Sunday 22nd October 2023 ~ Rev Hugh Perry

‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21) 

That is a very wise statement about taxation and the human response to the divine.  However, we live in a secular democracy without an emperor in which people give little thought about what they might owe to God and still don’t like to pay tax.  In fact, the very wealthy seem less inclined to pay tax than the average wage earners.  Furthermore, on one of the incentives to give money to the church is that it is tax deductible.

So perhaps it’s worth also reflecting on a couple of more recent statements.   

The first is the classic statement from Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. who lived in the United States from March 8, 1841 to March 6, 1935 and was a jurist and legal scholar.  He said that ‘taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.’ 

An even more recent American and respected Episcopalian lay leader, Bill Gates Senior maintained ‘Society has an enormous claim upon the fortunes of the wealthy.  This is grounded not only in most religious traditions, but also in an honest accounting of society’s substantial investment in creating the fertile ground for wealth-creation’. [1]  Those of you who use Microsoft computer products will understand that Mr Gates senior has firsthand experience of people who create wealth. 

It is also worth noting that quote came from a book by   Jim Wallis, called God’s Politics: Why the American Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It and I would suggest that people to the left and right in Aotearoa also get it wrong and don’t get it either.

Bill Loader, a New Zealand Methodist living in Australia, suggests that, although our opening quote could well be one of the most famous of all anecdotes told about Jesus, it is also one that is frequently misunderstood.  Dr Loader suggests that it lends itself to justifying a separation of religion and the activity of commerce and government.[2]  However we could also profitably understand it as a recognition that Christians exist within a wider community and as they benefit from the structure of that community they should also contribute to it.  That fits what we understand of Jesus’ vision of ‘the kingdom of God’ which is both a present and future reality that Jesus’ followers are called to live into reality.  The kingdom of God’ is not something that comes into being through violent revolution but by law abiding citizens loving their neighbours, offering healing and hope.  

Furthermore, giving to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s is not about setting up an inclusive Christian community and shunning the rest of the world.  It is not about refusing to vote or avoiding civic responsibilities.  It is about being part of our community, facing up to the responsibility of living collectively.

In Jesus’ time people resented Roman taxes.  Like most ethnic groups they felt they would be better off being ruled by one of their own kings.  But the Romans provided security, roads and a three waters system but they certainly believed in user pays. 

Like the corporate empires that rule our world they also believed they should make a profit so the tax may well have been harsh.  Much of it was a flat tax which is always harder for the poor to pay than the rich. 

We have a flat tax called GST and a flat tax is always favoured by the wealthy because there is a lot of poor people to pay it.

Nevertheless, Christians living in the Roman world, or our secular world, must pay for the benefits they receive.  They are also expected to live better lives than people around them and to influence their society by the way they live and the way they participate in their society. 

We are called to love God by loving our neighbour.  That involves caring for others and caring for the way society cares for its people.

Living within the divine realm is about allowing God to guide our life’s journey and our Exodus reading helps us understand that.

Moses had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, saved them from the murderous pursuit of the Egyptian army and had worked through, not just living in the wilderness, but living off the wilderness. 

But with the burning bush experience way in the past Moses had doubts about the journey.  Was God with them or had they all just experienced a series of serendipitous events.  That surely is a question for all religious people which is why we are called people of faith. 

I am sure that many of us facing difficult choices have wished that the divine voice would be absolutely and irrefutably clear to us. 

Many years ago, as a new Christian I was envious of those I met who seemed so full of confidence that God was leading them off on exciting missionary adventures.  But I began to notice that some of them never really completed anything. 

So, it wasn’t long before I began to ask myself ‘how can we distinguish the still small voice of God from the enthusiastic brainwaves of an individual’s inflated ego?’

Reading the story of Moses’ miraculous rescue from a floating basket, adoption by a member of the royal household and the murderous assault on a slave master we certainly could imagine him having an inflated ego as a young man.

But we also see maturity in his discussion at the burning bush when he pleads his lack of public speaking ability and his concern that he will not be believed.

We are told the Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness but the stories are not date stamped or even guaranteed to be in chronological order.  Nevertheless, we can reasonably assume that today’s reading happened a good way along the journey.  A journey through the wilderness but also a journey from nomadic herding to settled agriculture and above all a journey towards a better understanding of divine action in human communities. 

As the journey dragged on, we can certainly imagine that Moses would begin to doubt that he was fulfilling a divine purpose.  Divine patience often clashes with human impulsiveness and, as Moses neared the end of his life, he would be wanting to ‘get the job done.’  They were heading for the ‘Promised Land’ but they didn’t have a map with ‘Promised Land’ marked on it and Bill Gates had not paved the way for Google Maps. With all the time that had passed they would all be wondering if there was such a place.  That is a problem we all have. 

Like the rest of us those moments that Moses remembered meetings with God would have become faded memories. 

So according to our reading Moses experienced another theophany and was given a message for all of us.  Humanity cannot gaze on the glory of God, but we can see when God has passed by. 

In other words, we have a much better chance of seeing the action of God in our lives in hindsight than being directed by a blinding flash of light. 

The moments in my life that I consider to be spiritual experiences were simply a feeling of enfolding presence and an affirmation of belief rather than direction for life’s journey.

One of the struggles I had being selected for ordained ministry was that I could not in all honesty articulate a divine call.  My minister, a delightful petite Irish woman, simply suggested that one day and I might be a wee minister.  At the time I rebutted the idea.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the study and felt I was happy doing new things.  I met amazing people as the minister of St Stephens in Hamilton so when the Rev John Hunt phoned me and put me in the cleft in the rock by suggesting I should come back to Christchurch I took a fair bit of convincing. 

My own wilderness journey has had its share of anticipation and extremely difficult decisions. Plenty of feelings of inadequacy and sleepless nights.  But when I look back on my life I realise that faith has indeed set me on a journey. 

Moses’ people did get to the ‘Promised Land’ but they probably only recognised it as such when they settled there.  In terms of becoming a people of God they, like us, still have plenty of journey still to go.

That is certainly the case of those who heard Jesus’ call to be part of the divine realm.  On that Journey we are two thousand years and counting and although we can look back at our history and see the glory of God in the footprints of many of the faithful, there are also many dark and godless moments to repent. 

As a church in Aotearoa New Zealand, we are very much a minority and have lost considerable influence in our lifetime.  But that does not make our task any less important.  From our metaphorical cleft in the rock we can look back on those two thousand plus years and see the glory of God shine forth in the civilising influence of the gospel.  

When the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus and asked if he was the one Jesus replied: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. (Matthew 11:4,5)    s 

That is the history of our church, and if we look at our history in the church that is still the church’s story. It also is our story.  The Christian story is a story we are called to keep telling by our living and our loving. 

We live as a minority in a secular world that our Christian values have helped to shape.  We therefore have even more responsibility to give to our democratic society the taxes and the energy it demands of us. 

But as followers of Christ, we must also give to God what God requires of us.

It is in that cleft between our democratic secular society and the divine realm Christ calls us to, that we can glimpse the glory of God transforming our world through us. 

[1] Jim Wallis, God’s Politics: Why the American Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It (Oxford: Lion Hudson plc 2005)p.268