Freedom! What a wonderful thing! This year, we’ve seen it fought for and greeted with rapture across North Africa. Those of us who are older can remember the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And someone seriously old like me can just recall the strings of faded bunting and the jam sandwiches with which we celebrated liberty in 1945. We all respond to scenes of liberty because we yearn for liberty ourselves. Holidays are liberty. And what are universities? For the dons they are a place of freedom to study and enquire, for students that too, but just as important, an acceptable way of escaping from Mum and Dad. This university began as a bid for freedom. It was set up by teachers and learners themselves, not by any authority, and they came to Oxford because it was the furthest town in England from meddling Church authorities. Even this college started its life as an escape route for monks to leave their monasteries and study at, but not too near, a university, which explains why Worcester, compared with the other old colleges, is so inconveniently situated.
The joy of liberation shines through today’s Old Testament reading. In 597 the Babylonians captured Jerusalem, abolished the kingdom of Judah, and destroyed the Temple – the centre of the worship of God. Many of the people of Israel were moved away from their lands and scattered through Babylonia, and outsiders were brought in to take their places. It seemed that nothing could give the people their freedom again, but fifty years later something did: as unexpectedly as in 1989 or 2011. Up in the mountains of northern Iran, an obscure prince named Cyrus was on the move. First he conquered the Medes, then in 539 he swept down on Babylonia and conquered that too. But he came not only as a conqueror; he brought liberty. He let the people of Israel return to Judaea, he allowed them to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. No wonder the writer of Isaiah saw Cyrus as God’s agent, although Cyrus did not know God. God works through people who do not know him as well as through those who do.
Of course, the freedom Cyrus gave was not perfect freedom. He remained the lord of the Jewish people, and for most of the rest of Biblical history they were under emperors of one kind or another. And the joy of freedom in Isaiah eventually wore off. By the time of Jesus, the Romans were in power, and people grumbled about it, as they do in today’s gospel reading. Should we pay tribute to Caesar? The question was a good way of challenging Jesus. If he says, yes, he’s a Roman collaborator. If he says no, he can be denounced to the Romans as a trouble-maker. So Jesus asked for a coin and held it up. Some of the coins of the Emperor Augustus which were going the rounds in the time of Jesus had the emperor on the front and an altar on the back, so by turning the coin round Jesus could have made a good point – render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and then, showing the back – to God what is God’s.
The words of Jesus may seem to lie a long way away from those of the Book of Isaiah. Jesus seems to be talking not about freedom but about obligations – things we have to give to Caesar, things we have to give to God. We no longer live in the Roman Empire, but there are still a lot of Caesars in our lives. In your case, the provost. The director of music. Your teachers and tutors. The government, and the forces of law and order. All these Caesars expect us to render them things: attention in the choir, essays on time, good behaviour in college, payment of taxes, and so on. But if they are good rulers, they offer freedoms in return: the freedom to study, to walk about unmolested, to receive health care, to drive on the roads. And Jesus approves that: render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and you will get these back.
God’s kingdom is like that but better, in that earthly kingdoms are shadows or partial resemblances of the kingdom of heaven. On earth you have to belong to the political system in which you are born, unless you get permission to move. God’s kingdom is open by invitation – it is based not on compulsion but on love. Going into it involves harmonising yourself with it, so to that extent it involves obligations: to love God and to love your neighbour. But whereas Caesar’s kingdom is limited in its freedoms – roughly speaking you get out what we put in – God’s kingdom offers unlimited ones. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus uses a string of colourful metaphors to express this. The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a substantial bush. It is the yeast that makes bread expand and lighten. It is a treasure lying in a field. A fine pearl. A net full of fish. A cupboard of stores, old and new. A man who forgives what is owing to him. An employer who employs everyone. And so on.
These are vivid ways of describing how generous God’s kingdom is, how enabling and fulfilling it is for those who come in. Just think how much more you gain by loving God than by not doing so. Loving God gives you someone to talk to, someone to ask for help, to heal and forgive what is wrong, to give you guidance. Just think how much your own life improves if you love other people. Loving them lifts you up above your own preoccupations, gives you greater understanding and wider horizons, enables you to be sociable, to help those in need. In fact the obligations of God’s kingdom turn out to give you far more freedom and capabilities than you had before. The old Book of Common Prayer expresses it in the words God’s service ‘is perfect freedom’. The Latin from which the Prayer Book was translated says ‘to serve is to reign’.
God’s kingdom exists back to back with the kingdoms of earth, like the two sides of the coin. It isn’t somewhere else, or something for the future when we die: it is close by us now, and if we love God, we can enter it now. Whatever kind of life you lead, entering the kingdom enriches that kind of life, and makes it more fulfilling than before. So, to use the metaphors of Jesus, the kingdom for you at university is the treasure in a field, or the beautiful expensive pearl, for which, Jesus says, you have to spend everything you have. Clearly he was foreseeing student loans! But the treasure and pearl of learning are still worth the money – wisdom, says the Book of Proverbs, is worth more than rubies. And then, the kingdom for you is the store cupboard out of which you take things new and old – well that’s the Bodleian, or the college library. It is the net that you put in the sea which comes up full of fishes, good and bad, that you have to sort out. That’s research, learning how to choose what a great heap of books and websites, and how to reject what is worthless. And finally, the kingdom for you is the tiny seed that grows into a large bush. That’s the progress you make, the knowledge you gain in three years.
So your studies, like other worldly things, are a shadow or map of God’s kingdom, and I pray that like a map they may show you the way into his kingdom. May you all find the kingdom, may it give you the freedom that is perfect, and bless you and enrich your lives now and for ever more. Amen. 1,319
Canon Prof. Nicholas Orme
16th October 2011