A sermon on Exodus 33:12-13, Psalm 99, Matthew 22:15-22, 1 Thess 1:1-10 by Rowland Croucher, John Mark Ministries
Unless you live alone on a desert island, every moment of your life is somehow related to human authorities and institutions of various kinds…
Theologian Walter Wink in his books on the ‘principalities and powers’ writes about the ‘spirit’ which inhabits corporate bodies (governments, businesses, churches etc.). A group is more than the sum of its individuals. Our Australian Department of Immigration, for example, was described in the latest edition of the Harvard Business Review as a ‘passive-aggressive organization’ (with complicated procedures allowing more places for an individual to hide, and vaguely defined roles to ensure ‘plausible deniability’).
Radical sociologist Robert Merton used to say that the evil in institutions is greater than the sum of the evil of individuals within them.
How are we as Christians supposed to relate to ‘the powers-that-be?’
Our four Scriptures today provide some clues.
First, there’s Moses and God. A few weeks ago churches like this one which follow the lectionary heard about God speaking from a burning bush telling Moses to confront the Pharaoh and release a whole ethnic group, who happened to be his slaves. For some reason Moses was hesitant! You’ve got to remember that the King of Egypt exercised the same kind of brutal and despotic power Saddam Hussein used to have…
Later, in the desert, the Israelites wanted a tangible god, so they made a golden calf and worshipped it. Yahweh was very angry, and we now have this mysterious conversation between Moses and God. Was their ‘talking’ in this theophany audible? (When I was a theological student – knowing more than I know now- I asked a visiting ‘Bible teacher’ whether a tape recorder might have picked up anything when Jesus spoke with the Devil in the desert? He got quite agitated – and angry, which meant he probably hadn’t thought about it!). Well, I don’t know, but Moses here is interceding with an ‘awesome God’ who won’t be meddled with (twice in this chapter we have God threatening to ‘consume’ this ‘stiff-necked people’).
The Psalmist’s God (Psalm 99) is a king before whom the ‘peoples tremble’ and the ‘earth shakes’. But Yahweh is also a forgiving God and a lover of justice. This psalm was probably recited at the beginning of the New Year as Israel remembered all the ways in which God delivered them in the past.
And now the Gospel story. We have a unique alliance between Pharisees, Jewish nationalists who hated everything Roman, and Herodians, who collaborated with the occupying forces, colluding to trap Jesus. Is paying taxes to Caesar lawful? If Jesus had said ‘No’ he’d be in serious trouble with the Romans. If ‘Yes’ his own people would reject him. A very clever question – like ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’
Jesus called them hypocrites – both groups. They weren’t interested in learning God’s truth from this prophet, but were stuck with their false presuppositions about the powers-that-be.
Herodians are ‘our government right or wrong’ people. Karl Barth noted that the same governing authorities which have been instituted by God, and are to be obeyed (Romans 13) can also be ‘the beast from the abyss’ (Revelation 13) when they abuse their power. (If you had to summarize the message of the Book of Revelation in one sentence it would be ‘Caesar is not ultimately ‘lord’).
Pharisees – ancient and modern – have another problem. They need formulas – theological or legal – to explain everything. Every thought, every action, has to be covered by dogma or laws.
I once preached in a rural ‘Bible church’. They had big black Bibles and severe expressions. (Their aim was probably less to hear a convicting word from the Lord than to test the preacher’s orthodoxy). I decided to engage them in dialogue. What were the Pharisees’ good qualities? Their list: the Pharisees were Bible people (most knew their Bibles off by heart); they were disciplined pray-ers; they tithed up to a third of their income; fasted twice a week; attended ‘church’ regularly; were highly moral people; many had been martyred for their commitment to Yahweh and the Torah; they were ‘evangelical’ theologically, and evangelistic – even crossing the ocean to proselytize.
I wrote their list on a blackboard. There was a deep silence. ‘Is anything wrong?’ I asked the extravert in the front row. ’Yes,’ he said, ‘that’s us!’ ‘Is it?’ I responded. ‘But Jesus said these sorts of people were children of the devil!’ The silence became more profound.
Everything described by Jesus as ‘the most important of all’ is absent from the Pharisees’ list – justice/love, mercy, faith (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42). Justice/love never appears in Pharisees’ creeds or doctrinal statements.
Love, for Jesus, is the relationship between subject and object that acknowledges intrinsic worth in the object rather than responding to ‘favorable worth’ in the object. For Pharisees, repentance precedes acceptance; with Jesus it was the other way around… (Pharisees are quick with ‘Go and sin no more’ but cannot understand ‘I do not condemn you’.)
And social justice is ‘fairness’, the right use of power.
The challenge for us, as it has always been for the people of God is found in two important clues in possibly the earliest book in the New Testament corpus – Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.
First, we too must never worship idols (1:9,10) – any entity, organization, government, anything at all which is less than the ‘living and true God’. These idols in Thessalonika undoubtedly included images of Caesar.
And we are given gifts from God (1:3) to help us cope with all that is less than God – especially when ‘principalities and powers’ overwhelm us: faith, that God is in charge of the universe, and that nothing happens to us that is outside God’s control; second – love, the greatest force in the universe (the power of love to overcome evil is ultimately greater than the power of evil to overcome love); and finally hope – the strong conviction that God is with us, whatever happens…
In our congregation tonight is a friend of Jan’s and mine – Dawn Rowan. She was vindicated in a court case she instigated against the South Australian and Commonwealth governments, and TV Network 10 and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, when a women’s refuge she managed was closed down illegally. But her ‘payout’ nowhere near compensated her for the costs of the trial, and an appeal by the other parties to the Supreme Court of South Australia has resulted in her having to pay the costs of three of them – even though she was essentially vindicated again. The Australian government is spending millions of our tax dollars (perhaps as much as they’ve promised to the Pakistanis for earthquake relief) to recoup a small proportion of their costs and bankrupt her. She will lose everything. You can read part of her story here.
Question: what in the light of our Scripture readings tonight would you find yourself saying to encourage Dawn?