October 19, 2014, Pentecost 19 – A Matter of Taxes
To listen to this sermon, click here: 110226_001
There has been some consternation among Christians lately over a Texas mayor, who apparently subpoenaed the sermons of a few Houston pastors because they had supposedly been part of a movement to encourage the signing of a petition opposing the HERO – Houston Equal Rights Ordinance – which was passed last May. HERO bans discrimination by businesses that serve the public on the basis of race or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation. The law applies to things like housing and employment and government contracting, and specifically does not apply to religious institutions. However, the inclusion of sermons in the inquiry caused a huge outcry and much alarm, and some panicky facebook posts among clergy friends about persecution and how the world is becoming increasingly hostile to the church. But it seems to me we are losing our focus.
This passage today is one of the proof-texts people like to use about the separation of church and state. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and render unto God the things that are God’s.” Christian people have often used that verse to tell the world to keep its“hands off” of our business – who we ordain, and what we preach, and how we use our property, and how we raise our children. And the world uses the same verse, or at least the principle we have derived from it, to tell us to keep our “hands off” of what children learn and do in public school, and who can and cannot get married or divorced, and that there will be no insinuating our religious ideas into ministries for which we are dependent on government funding. Jesus said it: the world is divided into two kingdoms, the secular and the sacred, and only one of them belongs to God. Or did he really say that?
First of all, no matter how familiar and often-quoted that verse is, we don’t understand this passage correctly unless we understand it in context. When did Jesus say this, and why and to whom, and what was going on around them when he said it? There is no more real meaning in a verse chopped out of its context than there is use in an arm that has been amputated. They are both dead, and lifeless, and useless. So first, we have to look at the context of this encounter with the Pharisees and Herodians. This passage follows directly from what we have been reading these last several weeks – we need to remember that Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, and that he has been in an ongoing confrontation with the Jewish authorities, what with his disturbing the Temple business, and bringing in all kinds of undesirables to be healed, and telling parables that cast them – the religious bigwigs – in a pretty poor light.
And that brings us to today’s passage. The Pharisees – who were the most diligent of all the Jews as far as keeping the Law and maintaining the traditions of their faith – they approached Jesus along with the Herodians. Now the Herodians were a political, not a religious group; they were dedicated to maintaining the rule of Herod’s family line. And that’s interesting to begin with, because here we have church and state, political and religious representatives, joining forces to bring down this itinerant preacher who had become a majorly annoying stone in everyone’s shoe.
Their plan was to trap Jesus into saying something that would get him in big trouble with somebody they were all afraid of, the one with the real power in Israel – and that was the Emperor Tiberius, son of Caesar Augustus, who was hated and feared by the Jewish people whose land he had invaded. It was a very clever plan: they would ask Jesus about paying taxes: is it proper to pay taxes to Caesar? If he said yes, surely the people would turn against him because he would be supporting the Roman oppressors – and if there was anyone they hated more than Tiberius, it was their fellow Jews who collected taxes for him. But if Jesus said no, well, that would be sure to get around and he would be arrested and that would be an end to Jesus and his annoying followers.
The problem was that they were entirely out of their depth. The Greek says literally that they were trying to ensnare him or entrap him with words. And John has revealed to us that Jesus is literally the Word, the Word made flesh. They thought they could defeat him with their combined wisdom, but Jesus is the very embodiment of Wisdom – the personification of Wisdom, in Solomon’s proverbs, is a reflection of Jesus himself. They were like foolish children trying to play a trick on their wise old grandfather. It was hopeless.
And then Jesus did what we have read so many times. “Does anybody here have a coin for the tax?” he asked them. And when someone pulled a denarius out of his pocket Jesus showed them the face of Caesar engraved on the coin, and he pointed out how it was inscribed with the title of the Emperor, and he said to them, “Let Caesar have his own things back, and give God what belongs to him.” And his opponents were silenced by his wisdom; they had no reply to that.
If we use these verses as a proof-text for a political principle – the separation of church and state – whose purpose is to build a protective wall around our religion, and our ideals and our traditions and our property, we are in danger of missing the whole meaning of what Jesus was saying. He said to the Pharisees and the Herodians, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Why are you setting a trap for me? You pretend to respect me and my teaching; you claim to care about truth and the ways of God; but I know full well that you are only seeking to destroy me.”
Because it all came right back to the question they asked Jesus after he drove the moneychangers out of the Temple: who gave you the authority to do what you are doing? Where does your authority come from – from man, or from God? It was a question Jesus left them to decide for themselves. Everything they had seen and heard – people healed and demons cast out and the Scriptures proclaimed with an authority the people had never known before – if that came from God, they were opposing God himself. Jesus called them hypocrites because they were refusing to grapple with the real question of what God was doing, and instead trying to maintain the status quo by bullying and trickery.
The truth is that what Jesus was about, what he was always about, what God gave him authority to do, is to announce the breaking-in of the kingdom of heaven, which had come to bring an end to the long reign of sin and death and darkness, and to heal and restore the whole of God’s creation. Because the truth is, as the psalmist wrote, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world and everything that lives in it.” The truth is, when it comes right down to it, nothing really belongs to Caesar. Jesus didn’t live and die and break out of the tomb so that we Christians could have a little fenced-in yard to play in, with all the baddies locked safely outside. He came so that every last bit of this world – everyone that is twisted and corrupted and poisoned now by the rebellion of mankind as well as the innocent creation that is shackled and spoiled by the cycles of disease and death that man has spread throughout the earth – so that everything might be made brand new and shining clean.
In John’s Revelation he heard the voice of Jesus Christ who said, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. Behold, I am making all things new.”
That is the work Jesus was given the authority to do – that is the work he invites his children, the citizens of his kingdom, to participate in. Our responsibility as Americans is important; we have a responsibility to live out the mercy and grace of God in every aspect of our lives, including our politics, however we are led by God to do that, but our real citizenship is in the kingdom of heaven, not the kingdom of this fading world, and we need to be busy about the work of our kingdom, healing and restoration, comfort and justice and mercy.
And all too often our heavenly citizenship is derailed with issues of self – self-justification and self-righteousness and self-pity and guarding our own rights. Because that is so often what the world sees when it looks at the church. The church wants separation from the state to guard our private little righteous kingdom. But the world wants separation from the church, too – to protect itself from condemnation, to defend itself from our moral superiority and our un-grace and our hypocrisy, because we are no more righteous than anyone else. And when we feel that we are being persecuted as Christians, we need to look carefully and honestly at ourselves to see if we are being persecuted in the name of Jesus Christ because we are doing his good will, or because we have made the name of Jesus Christ odious to the world by doing our own will.
When Moses was hanging out with God on the top of the mountain, receiving the words that would sustain and guide God’s people through their wandering in the wilderness and establish them as a nation, Moses implored God to continue to go with his people, not just to guide them by means of rules and regulations and rituals, but to be physically present with them. And Moses – who was the most wonderful mixture of boldness and humility and submission and audacity of just about any human being I have ever read about – Moses said to God, “If your presence will not go with us, don’t send us out at all. For how will anyone know that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? Your presence is the only thing that will set us apart, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth.” Like that graven face on the little coin that Jesus held in his hand, God has graven his image on us, in our baptism we are sealed with his own inscription, on us. It is the presence of God that makes us who we are; we are who we are because we are his.
When the Pharisees and the Herodians tried to trick Jesus with their question, it was never really about paying taxes or not paying taxes. For them, it was an attempt to destroy Jesus, to get rid of him by tripping him up, to try to get him to hang himself with his own words. And for his part, Jesus wasn’t really talking about taxes any more than they were. He saw right through them, and he called their bluff. Leave the things of Caesar to Caesar; leave the things of the world to the world. But give God what belongs to him. He was challenging them to recognize the authority of God in the things they had seen and heard. He was challenging them to recognizing the coming of the Kingdom of heaven. Because it was and is his will that none should be lost, that none should be left behind, and that all should find themselves in that place where God’s dwelling is with man forever.