Human Power and Divine Power

22 Oct, 2023

By the Rev’d Lucy Nguyen

Season: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Readings: Exodus 33:12-23 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 | Matthew 22:15-22.

“…when they heard this they were amazed; and they left him and went away” (MT22:22).

How often have you wished you could say something to silence the doubters or at least put an end to the questioning, whether from children, “Why can’t we stay up and watch the movie?” or from the masses “When will you sort the problems before us?”

What amazed the people was not Jesus’s response – it was the fact that the debate stopped. Normally in this context, set out by Matthew, an exchange between potential debaters would have seen back-and-forth responses go on for a while. Instead, Jesus’ testers recognized they had lost this skirmish and simply walked away – and the people were amazed it was all said and done so quickly. (1)

The Pharisees and the Herodians walked away, but we’re not! The question posed by the Pharisees in front of the crowds was short and to the point: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” The tax is the census tax, a per person tax of a denarius (22:19). The conundrum for Jesus is this: If he answers yes, then he could be perceived as in collusion with Rome, justifying Roman occupation and oppression of the Jews. This would not be a popular answer among the Jewish people. On the other hand, if Jesus answered no, he could be suspected of revolutionary sentiment against Rome.

What was his response: Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s.

Jesus’ juxtaposition of our responsibilities to God and Caesar centers us on the nature of power. Caesar’s power is coercive and temporal. It can dominate our lives, but it is only temporary. (2) This parable has been used by various parties, people, and institutions to justify their finances, yet the ultimate explanation is far less about taxes and more about how we relate to the government vs. how we relate to God.

Who or what claims our time, our commitment, our lives? God does not necessarily support Caesar or any other political leader or system. All human systems are equally finite, even the best of them. (2) Our ultimate loyalty to God should enable us to say “yes” or “no” to the requirements of any government, including church structures. (2) And while that’s a lovely thought sitting here in church or even your homegroups, it can get tricky as we attempt to engage with some of the challenging issues of our time. Have you ever felt the question of where we place God in our lives and priorities seems either not clearly relevant to the issue at hand or even self-serving in the complex, multifaceted world in which you live?

TAKE A MOMENT to consider this: Your ultimate loyalty to God should enable you to decide how to respond to the requirements of any governing structures. Turn to your neighbour, if you wish, for a minute to discuss/reflect on how that plays out in your life.

How do we achieve more than lip service, ‘Oh yes, another great parable, Jesus, you certainly showed those Pharisees,” if we take this parable to heart in the 21st century? Where we place God in our lives, in the multitude of daily and occasional choices, may well be one of the most important questions for us to engage. The ability to discern what is God’s and what is Caesar’s and to ensure that the two don’t get mixed up or intertwined is crucial.

John van de Lar writes that even in the good works we do – “we must be careful never to lose our identity as people of God as we work for justice, peace and the well-being of the most vulnerable. We must never allow ourselves to become nothing more than just another welfare organisation.“ (4) As people of God, “we must seek to avoid the temptation to cynicism, expediency and cold pragmatism that comes from losing sight of God’s glory in both those we seek to serve and those we may be called to confront. “ (4)

Remember our first reading and dear Moses? Moses asks for God’s presence to go with God’s people and for himself to see
God’s glory. Seeing the glory of God in people, in creation is critical. When we live without seeing or believing in the Glory of God, it all begins to pale and become impossible, we become a people who walk in darkness. The light we find in Jesus is the glory of God active in the world and it is this light which allows us to keep going when life is tough, when we realise, we don’t have all the answers when we feel overwhelmed.

God’s “GLORY” is not triumphal marching and flag waving (glory, glory alleluia!) conquering people and grabbing their treasures. It is the transcendent feeling, inspiration, awe we experience when we draw close to the divine. When Moses asked God to show him God’s glory God defined God’s glory as a manifestation of God’s goodness, the proclamation of God’s name, and the expression of God’s grace and compassion.

But Glory comes with a warning, it wasn’t a straightforward process for Moses to see and understand God’s glory – it was, as Bruce Epperly puts it, a bit like gazing at a solar eclipse. We are creatures of God; we are not God. We can only see God in part, and because of that we do well to be cautious with regards to both universalising our experience of God and to limiting God’s revelation to what we experience. “God is always more than any person or institution can contain. We receive enough but never exhaust the divine nature in our moments of insight and revelation.” (2)

Not losing sight of God’s glory does not mean we flag wave and march over people. Rather when we remember that we are those who live and act out of relationship with God (out of having seen God’s glory). We can engage in the world’s challenges with hope, energy and creativity, trusting in God’s Spirit to empower and guide us. (4)

In this remembering we can align with other organisations, communities and people that hold to the same values of justice and peace, even though they may differ from us theologically or religiously. (4) As we read in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, the writer emphasizes the power of the word and Spirit to transform our lives. And we still believe today – that Divine power is concrete, relational, and personal. It seeks good and not evil.

We are never the same when we encounter the living word of God. The power of the cross and resurrection opens our spirits to God’s vision and gives us new powers for good. (2) Van de Laar says it clearly – we can render to God what is God’s – our lives, our devotion, and our commitment to reflect the character and purpose of Christ – and we can render to Caesar what is Caesar’s – our commitment to live as good citizens, to pay our “dues” whatever they may be, in service of the country where we live, and our voice to challenge what is unjust and to support and strengthen what is good, and just and peaceful. (4)

And as we live in ways which allow God’s glory, grace and compassion to be revealed to others through us. We will also learn to recognise God’s glory in those with whom we live, worship and even disagree. (4) Let us be amazed and not walk away – let us live in God’s glory.

Thanks be to God, Amen.


(2) Bruce Epperly
(4) John van de Laar; Lectionary Resources: Proper 24A from Sacredise

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