Isaiah 45:1-7; Matthew 22, 15-22
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Just a health warning. Jesus is talking to a group of powerful people who are seeking to ‘entrap him in what he said,’, so we should be cautious in taking this statement as the manifesto of Jesus’ political philosophy. We might, tentatively say, Jesus is suggesting the political and temporal kingdoms of the world need to be acknowledged and be treated with a certain respect and that the kingdom of God should not be confused with, or collapsed into, a temporal, political kingdom.
But this enigmatic statement by Christ led me to reflect on what we might call our various ‘political’ versions of Jesus. There is a muscular ‘conservative’ Jesus. An extreme version of this Jesus can be discovered in the US where Christ is found standing for nation and family. But, in truth, there are many homegrown versions of the Jesus who apparently stands for ‘marriage’ ‘family’ ‘respect’ ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘a firm but fair immigration policy’. Now whether we believe in these things or not is not the point at issue here. Politically and culturally, we move between the poles of conservatism or liberalism. What is not, I think, particularly at issue is that no such muscular and conservative a Christ exists anywhere in the gospels. For example, in no sane world can Jesus be seen as a defender of family values, when he speaks about how the traditional family should not become the exclusive site of our love and concern. No doubt this imaginary Jesus is also ‘anti-woke’. He doesn’t eat tofu. The truth is this Christ is insufferable and you’d climb out of your bedroom window to escape him.
But when the muscular, and frankly tedious, conservative Jesus comes to look in the mirror, he finds his exact opposite looking back out at him. Who is this? This is the ‘liberal’ Jesus. Let me tell you about the liberal Jesus. He’s a member of Just Stop Oil. He is apparently excited that it looks as though the Conservatives are going to lose power next year. He’s some sort of social-worker activist, or nurse, and pops round to help you sort out your compost bin. He is impeccably woke. He eats tofu and, this is crucial, he affirms you just as you are. This Jesus is an absolute nightmare and you want to hurl things at him after a while. Again, you can’t actually find this Jesus in the gospels. In parts of the C of E in the UK, this Jesus is perhaps more subtly in the ascendent than his conservative twin but his conservative twin is busy in many other places.
It's hard frankly to say which of these two Jesuses are worse. It is no surprise that such versions of Christ exist. But they both have a quality of essential, crushing tedium. Christ as our own, political, cultural reflection.
It’s always worth re-reading a gospel. Because it brings home to us how Jesus cannot fit our conservative or liberal paradigms. Christ, worker of miracles; Christ who can be fearsome as well as infinitely tender. Christ as over-turner of tradition and ritual. Christ as poet. Christ as mystical teacher. We can, with selective edits, build a Christ in our own political image but there will always be words, teachings, which will show that image to be nothing more than a fragile, partial construction.
Here is one alternative approach to Jesus, and it will run all the risks of the above, but hey, that is the nature of human reality. We have our secret biases but it’s still vital to speak and share about Christ.
Christ comes to share with us, ‘the mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven’. He tells us that ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ In other words, Jesus shares with us the transcendent mystery of God and helps us to realise that this transcendent mystery of God is an intimate mystery, it dwells in us, in our frail flesh and bone, in our guts. Christ leads us into an infinite landscape, a landscape where our frail, political identities are still precious in their way but secondary. Now the words to describe this secret Kingdom are always imperfect, although today in Isaiah there is a most beautiful attempt. The LORD says to Cyrus, ‘I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD… who call you by name.’ Jesus as the doorway into the treasures of mystery, the riches hidden in secret places.
This vision of the LORD in Isaiah then stresses the LORD’s transcendence. ‘I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.’ Notice the majesty of the language here. This vision of God is no household god, perhaps holding to its liberal or conservative views, it is the unknowable God who nevertheless leads us to ‘the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places.’
In some places we seem to always hear the name of Jesus on people’s lips. Thank you, Jesus, we are here to know Jesus, we are here to love Jesus, we are here to proclaim Jesus and some part of us might want to scream out loud, I am bored of this Jesus, I want a rest from this Jesus, I wish people might shut up about this Jesus. To which we say, good, yes, you are onto something really important. Because if we hear too much of Jesus Jesus might become our household god, our tedious liberal or conservative friend. No longer the miracle worker who pulls the rug out from under our assumptions and our realties but a familiar face we can safely ignore. One more conservative or liberal voice wittering away, eating tofu, or not eating tofu.
But if Christ is met in his mystery, beyond our concepts, and if we allow him to lead us further and further into the mystery of the love of God, we can’t grow bored of that, because the path is unknown, and we keep finding and discovering those riches hidden in secret places. Christ then as doorway to the unknown God, not Christ as doorway to what we already know and believe. Amen