The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:
s062g11  Sunday 29 16/10/2011

‘like angels in heaven’   Matthew 22.30

Our New Zealand lectionary has the first of two questions put to Jesus to test him.   The first is that put by the Pharisees and the Herodians, opposite ends of the theological spectrum.   The question is barbed, for Jesus had to support either one or the other.   One or other of the groups was going to get their noses out of joint.  But our lectionary doesn’t include the second of the questions, put by the Sadducees about the resurrection, significant because the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection.   In Acts 23 we are told: ‘The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.’ (v8)   My sermon covers both these questions.

We are fairly familiar with the Pharisees and the Sadducees but we are less familiar with the Herodians, who were a political party rather than a religious one.  They supported the Herodian dynasty begun by Herod the Great.   Herod was an Idumean, though a practicing Jew as many Idumeans were.   Herod built the second Temple in Jerusalem, but strict Jews considered him too closely aligned to the Roman occupiers.   The phrase: ‘paying taxes to the emperor’ was political speak for ‘do you support the Roman occupation and their vassal Herod?‘   In Australia I guess the equivalent would be for the indigenous people to question amongst themselves whether January 26th (commemorating the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788 and the proclamation at that time of British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard) should be called Australia Day or Invasion Day.   The indigenous people of Australia have considerable justification to call it Invasion Day for we have no Treaty of Waitangi like New Zealand.

As I continue my train of thought from last weeks sermon, I see the primary interest of the Pharisees in their question to Jesus, is whether we are supposed to be part of the real world.   The question they put to Jesus is: ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?’   For us the question is largely irrelevant because we would be tried and convicted of tax evasion if we didn’t.   But rather more to the point, taxes, properly used, are about providing the infrastructure for society to continue to function.   We pay taxes so that we as a community have water, sewerage, roads, schools, hospitals and a multitude of other things which make the lives of so many possible.   In post earthquake Christchurch, we have come to particularly appreciate the provision of sewerage and water.

I recall speaking to a Christian doctor once about tithing to the church.   I knew that his tax rate was something like 45% which went to all these good things, some of which in the past would have been provided through the church.   The village priest was often the school master, the doctor, the welfare worker, the sheriff and often the only literate person in miles, available to one and to all, 24/7.   Often the monastery was where the otherwise unemployable found a welcome and a useful purpose in life.   It was appropriate for the village priest and the wider church to be supported – because they helped other people.

Nowadays most of these functions are done by specialists, and so much better, and in an environment of religious plurality.   It is no longer appropriate for the church to demand tithing.

So the question put by the Pharisees was about their involvement in the real world, and Jesus says: ‘Yes’.   Rather than separating ourselves off from others in a holy huddle, their task as well as ours, is to be a part of the world, contributing to society as we also benefit from it.   It is a prime religious duty to live in the present, not bound by past pronouncements or in the hope of a better life to come.   Our duty is to make this a better place for all to live now.

This leads me on to look at the question put by the Sadducees.   If the age to come is not about the afterlife but about living in the present, it is clear that the vision God has for this world is where people are not merely appendages to others.   This means more than saying that women should be named personally and not (for example) Mrs John Smith; it means that we all have a dignity whether we are married or not, whether we are ‘christian’ or not, or whether we have a personal relationship with God or not.  We are meant to be ‘like angels in heaven’, not eternally berating ourselves for our deficiencies or reading the scriptures, but with a freedom to relate equally and to all.   It is significant that Jesus concludes his words about the resurrection, that God is God not of the dead, but of the living.   God relates to people as they live and breathe and in the circumstances in which they find themselves.   We are given only one opportunity in this life and we might as well make it a happy existence, for others as well as for ourselves.

And I realize that in these two sayings Jesus contradicts both the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who were both religious parties.   The party Jesus mostly supported were the Herodians, the political party, the ones concerned with trying to deal with the political realities of their day.  One might even conclude that we give to God the things that are God’s by giving to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.   It is our engagement in the real world that we are most doing what God would have us do - which is rather different from how I have been brought up.   I was brought up to believe that it was in our Sunday observances, the frequency we read the Bible, the number of times we prayed and the multitude of other ‘religious’ things that we were doing what God would have us do.   I was taught that I was doing what  God would have us do when I was, like a dutiful child (who is to be seen and not heard) sitting at the feet of the teacher listening to the pearls of wisdom HE imparted. (Mark 3.34, Lk 10.39&42)   No doubt the Pharisees and the Sadducees would have entirely agreed with this, and Jesus says: ‘No’.  

In the age which we are called to make our own (and by ‘our’ I mean corporately and globally, not personally) all people are raised to the status of angels, with independence, mobility and dignity.  It is the ultimate lifting of people to their feet after they had fallen prostrate before the Almighty.

Where religion keeps people subservient, mute to express their own spiritualities, blind to the need all people have for dignity, crippled to ensure we stay stationery rather than stray from the fold, unclean so that we have to eternally beg forgiveness and acceptance, where religion divides people into convenient categories titled: ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’, rather than reaching across divisions and being useful in society - then that religion is demonic - no matter how much they quote scripture or praise Jesus.   Jesus did not allow himself to be distracted by joining in the theological debates that were the endless cause of dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and so Jesus doesn’t join in the theological debates of the 4th, 16th or 20th centuries CE that have determined the spiritual landscape of the professional ‘christian’ of our day.   These are at best essentially irrelevant for they do nothing for society at large, and at worst essentially demonic because they leave so many other good people marginalized, alienated and condemned.

If we are to do what God would have us do, we begin by looking at ourselves, others, even politicians as angels - without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation.   Sadly, I am not sure I see the church of which I am a part doing this particularly obviously and unambiguously.   I am grateful for the phrase the former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd uses in another context.   I suspect that the church suffers from acute ‘relevance deprivation syndrome’.

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