The Elephant in the Room

Fr Paul’s sermon, 22nd October 2017

Do you know the expression, “the elephant in the room”? It goes back to a cartoon by the American humorist James Thurber. He showed a roomful of people, all in earnest conversation with each other, and in the middle an elephant, which they are all trying to ignore and pretend isn’t there. It represents a common situation, when there is something very big and obvious that needs to be dealt with, but which everyone is trying not to think about.


God and Caesar: how cleverly our Lord turns the trick question back on those who were trying to catch him out! They knew perfectly well that (even if he did not make the claim explicitly, in so many words) Jesus was presenting himself, and was being accepted by many, as the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, the true King of Israel. The question of who Jesus thought he was and claimed to be was the “elephant in the room”. No-one used the word “Messiah”, everyone skirted round it, but that was the question. The question about paying tribute to Caesar was a way of smoking Jesus out, so to speak. Would he acknowledge the authority of Caesar, and so scandalise those who wanted to see him as Messiah? Or would he reject Caesar, and so put himself in the wrong with the political authorities?


In the end, of course, Jesus was executed as Messiah: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews – to the fury of those who had conspired to bring it about. Caesar was saying to the Jewish people, “This is your king, and this is how I deal with him – and you.” But for the moment, Jesus again evades the issue. The coinage is Caesar’s, and you yourselves are using it. So “pay back Caesar in his own coin”, an ambiguous answer that could be taken in various ways.


Our Old Testament reading goes back several centuries before Jesus, to a time when a substantial part of the Jewish people had been deported to Babylon, and were living in exile in what is modern-day Iraq. But another power was arising in the east, the Persian Empire, under their king Cyrus. Cyrus would shortly overthrow the Babylonian Empire, and restore the Jews to their homeland. (How history goes round in circles: today, Iraq and Iran are still at loggerheads, but Iran has got rid of its kings (or Shahs) and is one of the greatest enemies of Israel!)


But the point of Isaiah’s prophecy, calling the heathen Cyrus the Anointed of the Lord (i.e. Messiah) who would free his people, is that all sovereignty comes from God, and all rulers are subject to him, and are fulfilling his purposes, whether they know it or not. The ultimate Ruler of the Universe is God who created it, not Cyrus, or Caesar, or – well, you might be able to name current rulers today, but I will name no names.


In this country, our Monarchy is explicitly subject to God. The Coronation of our Queen was not the conferring of power upon her (because in our system she has virtually no political power), but her anointing, the most sacred part of the ritual, is her consecration to the service of her people. That is the reflection of Christ’s own Anointing: “I came not to be served, but to serve.” Every Christian ruler must think in that way.


Each of us, in a small but real way, is a “Christ”, anointed by the Holy Spirit in our Baptism and Confirmation for the service of others. Writing to his converts in Thessalonica, Paul explains his own understanding of Christian ministry. He tries to imitate Jesus Christ, and so become an example to other people. In the same way, he says, the Thessalonians are trying to imitate him, Paul, and become an example to the people round about.


The “elephant in the room” in our public and political life is still the fact that Jesus is King, Jesus is the true Ruler to whom our loyalty is given. When and if that loyalty comes into conflict with worldly powers, we must side with Jesus and take the consequences. And we may do that with words, by speaking out when necessary; but always and everywhere by framing our own lives on that of our King and Saviour, and by setting an example of love and self-sacrifice to others, in imitation of him.