22nd October, 2017
In just over a week’s time we will pass the 79th anniversary of possibly the most famous radio broadcast in history. I’m referring to the dramatic adaption of H. G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds. The narration given by Orson Welles which described an entirely fictional invasion of earth by aliens from Mars, was apparently so convincing that it caused widespread panic among listeners who believed that the events described were actually taking place.
Following this broadcast Orson Welles became an overnight sensation. He capitalised on his new found fame by writing a number of potential movie scripts. Only two years after the War of the Worlds broadcast Orsen Welles was starring in a movie that he also wrote and directed. Citizen Kane proved that Orsen Welles was more than a one hit wonder. Rather he was creating a legacy that would see him remembered as one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time.
Of course, it was not all plain sailing. Welles soon developed a reputation as a perfectionist and for being notoriously difficult to work with. Despite producing a number of excellent films, Welles found it increasingly difficult to find work in Hollywood, and ended up working primarily in Europe for the best part of a decade.
Finally he got a chance to make another Hollywood picture, but this time it was a low budget B movie. Taking on this particular project was proof to many of his fall from grace. The movie studio executives felt that employing Welles was something of a risk, and decided to keep a very close eye on him.
Two executives went to the movie set one day and watched as Orsen Welles ran his actors through rehearsal after rehearsal. In fact the entire day went by and the executives began to wonder if Welles was going to shoot anything at all. Finally late in the evening Welles thanked all the actors and sent them home. The executives knew it was time to intervene.
They told Welles how disappointed they were with him and how his failure to shoot anything that day meant that the entire project was now behind schedule and over budget. Welles simply looked at the executives and said, “Gentlemen, if you’d known what you were looking at, you’d know that you have just seen the greatest single-shot take in cinema history. And we are now a week ahead of schedule.”
What Welles had done was take a very basic movie script and elevated it to high art by filming it in a way that was completely innovative. His claim that he had just shot one of the greatest scenes in cinema history turned out to be true. The opening sequence of Touch of Evil is regarded by many as the greatest opening sequence of all time.
But the lesson here is not simply that Orsen Welles took lemons and made lemonade. Welles knew that his reputation was terrible. He knew that the executives were there to critique what he was doing. But he was also wise enough to know that if he wasted his time explaining himself to them and describing what he was trying to achieve, they would not have understood. If he involved them in the creative process they would simply have got in the way. So, he ignored them and went ahead with his own vision. As he once famously said, “Don’t give them what they want. Give them what they never dreamed was possible.”
I think that Jesus’ response to the question put to him by the Pharisees in today’s gospel reading is a case of not giving them what they want, but giving them something they never dreamed of. The question of the Pharisees regarding whether or not faithful people should pay their taxes was a trap. The question was a no win scenario. Either Jesus answered that faithful people should not pay their tax in favour of giving money to God, which in this time really meant giving money to the temple. But to answer the question in that way was problematic because it was a form of sedition. Not paying the taxes of the Roman Empire was illegal and therefore an act that carried with it revolutionary overtones.
But the other answer was equally problematic. If Jesus said that all faithful people should pay their taxes to the Romans then he was neglecting his religious obligations, thereby undermining his own authority as a religious leader.
Jesus didn’t go as far as ignoring the question, although I’m sure he was tempted to. Rather he turned it on its head while making it clear where he stood on matters both religious and political. His answer of “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” bears some reflection. At one level Jesus takes the either/or option presented to him and instead suggests that people do both. Yes to God and yes to the emperor. But the way Jesus puts his response makes it clear that while he was not promoting sedition, he clearly stood on the side of God.
What Jesus knew was that while the emperor was the embodiment of all human power on earth, the realm of God was, is and will always be greater than the empires of human construction. He suggested that while the emperor may control the wealth of the world, God created the world itself. To give God what is God’s is to give all that we have to God.
The response of Jesus certainly puts a finger on the scale. It is what is offered to God which is of greater significance. There will always be rich powerful human beings, people whose decisions have great impact upon the lives of others. But Jesus is clear, the trappings of human civilisation are fleeting, whereas God is eternal.
Perhaps the question this leaves us with is where do we place the greatest value? Are we more concerned with fame, fortune, who is on the front page of herald, or do we care more about the values of God that call us to love and care for those within our local community. To serve God is to serve each other, which means seeking out the sick, those in need, the poor and the refuge. Are we still caught up in the system of empire which encourages us to act out of selfish interest, that promotes success at the expense of others, or do we want to live in the Kingdom of God where mercy, compassion and care for each other are the true measure of a good life.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant