Sunday, 19 October 2008

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Isa 45:1.4-6; Mt 22:15-21
I want to say a few words about Gordon Brown. This week Mr Brown has been hailed as the “saviour of the world” and he is not the first political leader to be hailed as such, and his rescue plan for the banks may indeed prove to be a great act.
This month, however, will also be when Mr Brown forces through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that will extend experimentation on embryos –increasing the treatment of them as objects and commodities.
While political authorities sometimes receive our praise and admiration, sometimes hero-worship, they often also incur our wrath, our hatred, our scorn.
Today’s readings encourage us to ponder the proper way to relate to them.

Our first reading referred to the mighty leader Cyrus. Like Mr Brown, Cyrus was hailed by some as the saviour of the world. In particular, he was hailed as the saviour of the Jewish people –which is kind of curious because he wasn’t a Jew and wasn’t particularly concerned about the Jews. Cyrus the Great was emperor of Persia when the Jews were slaves in exile in the Babylonian Captivity. Cyrus conquered the Babylonians and when he did so he let the Jews return to Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple, and be restored as a people in their Promised Land.
None of this was because of any special concern he had for the Jews, rather, it was how he treated all people had been previously enslaved by the Babylonians. Yet, Scripture speaks of Cyrus as a great saviour, as the Lord’s “anointed” one, His instrument of salvation.

The Church gives us the reading from Isaiah about Cyrus the same Sunday it gives the Gospel text about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s. The connection is that both can be seen as God’s instruments, instruments of His rule –which is kind of remarkable because both were fairly brutal men, not known for their virtue. In particular, with respect to the Jews, the Roman Caesars had been violent and harsh in the subjecting them. Yet, Scripture speaks of them as somehow being instruments of God’s rule. We are called upon, as St. Peter’s epistle states, “Fear God and honour the emperor”(1 Pet 2:17), to ‘Honour’ the emperor who, in many things, has done evil.

This can seem an odd teaching. And many have accused Scripture of being naive, naively offering support for government that can be abused when government is bad. However, if we remember the context they were living in, a context when government was almost ASSUMED to be tyrannical, it is actually a teaching that is very far removed from naivety –rather, it’s a teaching that faces a difficult double truth –the truth that the need for government is a basic human need, and that any particular government will do some things we do not support, sometimes very serious things.

Now, when I was young, I used to something of an anarchist, or, really, a Libertarian (which is an anarchist trying to sound clever). I thought that all government was wrong, or at best an evil to tolerated, that all property was theft, and that taxes were government stealing from the people.
But the truth I have come to realise is that we need government. We are not isolated privatised individuals. We are socials beings and anything humans do involves interaction, that interaction needs coordination, and that government is a part of what it means to be human. And this is what the Church’s social teaching teaches us today.

Our need for government means that we must respect those who govern; that unless a tax is so manifestly improper that it is immoral then we must pay our taxes and not cheat on our tax returns; that we must we heard Jesus say, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”.

The Jews accepted the pagan emperor Cyrus, and Jesus accepted the pagan rule of Caesar, because both recognised that someone must rule.
While it may not make for an exciting conclusion to a sermon, respect is owed. Gordon Brown is not the “Saviour of the World”, someone else before us in the Tabernacle holds that title! Mr Brown has enacted many policies contrary to the law of God, but, he is Prime Minister which means he deserves to have us treat him as such. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

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