Concerning the Epistle:
For the most part, our Prayer Book Epistles and Gospels are given in the “King James Version,” more accurately called the Authorized Version. We would not have it otherwise, since that version remains a great literary monument. But very occasionally the 1928 editors of the Prayer Book corrected a word, here or there. We have such an example in today's Epistle from Philippians. Where the KJV reads “Our conversation is in heaven,” the Prayer Book reads “Our citizenship is in heaven.”
Here we have a Greek word politeuma which is founds nowhere else in the New Testament. How the KJV got “conversation” out of this word is a long story which need not detain us here. But politeuma (a word related to “politics”) can be translated correctly either as “citizenship” or as “commonwealth.”
Within the Roman empire a politeuma referred to a colony of foreigners or relocated veterans. Think of a community of people with the same background, living together in a foreign country. Frequently the Roman emperors paid off their soldiers by given them grants of land in the conquered territories, which led to the creation of such communities. These “commonwealths” enjoyed special prestige and privilege in the Roman empire. Philippi itself was a politeuma.
If the Philippian Christians were tempted to take excessive pride in their political status or to find their security in an important earthly city, Paul was warning them and us that such gloating was a false hope.
Today's Gospel reminds us bluntly that Christians have a real obligation to support our earthly political systems, “Render unto Caesar...” But ultimately we belong to no earthly nation but to the Kingdom of God. When earthly political systems crumble (as the Roman empire surely did, as our own system may crumble before our very eyes), His reign remains secure.
To be a citizen is a great privilege. This was as true in St. Paul's time as in ours. A citizen has certain rights and can look to his government for protection. Paul's message in the use of this word is that we Christians enjoy amazing privileges as citizens of the Kingdom of God. We may trust in the protection of the King who has subdued us to Himself and now reigns over us and defends us. With sure confidence we may pray, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas, “And grant us life that shall not end, in our true native land with thee.”
The Prayer Book version makes another interesting change in the final verse, Where the Authorized Version had the disconcerting phrase "vile bodies," now we hear of "the body of our humiliation," which escapes the Manichaean tone and is a more accurate rendering of the Greek. "Vile bodies" was borrowed by
Evelyn Waugh as the title for a novel."
Concerning the Gospel:
In today's reading from Matthew 22, we again see Our Divine Lord in contro-versy with His opponents. Running true to form, they attempted to entrap Him with a loaded question, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” If Jesus said “yes,” He could jeopardize His popularity with His Jewish following. If He
said “no,” He would become a marked man with the Romans. It was a sneaky question, designed to make trouble. The Pharisees made sure some of the Herodians, a faction deeply sympathetic to the Romans, were on hand as witnesses.
The answer of Jesus was brilliant. “Render therefore under Caesar the thing's which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” Generally we take this simply as a commandment to obey our lawful government and pay its taxes. This text gets bandied around each year around April 15. It is a text widely known and quoted among people who know little about the Bible.
But there is more here than meets the eye. Whereas we pay our taxes to a government we acknowledge (perhaps grudgingly) as legitimate, the audience and followers of Jesus regarded the Roman government as conquerors, usurpers, tyrants holding no just authority. Many longed and prayed for a military strong-man who would lead a revolutionary war and drive the Romans out of their land. Many expected Jesus to become that leader. These folk paid their taxes grudgingly, but they did not consider it morally “lawful.”
So the question thrust upon Jesus by His opponents boils down to this: To what extent may a godly man obey an illegitimate or unjust government? This was reminiscent of the strange advice which Jeremiah gave his countrymen about 600 years earlier. “Submit to your Babylonian conquerors, even when they drag you off into exile, for they are God's just judgment on your sins.” A sound theology of judgment made Jeremiah into a political traitor to his people. Jesus shared virtually in the same dilemma.
For the time being, the people of God (now I am talking about us) live in two kingdoms: the reign of God in our hearts and in our personal behavior, and the political structures (which may be hellishly horrible and are never perfect) which Divine Judgment has placed over us. The first is the anticipation of eternity, the second is already passing away. We look forward to the time when “the kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of our God, and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11.15). But that is not yet.
The whole Biblical teaching is larger than what we have in this brief reading. The people of God may emphatically not “render unto Caesar” that which is not His. But Our Lord does teach us that “Caesar” even at His worst has legitimate demands upon us. The more urgent question here and now is whether we render unto God what truly belongs to God. LKW