Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Trinity: Civic and Moral Law – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 22 October 2023 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.  (1 Thessalonians Ch 1: v 1 – 10; Matthew Ch 22: v 15 – 22)

If you want to persuade someone, and bring them round to your way of thinking, it is as well to size them up and consider your approach. An example of this tactic can be seen in the – no doubt apocryphal – story of two monks who wanted to combine their prayer time with their coffee break, but needed to get the idea past their abbot. The first monk asked him if he thought it was morally permissible to drink coffee to keep them going during the long hours of the Morning Office. Would the Abbot allow it? No, certainly not. The second monk returned, delighted, from the Abbot with full permission. “How ever did you manage it?” said Monk 1. “Easy,” said Monk 2: “I simply asked him if we could pray while drinking coffee.”

Something similar, though significantly unsuccessful, is being attempted by the Pharisees and their hangers-on in today’s Gospel. They reckon that the way to approach Jesus about the divisive question of paying taxes to Caesar, or not, is to flatter him. “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully … and do not regard the position of men.” They presumably hoped that Jesus, thus softened up, would fall into the trap of giving a yes/no answer to their question. If he replied that it was not right to pay taxes, that could be construed as treasonable to Rome. If he said that one should pay taxes, he could be accused of denying God’s sovereignty over His holy land and of siding with the occupying power – not a popular position.  Jesus of course refuses to be swayed by their flattery and says, in effect, that it is right to obey the law in matters of civil government, but in moral matters one should obey the law of God.

That may sound at first hearing like a piece of clever wordplay to get out of the dilemma. But Jesus’ reply shows that he realizes the vital significance of this universal question: when they clash, does God’s law or human law take precedence?

We are fortunate, living in a democracy which is still in the main underpinned by Christian moral values, not to have to choose too often between moral and civic rights – between our conscience and the law of the land. Yet there are some issues which, for some people, present grave difficulties when these two collide. Take, for example, the issue of assisted dying, which continues to recur in public debate and in the experience of individuals. The God-given sanctity of human life and the protection of the vulnerable, on the one hand, are set against the desire to bring great suffering to an end, on the other. Both are motivated by kindness and mercy; in a sense each has a moral argument to support it; but there has to be a choice, and that choice might bring individuals into conflict with the authorities. Of course, in a democratic country, those authorities are not immutable, as the results of two by-elections last week show. But politicians and law-makers are seldom elected on single issues: they come with a wide package of ideas and policies, which have to be taken as a whole.

Our task is not to rush to judgment on such contentious matters – whether they concern us personally or not – but to understand and appreciate the broader picture surrounding them. They are seldom as clear-cut as, say, single-minded activists would have us believe. And we have as our guide and mentor, besides our own consciences, the teachings of the Church based on the words of Jesus, St Paul and others in the New Testament.

But what may we say and think about the terror and evil unleashed a couple of weeks ago in the middle east? Many years ago I lived and worked for some months on a kibbutz in Galilee; even in the mid-1960s we had an armed guard on duty every night. So I can picture vividly the nightmare that engulfed the people of the three kibbutzim further south, on that day. Now, as the task of rooting out killers and trying to free captives proceeds, my prayers are that, in the turmoil and heat and anger of war, aggression may still be tempered with humanity, and innocent people may be spared further hardship, loss, devastation and destruction. That St Paul’s words may yet be heard and embraced:

“Put on then … compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, forbearing one another and … forgiving each other. And above all these put on love, which binds them all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” (Colossians Ch 3: v 12 – 15)

As the Psalmist bids: “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls: and plenteousness within thy palaces … Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God: I will seek to do thee good.” (Psalm 122: v 6, 7 & 9)