KAUWHAU at TE POU HERENGA WAKA O TE WHAKAPONO
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (te Rātapu rua tekau mā iwa o he wā noa iho)
(October 22nd) 2017
1 Thessalonians 1.1-10
Some months ago there was excruciating media coverage of a meeting between Trump and his inner sanctum. Acting disturbingly like so called “beloved leader” Kim Jong-un, Trump sat basking while the dutiful lackeys around the room praised him for his magnificent leadership, his unparalleled intelligence, his masterful nous.
To be honest I’ve forgotten what the obedient sycophants dragged up, but it was a sickening sight in a contemporary western democracy. Jacinda Ardern is riding high right now without choreography, but I doubt she would lower herself to demanding that her cabinet, one by one, pour praise and adulation upon her so she could bask in fabricated glory.
In the Roman empire it was almost obligatory to heap praise upon the Emperor Caesar if supplicants were to gain his attention. But to a lesser degree it was a protocol in any formal address. Perhaps Trump is re-inventing an old wheel. We see glimpses of it in the Letter to the Thessalonians, as the author praises his audience for their faithfulness in the gospel. It was a protocol.
So the Pharisees’ approach was not completely unusual. But they were out to trap Jesus. There is going to be no honest engagement when the purpose of a conversation is entrapment. The Pharisees approach Jesus with no intention of engaging with his teachings, with him. Jesus engages with the questions at a level far greater than their deceitfulness deserves, to our benefit. Jesus drives to the heart of the thorny question of the relationship between believer and state. It was a question that reached back into Judaism, to the times when the Hebrews were first conquered or kidnapped by foreign powers. It was a question to the fore during the time of Roman occupation. It was a question for believers ever since, and is a question for us now.
At surface level it is about taxes, and today the answer is fairly simple: pay the amount the law demands. We may not altogether agree with the way our governments spend our taxes – I for one will be watching eagerly to see if Jacinda keeps her promise to provide the fair access to tertiary education that my generation took away – but I simply have to accept that that is the privilege and risk of democracy. When things go seriously we have options of non-violent resistance, even some sort of taxation resistance, though it tends to be a reasonably ineffective protest.
But the bigger answer, when faced by obsequious liars, is the subtext to Jesus’ response. Who is our God, where is our city, where is our ultimate focus? The arguments that Donald Trump has succeeded in rarking up in the United States, are a little foreign to laid-back New Zealanders. Most of us enjoy the anthem, and are mildly ambivalent about the flag (but not ambivalent enough to change it). Many of us enjoy the haka, that has in thirty years gained a parallel anthem status. But the US obsession with their nationalistic actions, and Trump’s focus on the issue, helps bring the response of Jesus into focus. Should we stand, kneel, salute, or chew gum?
The question points to a deeper truth. Who is our highest point of reference? The State? The leader of the State? Our pet issue of concern? These issues are more difficult to sort than it might seem, because we have the added question: who leads us to decide? I certainly have no definitive answer, though I know many answers that are tragically wrong. In the lead up to two World Wars, for example, the national churches of European nations acted as if God were a slave, a token God of their nation alone. Often we have recreated God in the image of our prejudices: as English god or White god, as god recreated to look like me.
Let's be very careful: the God we serve is the God who chooses to meet us not in places of power, but outside the city wall, on the edge of a dump, on a cross, with only love to persuade us of divine integrity. No flag, no anthem, no jingoistic clichés, no magic tricks., Love.
The biblical writers again and again try to point us to God by reminding us that earth-bound perspectives are flawed. Flag, anthem, clichés, tricks, all are imposters. This is why Jesus out-manoeuvres the con-artists who trying to trap him, points them instead to a set of values and beliefs and standards far higher than that of Caesar. Let Caesar, or Ardern or anyone have their dues, but the God of the Cross demands a greater due. God demands infinite love – and we all fall short of that.
I’m a great fan of Paul, and not of the Pharisees – though I think they get a rough time at the hands of the gospel writers. But in both cases the real gospel work begins after the obsequious openings. Which makes for a strange kauwhau. Because I leave you only with the question: where is our heart set? For there our treasure will be also. Jesus and his prickly Paul alike move their very different audiences on, challenging us to live in the shadow of God’s judgement, which is also God’s grace, which is also God’s love. Jesus drives past the Pharisees’ hypocrisy to tell us to live as a people of Christ’s love. And we can do that only with and in the love and grace and help of God.