St John's, Decatur
You may have noticed that, for the last three months or so, we’ve been slowly but surely working our way on Sunday morning through the gospel of Matthew. So now we’re coming up on the end of the story, and the plot is definitely beginning to thicken. Matthew is turning up the flame underneath Jesus’ relationship with a group of Jewish leaders called Pharisees. He sets them up as Jesus’ adversaries, the “bad guys.” They’re feeling all threatened by Jesus’ popularity, so they keep trying to trap him into saying something that will get him into hot water with his supporters, and send him packing back off the Galilee where he came from.
They come up with what they believe is the ideal ambush. There was a particular tax at that time that was imposed by the Roman Empire on the Jewish people, and it was very unpopular, not only because it was a tax, and all taxes are unpopular, but because this tax was required to be pain only in Roman currency—Roman coins, to be specific. And every Roman coin had on it an engraved image of the emperor, of Caesar, and one of the Ten Commandments, to which the Jews were very attached, and which they took very literally, forbade any sort of “graven image”, including the sort of image that appeared on Roman coins. So not only was this money out of pocket for those who paid the tax, but it was a pretty direct insult against Jewish religious sensibilities. It rubbed their face in the fact that they were ruled by the Roman Empire.
So the Pharisees think they’ve got the ideal solution, and they put this question to Jesus: Should we or should we not be paying the poll tax? If he answers Yes, he will offend the majority of the population and lose his base of support. If he answers No, he will be in immediate trouble with the Roman occupiers, who might just take it upon themselves to do him in completely, which his Jewish enemies would certainly have no problem with. They figured they had him on the horns of an impossible dilemma.
Now, this situation in first century Palestine raises questions that are very contemporary for us in 21st century America. It speaks to the relationship between our civil obligations—which include, among other things, paying our taxes—and our religious obligations as Christians. A case in point for those who are middle-aged or older: In 1960, when John Kennedy ran for President, we had never in our history had a Roman Catholic in that office, and a great many people were worried whether the Vatican might be calling the shots in the Oval Office. We pretty much got over those fears, so much so that, in 2004, when another Irish-American Roman Catholic ran for President, it was the opposite question that bothered many church leaders: Would a “President Kerry” be faithful to Catholic moral teaching, or would he leave his religious convictions on the White House lawn?
But it’s not just our political leaders that face these questions. If we actually stop and think, they concern each of us, not only when we go into a voting booth, but whenever we write a check to the IRS, or look at a pay stub and see how much has been deducted for taxes. What happens when we conscientiously disagree with our political leaders, and are forced to pay taxes that support policies we consider immoral? What about Christians who live in countries with oppressive or authoritarian regimes? What about those whose taxes are used to support corruption or vice or even genocide?
If we look to the rest of scripture to shed light on these questions, what we see can often seem contradictory. The thirteenth chapter of Romans takes a very pro-government position, and tells us that government officials are put where they are by God, and that we owe them our loyalty and obedience. On the other hand, the Old Testament is full of stories about unrighteous governments being overthrown at God’s command and with God’s help. At the time of Jesus, the Maccabean Revolt—a successful insurrection of Jews against their Greek overlords—was no longer a living memory, but was fresh enough history to be on everyone’s mind.
So Jesus’ adversaries figure they have him between the proverbial rock and a hard place. They figure he’s cooked, no matter what he says—it’s just a matter of whether he’s going to be fried or baked. So how does Jesus respond? He responds by refusing to accept the premise of the question, he refuses to impale himself on the proposed dilemma. Jesus notes Caesar’s image on the coin with which the tax is paid, and reminds his hearers that, as much as they may despise the Roman occupation, and as much as they may rightfully resent the fact that there’s a graven image on Roman coins, the fact is that they enjoy tangible benefit from the civil and economic structure that Rome provides, and so they do indeed owe something to Caesar: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's…” Jesus says. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
But we must note well the implication in the phrase “the things that are Caesar’s.” The implication is that some things are not Caesar’s, which sets us up for the “other shoe” to drop: “…and to God the things that are God’s.”
Rule #1: Render to God the things that are God’s.
Rule #2: There is nothing that is not God’s.
Even what looks like it belongs to Caesar ultimately belongs to God.
Today’s reading from Isaiah talks about the Persian King Cyrus. Cyrus was a really nasty dude who brutally conquered every nation he set his eye on. And God, speaking through Isaiah, refers to Cyrus as his “anointed” because God was going to accomplish God’s own purposes through the agency of this unwitting Persian king. Now, we need to understand the significance of the term “anointed” in order to appreciate how stunning this statement is. In the Hebrew, it’s nothing other than “Messiah”, which, in turn, is the basis for the Greek word “Christ”! This is roughly equivalent to God saying to Americans today: Al Qaeda is accomplishing my purposes without their desiring or knowing it; the head of Al Qaeda is my Chosen One, my Messiah, my Christ.” Now—hear me well—that’s not what I’m saying! But wouldn’t it be shocking if it were? Well, no less shocking were Isaiah’s words about Cyrus to his original Jewish readers.
God can use whatever vessels he chooses, even corrupt and wicked human governments, even organizations as wicked as Al Qaeda. It is our obligation to render to the human government under which we live whatever may be legitimately due to it, even, on occasion, our very lives. But God alone commands our ultimate loyalty. Human governments—democratic or otherwise—deserve our respect and our submission, but only to the point where such loyalty and submission conflict with the demands of loyalty to God. Of course, this is often a difficult line to draw, and while we might hope that the readings today would offer us some help in making that distinction, unfortunately, they don’t. And what makes things worse is that Christians in good faith can draw the line in different places, and that can create some tension within the Body of Christ. Good Christians can come to different conclusions about political issues; no surprise there, right?! So we need to be patient and forbearing of one another, as some among us see the current administration and its policies as righteous and good, while others among us see that administration and those policies as wicked and unjust. Remember, both the ideal King David and the tyrannical conqueror Cyrus are referred to in scripture as God’s “anointed.” Yet, we all—whatever our political persuasion might be—need to be ever vigilant for the place where loyalty to “Caesar” conflicts with our more fundamental loyalty to God. Because the only thing worse than failing to render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, is to inadvertently render to Caesar that which is God’s alone. Amen.