October 18, 2020, What Belongs to God, Matthew 22:15-22 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon click here: Z0000219
I’ve been on the Board of Trustees for the Norwood Public Library for two years now. I think libraries are a hugely important part of any community, so I was happy to make that commitment, even though board meetings are not my favorite thing to do. When I was first elected, I discovered that it was traditional for the board to open their meetings by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance together. And that was a little awkward for me, because I don’t do that. I was very comfortable standing respectfully while the others recited the Pledge, but I felt I had to let the Board know that I wouldn’t participate in the Pledge myself. In the end, the Board voted on it and has chosen not to make the Pledge a requirement, and I am thankful for their understanding.
And I bring this up, because, as the gospel passage reminds us today, there will always be choices that we have to make as citizens of the Kingdom of heaven, who are also called to live faithfully in the context of this world. And we haven’t been given a blueprint for how that works out in practice. One person’s choice will not necessarily be the same as another’s, even if both of them are seeking to be obedient and faithful to God in all they do. I don’t pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, not because I am in rebellion against the country I live in, and not even because I think it’s evil for Christians in general to pledge allegiance to the flag, but because for me, personally, I believe that I can only honestly pledge my allegiance to God.
We are blessed to live in a community where we have a lot of Amish neighbors, and it is abundantly clear that they live out their obedience to God very differently from all of us “English” people. Their way of life might not make sense to us sometimes, but they have carefully considered their relationship to technology, and to the legal and governmental system to which they are required to submit, and they do so largely on their own terms, seeking to honor and obey God in all things and above all things. As Christians, we all have to make choices as strangers in this strange land, and our choices will not always be the same: but the principle is the same for all of us. As the disciples said when they were arrested and charged to stop making trouble by preaching about Jesus, “We must obey God rather than men.”
In the gospel reading today, the Pharisees sent out a delegation of clever men to set a trap for Jesus. They started out with a little flattery, “O Teacher, we know how wise and sincere you are. Please, O wise One, answer this question for us. Is it lawful to pay the tax to the emperor, or not?” Now, they thought they were being very clever, and they were pretty sure they were going to land Jesus in a world of trouble no matter how he answered them. If he said the Jews shouldn’t pay the tax to the emperor, he would be branded a traitor to the occupying forces, and Caesar would see to it he was done away with. On the other hand, if he said that the Jews should, by law, pay the tax to the emperor, people would see him as a Roman sympathizer, and his popularity with his fellow Jews would suffer a blow, hopefully a fatal one, and once again, they’d be rid of him. It was a perfect plan. They thought.
It seems to me you can almost hear Jesus give a great sigh of weariness. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he says to them, “Come on, show me the coin for the tax.” Now, you have to understand that the Roman denarius was particularly offensive to Jewish people. First of all, as Jesus points out, it bears the image of Caesar’s head. That was tantamount to breaking the second commandment, which forbids the making of graven images. But the head of the coin was also inscribed with these words “divinus filius” which means “son of a God,” and that breaks the first commandment as well. And then, just to top it all off, on the flip side of the coin were inscribed the words “pontifex maximus” which means “high priest.” If the Romans had set out to design a coin that was the epitome of idolatry, they couldn’t have done a better job.
But Jesus doesn’t fall into either trap that the Pharisees have laid for him. He doesn’t lay down the law for his fellow Jews, demanding that they keep themselves pure and free from idolatry by refusing to pay the hated tax. And on the other hand, he doesn’t command that all Jews must show themselves to be law-abiding citizens by paying the tax. Instead, he makes clear what the real principle is. This coin is nothing more than a piece of metal, he says to them. It bears the image of the emperor, so give it back to the emperor. What really matters is this: give to God what belongs to God.
In his answer Jesus turns the focus away from the coin itself, and onto the central issue of how we honor and obey God in the context of this world. On the surface, Jesus affirms that it is possible and correct to be both a law-abiding citizen and a faithful follower of God. But encoded in his answer is the tension that exists at all times, that God’s claims to our loyalty always take precedence over the claim that human authority makes on us – that in fact, we are subject to human authority only insofar as it is appointed by God.
Paul makes that same point in Romans 13, speaking of our duty to the governing authorities: “Everyone must obey state authorities,” he writes, “because no authority exists without God’s permission, and the existing authorities have been put there by God. Whoever opposes the existing authority opposes what God has ordered; and anyone who does so will bring judgment on himself…That is also why you pay taxes, because the authorities are working for God when they fulfill their duties. Pay, then, what you owe them; pay them your personal and property taxes, and show respect and honor for them all.” We are to live according to the laws of the land insofar as they represent God’s authority. We are to pay taxes and abide by laws. But ultimately, all our loyalty and all our obedience belong to God.
And that’s where we find the tension that will always be a part of life in this world for citizens of heaven. Because the world doesn’t perfectly represent God’s authority, and whenever and wherever the world stands in opposition to God, as it often does, we need to stand with God. Sometimes we are able to work with the system. In the case of the Roman denarius, the Jews received permission to mint their own non-idolatrous coins, coins of lesser value, that they could use for daily business among themselves. They were still required to pay Caesar’s tax, but it was possible for them to avoid having to use the Roman denarius on a daily basis. But sometimes there just isn’t any compromise that can be made. The apostles who were arrested and beaten and thrown in jail for preaching in the name of Jesus went out defiantly and joyfully to preach all over again when they were released. “We must obey God rather than men,” they told the authorities, plainly. It was a simple statement of fact.
During the Civil Rights movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a non-violent resistance against what was the law of our land in those days – segregation, and the evil of Jim Crow laws. At great personal sacrifice, beaten, imprisoned, even opposed by leaders in the Church, they obeyed God rather than men, knowing that the human authorities of this country were in opposition to the principles of God. There have been times in human history when God’s people have utterly failed to stand against worldly authorities, to our shame. The tension is always there, and it is always our responsibility to seek the guidance of the Spirit, and to use the mind and heart God has given us, and to discern how we are being called to navigate it.
I believe that this is something we need to be particularly aware of in this moment in history. Right now, the worldly authorities of politics and party and patriotism are loudly demanding our allegiance and our attention – and our vote. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has written: “there are good and faithful followers of Jesus Christ who are…Republican, some are Democrat, some are independents, some liberal, some centrist, some conservative. And just as we must respect the right of every citizen to cast his or her own vote according to the dictates of their conscience, so we must do in the church, the body of Jesus Christ. And that is how it should be. The Bible says we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, not one political party.
“But it’s important to remember that partisan neutrality does not mean moral neutrality – because [in the end it is our duty] to obey the royal law of almighty God” which is love – love of God, and love of our neighbor. Bp. Curry goes on to say, “Each of us must discern and decide what love of neighbor looks like in our lives, and in our actions.” And specifically, in the coming days, as we approach our national elections, each one of us must discern and decide what love of neighbor looks like when we go to the polls and place our vote. Because the guiding principle in all things is this: we must obey God rather than men.
We all pay our taxes to Caesar, but this world we live in asks us to give in so many other ways. We are called to give our allegiance, our loyalty. We are called to give our time and effort and energy. We are called to give our trust. And we are blessed to live in a democracy, where we have the privilege of giving our vote. I urge you to consider in the coming weeks and days: as you go to the polls, as you cast your ballot, are you serving God or are you serving a human authority? Is your ultimate loyalty to a nation, to a political party, to an ideology? Or to God alone? What difference can it make, in this momentous act of voting, if we choose to serve God rather than men?