Reflection (20th Sunday after Pentecost)


Matthew 22:15-22, Ephesians 2:1-10

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Watching such stories is uncomfortable. It’s not just an imagined story. This really happened. It is part of humanity’s past. There’s no doubt that what we see here is evil. But where does this evil come from? There is no doubt that people’s individual sins contribute to evil in the world. But is that just about individual sin or is sin something beyond what we do as individuals?

We can think of sin as individual mistakes, acts we do or don’t do that harm others. Whether we think a wrong thought, or hurt someone else, or break a rule. And of course that is part of sin. But greater than this is the collective nature of sin. The sin of systems that dominate the world. Such systems as the way the economy works, the political systems, the way the institutional church operates in the world, the way the job market works, housing, schooling, how the world’s systems affect different nations around the world. This is the world which Paul says we leave behind as we follow God’s way. For we Christians live in the world but are not of the world. We are still part of the systems, but we see another way, a better way. For once we were dead in the systems of the world, but now through God’s grace we live in Christ.

So what are we to make of Jesus’s response about the coin and giving to Caesar what is Caesars? Do we leave the world as it is and retreat to living in God isolated from the world? Do we give to and support the systems and ignore their injustices, their evil? Yet, even as we give, as we vote, as we live in society, we are tied into the systems that cause pain and neglect so many. Just think of the world we live in where many go without, while few people reap the benefits. Do we just render unto Caesar and be done?

If we took this passage in isolation, we might very well draw that conclusion. But of course Jesus is playing a little bit of a game here. He is escaping a trap set for him. So he chooses his approach carefully. He notes the coin bears Caesar’s image and so affirms that it should be given to Caesar. But what image do people bear? They bear God’s image – for all people are made in the image of God. Things, money and commodities might belong to Caesar, but people belong to God.

Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah in the book Unsettling Truths discuss Europe’s voyages of discovery – where Europe begins to explore the world and dominates, colonises and destroys. They say this in their book:

 “The doctrine [of Discovery] emerged from a series of fifteenth-century papal bulls, which are official decrees by the pope that carry the full weight of his ecclesial office. . . . On May 4, 1493, the year after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Pope Alexander VI issued the papal bull Inter Caetera . . . and offered a spiritual validation for European conquest, “that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread. . . .” It gave theological permission for the European body and mind to view themselves as superior to the non-European bodies and minds. The doctrine created . . . an identity for African bodies as inferior and only worthy of subjugation; it also relegated the identity of the original inhabitants of the land “discovered” to become outsiders, now unwelcome in their own land.” [1]

Such a view led to a system which justified and accepted slavery, made it rational, made it okay – even using parts of the bible to justify it. Yet that system was evil. It was the system of the world, with worldly values, built on promoting and protecting the cause of a few. Not God’s way, which recognises that all people bear the image of God and calls us to live in a way that gives life to others, putting selfish ambition or protection of our own aside.

It is the job of Christians and particularly Christian prophets to challenge the systems of the world that deny life, exclude, harm and marginalise: to speak truth to power and make known the decisions or policies or ideologies that deny life to any group of people; to reveal where people are treated as if they were worthless; to build a society that is judged on how it treats the most vulnerable and the poorest.

A campaign called Reset the Debt has recently been launched. It’s based on the Biblical notion of Jubilee where debts are cancelled to help the poorest.

The Baptist Union of Great Britain, Church Action on Poverty, The Church of Scotland, The Methodist Church and The United Reformed Church have called for the Government to create a Jubilee Fund. A fund which will provide grants to pay off and cancel unavoidable debt that’s accrued during the lockdown period in the poorest households. This is the prophetic work of God in challenging evil systems that affect the most needy.

Our sin is not just about the individual acts we do. It’s about how much we collude with the system, how much we’re in the world. We can never break from being part of the system. We’re in it whether we like it or not. We are part of the problem. That’s what the bible means when it talks about the world belonging to the evil one. Yet, we have been called to live in Christ, to challenge injustice, to speak prophetically into the system and do what we can to change it. We are living in God’s reign here on earth, and while temporarily we may face the forces of evil, Christ will triumph as the new world and new heaven are established and God’s system turns the world on its head and the least become the greatest and the last become first.

So when we say the words, ’forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ or we offer our confession to God, we think not only of our individual actions, but of how much we are part of the system, of the world, of evil. There is no doubt we are forgiven in Christ, but we are also called to challenge such evil and live out our discipleship in the world. Let us be in the world, but not of the world as we seek justice for the most vulnerable, the oppressed and the poor.

[1] Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery (InterVarsity Press: 2019), 15, 19, 21.