A picture containing text

Description automatically generated

Giving unto Caesar … an alternative interpretation for our times

The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

[Reading: Matthew 22: 15-21]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This may seem strange but I want to start this morning with a recipe for Bonbon Té cakes. To make these one would need vegetable oil and salt. The key ingredient though is dirt, which should be strained to remove rocks and clumps. The dirt is then mixed with the vegetable oil and the salt (four parts of the former to each part of the latter); then for each two parts of the mix one part of water is added (preferably clean if available). Then the consistency is formed into bread plate sized discs and left to dry on a pavement. When dried Bonbon Té cakes, also known as Haitian galettes, will be ready to eat.

Bonbon té is Haitian Creole for ‘good good earth’ (bon bon terre); indeed for many years, these dirt cakes have been used as a cheap source of calcium and some other dietary minerals especially for pregnant women and young children. But in times of economic crisis, and this has been a frequent occurrence in poor, benighted Haiti, it has also been a very cheap food which has ‘fed’, or at least filled the hungry stomachs, of large numbers of poor in large slums such as Cité du Soleil (City of the Sun) in Port au Prince, the nation’s capital. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008-9 was a boom time for the delicacy, this year has been even better. COVID-19 has so disrupted poor economies around the world that the United Nations has chosen an image of the making of these dirt cakes for this year’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty – which took place yesterday.

Dirt cakes for the dirt poor – a grim image indeed to promote a day aspiring to hope. But the circumstances this year have been especially grim. This year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the World Food Program, has reported that demand for its emergency food assistance has doubled; with the number of people defined as ‘acutely food insecure’ (which is a euphemism for starving) going from 135m to 270m people.

Arif Husain, of the WFP, reported to the Wall Street Journal’s Global Food Forum held just under two weeks ago, that it was neither drought nor other weather conditions which has caused this surge in the numbers of starving but ‘trade disruptions, breakdowns in processing and transportation’ which have brought about the crisis. Those disruptions have all been the result of COVID-19, which has also been held responsible for the loss of some 500 million jobs worldwide.[1]

In 2009 the Bible Society in partnership with World Vision Australia issued a special edition of the Bible called The Poverty and Justice Bible. Nothing was added to the scriptural text, but 2,000 verses were highlighted – namely all the verses dealing with poverty and justice.

2,000 verses – that is a very large number of references – indeed Jim Wallis, of the group known as Sojourners International, claims such references are the second highest number of citations on any topic in the Bible. However, you might be thinking, none of those 2,000 verses seem to have appeared in our Bible readings this morning – and you would be right. However, that doesn’t mean that the implicit message of poverty and justice isn’t also in the warp and weft of many other biblical verses including some read this morning – take Matthew 22:21 for example:

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s [v21]

The more widely quoted version of that verse in the public domain is:

Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s

Over time there have been many interpretations of this verse, which have sought to understand the message which Jesus was conveying not only to those present two thousand years ago but also what those words might mean for us today. The most literal interpretation of the verse has focussed first on the question which the Pharisees cynically asked of Jesus and, second, on the prop Jesus requested before he answered – a Roman denarius. The questioners had been probing where Jesus’ loyalty lay – to his own people or to the Roman imperium which was subjecting them; in answering Jesus used the coin which contained an inscription proclaiming the divinity of the emperor. In effect, Jesus turned the question back on the Pharisees by asking them who was their god – YAHWEH or the emperor?

That has been the literal interpretation of the events which occurred that day. We could leave the verse there, as a mere historical point of interest since our coinage today no longer proclaims the divinity of our head of state. But Scripture is multi-layered in its capacity to guide us and to provoke our reflections in Holy Spirit-inspired ways even when the contemporary context may be so very different from biblical times. As a result, some have sought to extend the literal interpretation of the verse such as to find a contemporary commentary on the rightness or wrongness of paying taxes with the conclusion that Jesus was not promoting tax avoidance. Or on the other hand, there have been those who have said the verse justifies tax resistance when the government proposes to spend tax revenues on purposes which are perceived as unjust or immoral. 

I have also seen commentary which links this verse to the way Caesar’s tax revenues were spent – including not just financing the Roman occupation but also paying for the provision by government of goods and services for community benefit. Michael Green, commenting on this verse in Matthew’s Gospel, has suggested such a view noting that the Jews of that time did indeed benefit from:

 … imperial roads, education, justice and freedom from invasion … (and that) Jesus was saying that those who enjoy Caesar’s benefits should pay Caesar’s taxes.[2]

Which brings the Monty Python team to mind, who made us all laugh with their sketch from The Life of Brian about ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’:

Well, apart from medicine, irrigation,
health, roads, cheese and education,
baths and the Circus Maximus,
what have the Romans ever done for us?

Whimsical as that is; It is legitimate to question how our tax monies are used. Furthermore for us as Christians that questioning should include the extent to which Biblical calls to social justice are reflected in government expenditures; but that is not something I want to focus on about this morning. Rather, there are other things we give to Caesar – such as our voice. Every four years or so, we give opinion by way of our vote; in addition, we also have the capacity to advocate on issues in between election times as we endeavour to affect government policy. Many Christians have a strong record of advocating about social issues to government such as on abortion or euthanasia and some also on social justice issues such as reconciliation or poverty alleviation.

Here this morning, through prayer and song, we are giving our voice to God through His Son, Jesus. But we also can give that same voice speaking to Caesar or the powers that be. For what should that voice be used?

I mentioned that yesterday was the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. In fact, it was also the 33rd anniversary of a Call to Action proclaimed by a certain Father Joseph Wresinski which in turn led to the United Nations declaring an International Day for the Eradication of Poverty an annual event since 1992. Born of Polish parents who had fled in WWI as refugees to France, Joseph Wresinski grew up in grinding poverty and social exclusion, living on the margin in slums. As a young man he entered the priesthood and found his calling amongst the very poor in an emergency housing camp on the outskirts of Paris. There he felt his task was not only to bring physical and spiritual succour to the homeless but also to be a voice for them; he gave them this promise:

I will take you up the steps of the Elysée (the official resident of the French President), the United Nations and the Vatican.[3]

By his ordination he had given his voice to God, but by these words to the homeless, the powerless, the voiceless, Joseph Wresinski also gave his voice on their behalf to the courts of power – to Caesar. His message to the Caesars in those palaces of power was that:

Those living in poverty are the very source of all human ideals since it is through injustice that humanity has discovered justice; through hate, love; through contempt, dignity; through tyranny the equality of all human beings.[4]

By its declaration of the October 17 as a day to proclaim the achievability of eradicating poverty, the United Nations has sought to encourage us all, both governments and individuals to hear these words of Joseph Wresinski. Over the intervening decades much has been achieved. That is until this year when, for the first time in over twenty years, global levels of poverty ceased going down and grew instead. Achim Steiner, Administrator of the UNDP has reported that:

 … in the wake of the pandemic … an additional 115 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty this year.[5]

So the 2020 COVID-19 toll has been 40 million infected so far, over 1m dead and counting and 115m empoverished.

How should we react to facts such as this?  In the wake of this annual call to reflect on how poverty might be reduced, in this fateful year 2020, I wonder if we might feel moved to be a voice on behalf of this growing body of people whom we anonymously call ‘the poor’, talk them up the steps of power.    

Bonbon té will be on the menu today in the City of the Sun. When we sit down to lunch later, I know that the grace we pray, our voice spoken to God, will speak of those for whom Bonbon té will be the most they will have to fill their stomachs today. Will we speak that same voice to Caesar that the hungry may be fed?      

[1] Cited in Jesse Newman, Food poverty doubles as pandemic hits jobs, supply chains, in The Australian, 8 Oct 2020

[2] Cited in sermon by Rev Martin Dale – https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/render-to-caesar-revd-martin-dale-sermon-on-discipleship-161315?page=2&wc=800

[3] https://www.joseph-wresinski.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2016/09/JDR47_Annex_Ang.pdf

[4] https://www.joseph-wresinski.org/en/living-poverty-source-human-ideals/

[5]  https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/news-centre/speeches/2020/international-day-for-the-eradication-of-poverty.html