Meditation for October 18, 2020 preached at Sunday Assembly, Holy Wisdom Monastery, Middleton, WI (and shared at Hanapepe UCC, Kauai, Hawaii)
Many of you may know that in the course of my ministerial career, I attended law school. That pursuit arose primarily out of a long-standing interest in matters of church-state relations. The recent confirmation hearing for a new Supreme Court justice has once again brought to the fore the tension between church and state in a pluralistic democratic society. So of course when this lesson from Matthew 22 appeared, I could not resist.
As so often during his ministry, once again Jesus is confronted by those dot the “I’s” and cross the “T’s” Pharisees who this time hope to trap Jesus in a conundrum where he was either seen as disloyal to his own people who advocated for an independent Israel or to the Romans who currently occupied the land. No matter how Jesus answered their question, he would have stirred up enemies.
But Jesus was a master at turning the table on his questioners (he’d be good in a debate I think), and this time he did so by asking the ultimate question: Where do you loyalties lie? “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”
This mantra is often repeated as if it were a matter of either/or, when in fact it’s a both/and thing, since ultimately even what belongs to Caesar is first of all God’s.
So let’s unpack this.
Before they got to their trick question, the Pharisees first attempted to butter Jesus up a bit. They hoped to throw him off guard. But beneath the flattery, we might imagine closed captioning that reveals their unspoken thoughts:
Teacher, we know that you are sincere
[To be honest we think you are full of it],
And you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth
[We might call it fake news],
And show deference to no one
[By the way, why don’t you defer more readily to our authority?];
For you do not regard people with partiality
[Of course, everybody knows some people are inherently better than others].
Thinking they had Jesus feeling pretty puffed up with self-importance, they pressed on and sprang the trap: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?
If Jesus approved of paying taxes, he would seriously offend the Jewish zealots who hated the occupying pagan Romans and longed for a return of King David’s realm of old. Anyone who even suggested that accommodating the despised Roman oppressors was automatically suspect as disloyal to Judaism and to God!
On the other hand, if Jesus disapproved paying the Roman taxes, he would earn the wrath of the Roman authorities and place himself and his followers in danger of being seen as disloyal to the emperor. He could be charged, or at the very least find his name on the first century equivalent of an FBI watch list!
Of course, Jesus saw through their slimy scheme and deftly stepped around the obvious answers to their question. Taking advantage of a visual aid, Jesus asks about the coin used to pay the taxes. Rather than taking a position against either Rome or nationalist Judaism, Jesus refuses how they frame the issue and offers a different picture, suggesting that God’s values are not the same as the world’s values: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21). In other words, deal with and obey the secular authorities as you must, but always keep in mind that these authorities as well as everything else in all creation belongs to God.
Jesus’ clever response got him out of a potentially messy situation. His statement ended the debate, but left an unspoken question hanging the air. Will we worship the one whose image is stamped on a coin (or on a building, or banner, or campaign poster)? Or will we worship the One who is the very image of God-with-us?
Jesus’ answer still puzzles us today, and its meaning is not always as clear as we might wish. Over the centuries his words have been misused. Often secular and even church authorities have used Jesus’ words to support obedience to the government even when that government does not act in obedience to God’s greater law of love.
It’s what happened in Nazi Germany and I fear it’s happening here as well, as I listen to right-wing religious types from Catholic cardinals like Dolan who spoke at the RNC to evangelicals like Pat Robertson and the other pseudo-Christians who prop up the administration’s religious veneer, all the while calling for the banning of immigrants, taking back hard-won civil liberties like marriage equality from the LGBTQ community and voting rights from people of color, and dismantling protections for a woman’s right to choose.
Let me say it plainly: Obeying God sometimes requires that we actually disobey our government. The Bible must never be wrapped up in the flag.
I will be the first to admit that it is not always easy to decide when a government is being prudent and proactive, and when the government needs to be challenged and confronted, not as a matter of politics, but of conscience. As we struggle to answer the myriad of situations that arise when the question about what the emperor gets and about what God gets emerges, we dare not fall into the Pharisees’ trap and try to answer the question with a yes or no. Do we serve God or the emperor? The answer is always both/and.
Of course Caesar and the IRS have a right to collect the taxes. After all, whose likeness is on the coin or the bill? But God outranks Caesar or the President. To pay tribute to God is our primary obligation.
Still, that doesn’t mean it’s easy or simple to decide what to do and when. Given who we are, as people with dual citizenship in both a country and in God’s realm, our greater challenge is to discern what specifically it means to give God the things that are God’s – our love with whole heart and mind and strength – and then to follow that path.
When we attempt to do that, being drawn into a community of faith like this one helps us safely and wisely consider God’s word and will for us. Here we can pray and reason together. Here we can frame the questions and test the answers. And it’s from here that we can dare to step out boldly in faith and do so in the confidence that we must sometimes sin boldly and when proven wrong be forgiven mightily. Here we discover what it means BOTH to obey the emperor AND to love our God and neighbor.
Perhaps those two loyalties may never clash. But when they do, our only loyalty must be to God. Where the boundaries are between those two, Jesus did not say. That is matter for our conscience.
“Lord of Glory, You Have Bought Us” by Eliza Alderson, 1818-1889
The fourth verse of this majestic hymn speaks specifically to today’s gospel story of Jesus and the Pharisees. Also prevalent is the theme of justification as the movement of God’s hand in our lives. The Welsh hymn tune Hyfrydol, which means “good cheer,” is well known as the melody from “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling.” It was written by Rowland H. Prichard 1811-87). Thanks to Nancy Woodin of Cincinnati, OH for continuing to provide us with these hymn recordings.