If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Render Unto God: Matthew 22:15-22

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Chiurch on Sunday, October 16, 2011.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.

Death and taxes…. the two proverbial certainties in life. People worry that the deficit and government providing health care will raise our taxes. Our two major political parties perpetually debate tax increases. Republicans do not want taxes raised at any cost. Democrats would rather the rich carry a greater percentage of taxation. But questions about taxes are nothing new. They are as old as the Bible. Read my lips. Taxes will follow us to the grave.

The subject of taxes is a topic for heated debate. Taxes are a powerful symbol of the clash between the interests of the individual and the interests of the society. They are the point where the personal and the political collide head on. So, it is not surprising that the subject of taxes has provoked debate, incited revolutions, and split people along political party lines. Talk of taxes raises a lot of debated questions.

Death and taxes. Jesus had to deal with these two certainties in his last days. Death and taxes are linked together in today's biblical narrative. But the question of taxes seems to have hounded the heels of Jesus from the cradle to the grave. It was a census for taxation that brought his parents to Bethlehem. And the accusation that Jesus taught the people not to pay the poll tax was thrown at him during his trial. Even Christ could not escape the question of taxes. Death and taxes. In today's text they both are headed in a collision course, with Jesus in the middle.

The instigators of this collision are a collusion of two major political groups in Jesus' day---the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Herodians were Roman puppets who supported the rule of Herod Antipas. The Pharisees were elite religious leaders who governed within the political sphere allotted to them by Rome. In any question of taxation the Herodians would have supported it. Like most Jews under Roman domination, the Pharisees would have been opposed to taxation. They were primarily out to get the one who was disturbing the peace of their power. But politics always seems to create strange bedfellows. Pharisees and Herodians. Bush and Noriega, Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein. Yes, believe it or not, at one time, even the U.S. and Iraq were political bedfellows! When opposing political factions have a common enemy, they tend to work together.

The Pharisees and Herodians were working together to trap Jesus into making a political blunder, so as to get him out of their hair. The followers of these two groups came to Jesus one day. They spoke with a forked tongue. There was venom in their sweet words. Beneath their flattery was hidden deceit and trickery. You can almost hear the spring catch on their steel trap as they say to Jesus, "Rabbi, we know that you are a sincere person. You truthfully teach the way of God. Neither do you express personal preference toward people, or show partiality." You see, they were craftily setting up Jesus. They were buttering him up with the spread of impartiality, so they could toast him. The coalition of Pharisees and Herodians wanted Jesus to take political sides, knowing that whichever side he took would mean his goose was cooked.

What they wanted Jesus to tell the crowd was not his personal opinion, but the way of God on the issue of taxation. We might compare that scene to the Congress asking Sonia Sotomayor, "Judge, we know that you are fair, honest, truthful, unbiased, non-partisan, without pre-judgment or partiality, a wise Latina woman. So, tell us then, does an unborn child have constitutional rights?" Hear the trap go “snap!” But into the sizzling stew that Jesus was placed, add the extra ingredient of God. In other words, they didn't want just his opinion, or the law's. They wanted Jesus to pronounce the word of God on this issue. This is what God says! So, whatever he said to this politically divided crowd, they were going to give Jesus enough rope to hang himself.

Then the question with sharp teeth was thrown at Jesus: "Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not." They were ready to snag Jesus on the sharp horns of a dilemma. And Jesus was aware of their deadly intent. If he said "no", then he would find himself in hot water not just with the Herodians, but with the whole imperial Roman government. He would have been labeled a revolutionary. If he answered "yes", then Jesus would have committed suicide among his own people, who were opposed to Roman taxation.

You see, taxation was a symbol to the Jewish people of Roman oppression. A resistance movement was even formed and Jewish revolts broke out over Roman taxation. For Jesus to approve of imperial taxation would prove to be volatile. Beneath this question of taxation hid other perplexing questions like; "Can one be a faithful Jew and a loyal subject of Rome? What business has the people of God to do with secular governments? Who is to be obeyed---the Torah or Tiberius? Who is really the Lord---God or Caesar?" The Pharisees and Herodians were hoping for a simple, incriminating answer from Jesus. The trap was ready to spring.

But Jesus' drew the hunter's into their own trap. He asked them to show him the coin used in the tax. The live bomb that they placed in Jesus' hands was about to explode in their own faces. They were being called upon to produce evidence of their own sticky participation in Roman imperialism. Jesus made them participate in answering their own question by having them produce from their own pockets the evidence that would entrap them. They handed Jesus a denarius, a coin equivalent to a day's labor. The coin had their fingerprints on it. Shrewdly, Jesus was implicating them in the political dilemma in which they wanted to trap him. Jesus turned the tables on them and asked them a question, another clever move; answer a question with a question: "Whose head and title are on this coin?"

This coin, used to pay taxes, was a highly controversial symbol in first century Jewish Palestine. It was minted by Emperor Tiberius. It bore his image and the blasphemous title, "Tiberius, Caesar Augustus, the son of the divine Augustus." The image and title were an idolatrous to the Jew and a sign of Roman sovereignty. The Roman coin was such a slap in the Jewish face that during the period of several Jewish rebellions they minted their own coins as symbols of liberty. The question of whose image the coin bore had an obvious answer….Caesar.

You can almost hear the snap of the trap as Jesus' turns their question upon them. But we will have to listen closely to hear it. He says, "Well then, pay back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." Problem easily solved. Or not? On the surface it sounds like a rather straight forward response. His words seem to provide a black and white answer. How simple. Give to Caesar his due and to God his due. The two realms of politics and religion get sorted out and put in their nice, neat compartments. In this drawer are the "things of Caesar." And over there in that drawer are the "things of God." And what are the things of Caesar? Why, they must be things like taxes, politics, economics, the military, government policies, and issues of social welfare. Then, what are the things of God? Well, they must be things like the church, the Bible, worship, prayer, fellowship, personal piety and morality. Jesus' answer sounds like a nice, neat formula for putting religion and politics in their right and proper places. Thank God, that’s solved!

Some might like to hear Jesus' words as a good text for a sermon on the separation of church and state. We may think of Jesus as a good Anabaptist preacher proclaiming a theology of two separate kingdoms; the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. This is Caesar's realm over here and that is God's realm over there and never the twain shall meet. Or if we are not careful listeners, Jesus may even end up sounding like some right wing, conservative American politician or a Boy Scout master who tells his loyal troops that they should do their duty to God and country.

The movie Sergeant York is about the life of Alvin York, the most decorated soldier of World War I. He started out as a pacifist. York tried to avoid induction into the army as a conscientious objector. But, the good sergeant used these very words of Jesus about God and Caesar to determine the answer to a question he had concerning whether or not, as a Christian, he should allow himself to be drafted into the US Army in 1917. And we know the answer he magically pulled out of the hat of Jesus' statement. Ta-da! He’s in the Army now!

If we are not careful, we can become illusionists and turn this saying of Jesus into something as innocuous and non-threatening as the admonition to be both good Christians and good citizens at the same time. We can serve God, while we go off and kill for our country. We can praise God, while we wave our flags and hate our enemies. Well, didn’t Jesus say, “Render unto Caesar…”? And that is exactly what most Christians have done to this revolutionary saying of Jesus. Scout's honor!

Jesus' answer to the question of taxation is intentionally ambiguous. He is not simply straddling the fence to avoid the consequences of taking a clear position. Jesus is handing the barbed question back to us. Those who hear his answer must struggle to answer for themselves what are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God. The two halves of Jesus' answer are not to be taken as referring to two equal but separate realms that deserve our honor. By placing the two realms side by side Jesus forces us to deal with the relationship between the two. We are placed in a position of having to deal with the relationship of the private and the public, religion and politics, faith and society, the sovereignty of the state and the sovereignty of God. Jesus will not allow us to quietly slip away and hide in our private realm of personal piety. And he will not allow us to treat the two realms of God and Caesar separately. Or as someone put it; "We cannot settle questions of political life without considering the claims of God, nor seek to live a religious life oblivious to the problems of society." Jesus throws the "things of Caesar" alongside "the things of God" and causes us to wrestle with them, like Jacob wrestled with the angel.
This struggle is intensified when we place the emphasis on the second half of Jesus' answer, where it properly deserves to go; upon rendering unto God the things that are God's. If we were to ask the common Jew of Jesus' day, "What are the things of God?" what do you think they would have answered? The answer would have been obvious…. everything! What things bear the imprint of God on them? What things are under God’s rule? What things should be examined under the light of God’s kingdom?.....everything.

As the Psalmist says, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and all that is in it." God's things are everything. Politics and piety. Wealth and worship. Torah and taxes. Everything. God is Sovereign of everything.

So, by placing the statement of what is God's next to what is Caesar's, Jesus is not placing together two co-equal realms that deserve our due. Rather, Jesus has thrown into question not only the things that belong to Caesar, but also the very sovereignty of Caesar. The claims of Caesar's lordship become relative alongside the absolute sovereignty of God. The "things of Caesar" are dramatically minimized by the second half of Jesus' answer. God and Caesar, like God and Mammon, are not two lords who stand on equal footing when it comes to our allegiance. God alone is Lord. What we are to render unto Caesar shrinks before the towering question of what we are to render unto God. Jesus has given an answer that explodes our neat, narrow, isolated, ideological categories. So, in the midst of our own religious and political questions, we may become as dumbfounded at what Jesus said as those who first heard his answer.

So, we need to ask ourselves the question; "What in the world are God's things?" In a world where Caesar rules, that can be a rather taxing question. Jesus' response to the Pharisees and Herodians gives us no simple black and white answer to our own contemporary religious and political questions. How do we sort out the legitimate requirements of loyalty to society, and the absolute demand of loyalty to God? Should we always obey the government? What if the government oppresses the poor and marginalized, thus dishonoring God? Was segregation a government issue or a religious and moral issue? What if the laws are unjust? Should Christians ever be involved in civil disobedience and not obey certain human laws? Were the Anabaptists right for disobeying the laws of the government? What if Caesar's immigration policies send Central Americans back to poverty, persecution, and death? Should Christians assist undocumented, or should I say “illegal,” immigrants because God commanded us to welcome the stranger in our midst?

Should we always pay our taxes? What if they are used to support wars like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, to train assassins, and to stockpile nuclear weapons? If Caesar requires us to go to some Middle Eastern country and defend our country's interests, must we render unto Caesar his due? Should young Mennonites support their nation by going to war? Should Christians be Republicans or Democrats? Which is God’s party? Should Christians vote? Should we avoid politics altogether? What is God’s position on all these questions? Which of these issues should be left to the government? Do we, as Christians, merely answer these questions along liberal or conservative political party lines? What is your answer? Tell me, good and wise Christian. Right now, in front of this congregation. These are indeed taxing questions.

Now, wouldn't you like for me to give all of you a simple answer to each one of these questions? I'm afraid that if I did, I might find myself in the position of Jesus snagged on the horns of a dilemma deciding between two sides of an issue that are strongly held by different people in this congregation. But I am not Jesus, though I think I have some good answers to those questions. Each of us must learn to answer these questions for ourselves. Not by marching lock step with a particular political party or ideology and their selective set of moral questions and answers. Your answers must come from Christ. And I suspect that he will not give you an easy answer either, but will hand your questions back to you and say to you words something like, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."

The answers to our questions will come to us only as we struggle with Jesus' words and as we place all of our questions alongside the ultimate sovereignty of God. And the one question that will override all other questions will not be "what must I render unto Caesar?" but rather, "what must I render unto God?" And the answer is obvious…..everything.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

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