Sunday 7 November 2021
23rd After Trinity
Revd Nicholas Mercer
I don’t suppose many of us have stopped to consider why so many Roman Statues have lost their heads?
In most cases, it is not just the passage of time but because of what was later to become known as “damnatio memoriae”
Translated as a “condemnation of memory”
It captures a broad range of actions taken by the Romans, posthumously, against their former leaders and their reputations
It could include the removal of the head of a statue which would then be replaced by someone more popular
Alternatively it could involve the defacement of paintings or the obliteration of literary records
Or even the alteration of coinage
Around half of all Roman Emperors, from Caligula (41AD) to Magnus Maximus (388AD) received some sort of posthumous condemnation
A keen eyed antiquarian will know that a statue to the emperor Claudius was often a re-worked version of a former statue to Caligula or Domitian
Given the classical leanings of our current Prime Minister, it is surprising that he has not made reference to this in our own recent “culture wars”
Perhaps the most famous example of which, in recent times, is the toppling of the statue of Edward Coulson
A former slave owner, he had shown enormous generosity to the people of Bristol
But, equally, as a slave owner he had treated his fellow human beings with great cruelty – just because of the colour of their skin
He had treated them as less than human and it is little wonder that his statue provoked such feelings
But memorials are fraught with danger
Whilst most of us would probably condemn the defacing of a statue to Winston Churchill
We probably looked on, gleefully, at the crowd tearing down the statue of Saddam Hussein
Cecil Rhodes arguably might divide opinion both ways?
Should we accept history warts and all?
Or are there, indeed, occasions when statues need to fall?
Whatever your views, it is, potentially, a political quagmire from which some try to capitalise politically
In a sense, Jesus finds himself caught in a similar predicament in the reading this morning
At the outset, Luke spells out the motive of the Pharisees “to entangle him in what he said”
By asking him whether it was “lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not”
The question to Jesus is not about tax, but it is to test his loyalty to the State
Jesus could easily be accused of disloyalty to the State, if he got it wrong
Sure footed as always, Jesus answers
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”
He sensibly stays neutral in order to avoid falling into the pit that had been prepared for him
However, the story this morning, potentially, has an even deeper meaning than the political chicanery it reveals
Jesus tells us to “render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar” – and the reason we know it belongs to Caesar is because his head is on the coinage
The flip side to this question however is, if we know what belongs to Caesar, how, by contrast, do we know what is belongs to God?
The answer is the same
Just as a coin has the image of the Emperor stamped upon it, so what belongs to God has his image imprinted on it too
First and foremost, as we know from Genesis, we are made in the image and likeness of God
As it says “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them” (1: 27)
Just like the coinage, God is imprinted on all our lives
But if God is imprinted on human beings, what does that mean for us and how we treat our fellow men and women
This is an enormous question
But at the very least it means creating a just and equitable society
As it says in Matthew Gospel, we have to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and treat our prisoners with humanity”
But whilst we might render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar, do we really render what is due to God when it comes to our fellow men and women?
Edward Coulson certainly didn’t
But similarly, just as we are stamped in the image and likeness of God, so too is God’s creation
Again, as it says in the Book of Genesis “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” ( 1: 1)
Creation is therefore something that belongs to God and not to mankind
His image is stamped on it too
God may have given us dominion over creation, but we are stewards – not the outright owners, free to do as we will
And, like the coinage, the fact that creation is imprinted by God has political implications too
This fortnight is unique in that the United Kingdom is co-hosting the COP26 in Glasgow and the stakes could not be higher
The Prime Minister has stated
“We need to take urgent action at home and abroad to turn the tide on climate change…to restore our planet”
Pope Francis put it this way
We need “a renewed sense of shared responsibility for our world, and an effective solidarity based on justice, a sense of our common destiny and a recognition of the unity of our human family in God’s plan for the world”.
Again, when it comes to the planet, do we really render what is due to God or are we simply rendering to Caesar when we still pay homage to market forces?
And so on this Sunday when we are reminded of Jesus’ famous words
Words that have been repeated throughout two millennia
We are reminded that not much has changed when it comes to culture wars
The trap that the Pharisees set for Jesus two thousand years ago are still being set by politicians and press today
Jesus, wisely, stays neutral to avoid the trap that has been set and we would probably be wise to follow his lead
But there is a wider point to all this
Whilst we might render what is due to Caesar, do we really render what is due to God?
If we had done, there wouldn’t be slavery and there wouldn’t be climate change too?
Perhaps it really is time that some of our earthly statues fell?