between the scribes and the widow.
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets!”
But hang on, didn’t Jesus just praise a scribe, call him “close to the Kingdom of God”? But now it’s “beware of the scribes”? Oh the harm a misplaced comma can do. We always read this as “beware of the scribes, for this is what they are like”. But actually it makes just as much sense to read “beware of the scribes who are like this” – not all of them, but those who are. For of course there were scribes who were genuine in their faithful following of God, just as there were many Pharisees amongst the early followers of Jesus.
But those who like the long robes, like the respect, like the privilege and benefits that come with their position; those you need to beware; they are the ones who have totally lost the sense of what it means to be servants of God.
For they have that respect, that honour, because they have been called to, gifted with, an important role. They are the ones who keep the written law, who study it, copy it for future generations, apply the ancient writings to the present moment. This is an important role, a high calling, and so they are treated with respect.
But they have come to take this honour for granted, to take it as their due, to treat it as an end in itself.
And with it, they have accepted the privileges of the honour as their right. So far have they strayed from the living Torah, that the command, repeated throughout the scriptures to care for those in need, and quite explicitly, to protect the widow and the fatherless – those with no economic clout of their own – that Jesus can describe them as ‘devouring widow’s houses’: not just failing to live up to their calling, but using their calling to bring about the exact opposite.
Which of course sets up a beautiful segue for Mark into the story of the widow’s mite.
A story, of course, beloved of Church leaders who are trying to persuade their congregations of the merits of generous giving (to the Church). The widow, we hear, was praised by Jesus for her giving, because she gave everything; those who gave from their excess, their abundance, Jesus implies, are somehow less, almost cheapskates, compared to the widow who gives all she has to live on.
I wonder if you’ve spotted the irony. Of Church leaders using the story of the widow’s mite to encourage people to give beyond their means, when just moments before Jesus was condemning those who used their positions of religious influence to take from those who really needed to receive.
For there is a sense, surely, in which Jesus’ observation about the widow’s mite serves to illustrate the point he had just been making – that the system of offerings, and the religious structures of the day were abusing, taking advantage of, the poor, to fund the extravagance of the rich.
There is surely no doubt that Jesus valued the generosity of the widow and her willingness to give in the honour and service of God, just as he received all who brought honest and committed worship; but there is no call in this text for others to do the same, and still less is there a mandate for those who have positions of power to ask it of those who do not.
Instead, it seems to me, we find an implied critique of the religious system in which the natural, encouraged, way for a genuinely pious woman to show here devotion to God was a process which served to increase the inequality that the law of God was intended to address.
It was, if it were needed, simply a further illustration of how the faith of the day had strayed so far from the living Torah, the call to live as God’s people according to the way of God; how to live, as Jesus put it, in the Kingdom of God.
Which really brings us full circle, back to the one question we ought to be asking of every text, every story: what is it that really matters?
“the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Is that reflected in our worship? in our lives, together as a community and individually in our lives? is the Christian faith characterised by, illustrated with, devoted to, the love of God and neighbour?
To the extent that we can answer that question “yes”, or must answer it “no”, we can judge our true fidelity to the message, the gospel, of Jesus Christ.
Even for Jesus, who must surely have had a reputation for answering every question with a question, for avoiding the traps of those who plotted against him by turning their words back upon themselves, this was a memorable little exchange. Not least because this time, the stakes were so high.
It’s the final week, the week in Jerusalem. Jesus has entered the city in triumph, and has set the cat very firmly amongst the pigeons by clearing the temple, and by telling a series of parables directly targeting the religious authorities. In fact, he’s gone so far in his attacks on the priests and the Pharisees that even old enemies are now united against him.
He’s just accused them, in a parable that they understood all too well, of being direct enemies of God; of standing in the tradition of those who killed the prophets, and who were preparing to kill him, the son.
And they know just what he was saying, “they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd”
But they certainly weren’t going to let him get away with it.
So they sent some Pharisees to him, along with the Herodians. Do you have any idea how crazy that sentence is in the context of first century Jerusalem? In occupied Israel, the Pharisees, those who have fought and been willing to die to preserve their religious traditions in the face of Roman oppression getting together with those who collaborate with Rome. The Pharisees had died at the hands of the Romans, sometimes in their thousands, because they insisted on the rule of God over the rule of Rome; and here they are, bringing in as allies, the party of Herod, the puppet king, Roman in all but name.
And they bring to Jesus a question. A simple question, but one with no safe answer. For the Pharisees, it’s a simple enough set up. The tax levied by Caesar, by the Roman authorities, was detested. Not only was it inequitably levied, it represented everything the people of God hated about being an occupied nation. Their money, going to pay for the forces who oppressed them.
But it’s worse even than that. For in the economic system of the people of Israel, taxes were fundamentally religious in nature. They were paid to the Temple, to the priesthood, for the maintenance of worship, and for the care of the poor. Paying your tithes and offerings was part of your worship of God.
So to be commanded to pay taxes instead to a distant, heathen ruler, was not just an economic injustice, it was a religious affront; a declaration of the religious, and not just political, rule of Caesar.
For Jesus to affirm the payment of the tax would have been terrible for his popularity amongst the crowd. But for him to say that it should not be paid – well, that would be rebellion. And that, of course, is the reason that they invited the Herodians along to hear what Jesus would say. To make sure any hint of rebellion was heard by those closest to the throne.
This isn’t a question about tax.
This isn’t even a question about money.
It’s a much more basic, much more fundamental question: They’re asking Jesus which side he’s one.
Does he accept the rule of Rome, or does he stand for the rule of God.
Because to them – the Pharisees, and to the Herodians, though they might agree on nothing else, agree on this – to them, it’s that simple. You have to choose.
Which side are you on?
Now one way of reading Jesus’ response is that he cleverly manages to choose both sides. That he declares a divided loyalty: granting to the rulers of the age power and authority over matters of finance and politics and the rule of law, and reserves for God just matters of spirituality and personal faith.
And so often that’s how we read this story: Caesar has his place, his role, as the political and military power of the day, and that is to be respected and obeyed. But praise and worship are reserved for God. Obey Caesar’s law, but worship God alone.
As if Jesus has suddenly abdicated any interest in the political and economic realm.
Despite all he has had to say about justice, despite all his talk of the Kingdom of God, despite everything the prophets have said about the way we treat the poor, the way we order our society: Jesus has suddenly decided that that is the realm of Caesar, not of God.
To see Jesus as advocating a division between the spiritual and the secular is to miss almost everything important about his life. It’s to miss the whole point of the incarnation: that the word, the spiritual, became flesh, entered the secular, not to divide the two, but to unite them.
The genius of Jesus’ answer is not that he advocates a division of authority, and cleverly avoids getting in trouble with either side. No, the genius of Jesus’ answer is that he doesn’t answer. That he instead throws the question back in the faces of those who asked it.
If Jesus had wanted to answer the question, he would not have been afraid of causing trouble by doing so. There was no need for him to spin clever words to avoid getting into trouble – he was already walking into trouble with his arms wide open.
Instead he draws their attention to the reality of the question they are asking him: whose coin is this? And then he hands the question back to them. What is God’s is God’s. What is Caesar’s is Caesar’s. You work it out.
How did they hear his words? They were amazed at him, but what answer did they take away?
For the Herodians, there is no word here of rebellion; he has identified the coin as Caesar’s and commanded: “pay the tax to Caesar, for that is his due”. A simple accommodation of the political reality of the day.
But the words can certainly be heard a different way. The coin bears Caesar’s image, Caesar’s inscription; the coin was, in and of itself, an act of idolatry. This coin could not have been used as an offering at the Temple – that’s why the money changers were there – it was inherently unclean. Drawing their attention to it was a challenge: why would you value this thing? Why would you strive to keep it? It represents the authority of Rome, so let Rome have it! Have nothing to do with it.
Or is there a play on words here – this coin may be in Caesar’s image, but you, you are made in the image of God. This coin may be Caesar’s, but you are God’s.
Jesus’ response to their question, as is so often the case, is not to answer it, but to send it back with a twist. Not the politician’s twist of answering a totally different question to the one asked, but the twist of the great teacher, who takes your question and draws your attention to the assumptions behind it, shows you the question you haven’t yet thought of asking, the question that you really need to ask.
It’s not that the question of paying tax isn’t an important one; it is that it is, quite literally, a detail. It’s not the place to start. It’s not the point.
Instead, he takes them back to the real question: “what belongs to the political power of the day, and what doesn’t?”. Answer that, you will find the question of taxes easy. Don’t start at the end.
When you read the Old Testament law, as given in the story to Moses at Mount Sinai, there’s a sort of spreading-out pattern: it starts from “you will be my people and I will be your God”, and then goes to “love the Lord your God and your neighbour” and then to the Ten Commandments, and then to the nine hundred and however many rules of the Law. The basic truth of our call to belong to God, turns into ten broad principles turns into hundreds of detailed rules for every situation.
And what Jesus seems to do here, and so often when challenged about the obedience to the law, it to pushing back against that codification of what the Jewish tradition called the Living Torah – the living, dynamic, right way to live that is before and beyond any written law.
Not because trying to work out the detailed implications of living as God’s people is wrong; for we have to do so, to live. But because when the written detail obscures the living relationship it exists to serve, it has outlived its value, overplayed its hand.
The great 4th century theologian Augustine suggested that there was one supreme rule that we ought to allow to guide us in the readings of the scriptures:
Anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.
And so much of Jesus’ teaching reflects this same sentiment – to draw our eyes back to the questions that matter.
It’s what he does when asked the most important commandment, or when asked “who is my neighbour?”. It’s what he does when confronted with the woman caught in adultery, or when asked to heal on the Sabbath. He pushes back against the detailed rules, the specific operation of the ordinance, and asks us instead to see what the rules were for. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. You who is without sin, cast the first stone. Love the Lord your God and your neighbour as yourself. Give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s.
The paying of tax to Caesar is not the real question. The real question is one of allegiance.
Some may show their allegiance to God by a refusal to pay.
Others may show their allegiance to God by treating Caesar’s coin as of no importance.
They may share an answer to the question that truly matters, but differ in the details by which they express that answer.
And that’s ok. Worry less about the details, and our disputes over them, and more about what lies at the heart of faith.
Love of God. Love of one another. If that isn’t where you end up, you’ve taken a wrong turn.