Traps and Captivation, of Empire and of God

Sermon for 19Oct14

Matthew 22:15-22; Isaiah 45:1-7

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Sneaky, evasive Jesus has a tendency to answer questions with a question, when opponents are trying to trap him, but also to make us think for ourselves. Today it’s not a question, but more of a riddle, and you have to say it just sounds better in the King James Version: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

They ask Jesus if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the empire. It’s a trap. If he says don’t pay, the Romans would arrest him for provoking rebellion. But if he says yes, pay, his people would be upset he’s encouraging the oppressive occupying powers. He can’t say yes and can’t say no. He’s trapped.

But sneaky Jesus flips the trap, catching them in their own snare. We’ll see more of that in a moment. First, though, we’ll try resolving the riddle. When Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give back to God what is God’s,” we’ve usually figured there are two separate categories, and Jesus leaves it to us to discern which goes in what box. So we start compartmentalizing, breaking it down, maybe first that ultimate devotion should go to God and not to our government or whatever.

Money comes in a second layer of the divisions, with less direct certainty. We have generally determined that it’s okay to pay taxes, that they don’t interfere too deeply with our faith. We may grumble, but also see them as worthwhile. In fact, we should recognize they may serve consistent with what we do in faith, for example in programs of social uplift and concern for the least—very clearly a biblical ethic. As an example, picture school lunches resolving hunger and caring for vulnerable children, a Jesus-y kind of project, which just so happens to be run well by government.

That’s an important reminder for us. When Jesus tells us to render to Caesar or to God, it’s not just a matter of two columns on a budget sheet, one or the other. Some of it we simply cannot divide. Jesus is not drawing a distinction between sacred and secular. It’s not a separation of church and state. God is not relegated only to the realm of what happens at a church or with a religious logo affixed to it.

Obviously, God’s work is immensely bigger than those small categories. Our Isaiah reading declares that God’s work was being accomplished by the Persian king Cyrus, even though he didn’t know God and didn’t know he was doing serving that role. It even names this foreign ruler as God’s Messiah. Wow! Similarly today, God is not waiting for faith-based organizations with faith-healers to treat Ebola patients in Liberia, but is certainly striving through health care workers regardless of religion. So just because it’s government doesn’t mean it’s opposed to God’s good work.

Of course, the reverse may be true, too. Tax dollars may also get used contradictory to our beliefs. It’s in the debates about how abortion services are or aren’t funded. It could be in a question of subsidies for fossil fuel companies. It is in centuries of Christian conscientious objection to paying the portion of federal taxes which funds violence and military and war, by some measures almost 50% of the total.

That points also to the sneaky Jesus reversing the trap to ensnare those malicious, conniving opponents. It begins when Jesus says, “Show me the coin that is used for the tax.” See, this tax was due from everybody under the empire and it had to be paid with Roman money. But notice Jesus doesn’t rifle through the loose change in his pockets to pull one out. He asks them for it, and they produce a denarius. And Jesus asks, “Whose image is on that, and whose title?”

If they were onto him at this point, there’d be a long, dumb pause: “uhhhhh…the emperor.” See, simply using this coin was forcing you to swear allegiance to the emperor, to Caesar. Right on its face, it gave him the title “son of god.” By using that coin, by having it to show off, the so-called religious authorities demonstrate their hypocrisy. They claim to be devoted to God. Daily in worship and prayer they would’ve proclaimed, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you in your heart” (Deuteronomy 6). Well, they might have had those words in their hearts, but in their pockets they were holding onto a second so-called god, his face engraved on the coin.

That shows the shape of the debate is not about politics so much as theological worldview. In telling them to render to Caesar, Jesus might mean “purge yourself of that filthy heretical coin.” In some regard, while bearing that image, it is dominating their lives, that is their lord, and so they aren’t bearing the image of the Lord their God. It highlights their bondage to their enemy, the occupying army, that we can’t escape the systems that ensnare our lives. Again, rather than a question of religion versus government, a larger issue here is two competing powers, for the empire’s kind of control or God’s kingdom in this world.

Even though our bills don’t call George Washington the son of god, this makes it hit home. If our dollars claim that “in God we trust,” how much do they really do that, and when do they render us captive to another force?

For us, we may figure it’s appropriate to begin trying to resolve the riddle by making this word from Jesus into a lesson on how you use money, especially as we prepare to share our financial pledges next Sunday, encouraging you to give more to church, that you should render more to God, return more of what you’ve been given. Yet what does that mean? Is it giving 2% of your income instead of 1%? Or giving 10% and reaching a tithe, can you think you’ve done enough?

After all, God has given you 100%.   It may be right and good to ask what you give at church, yet if we’re working with this passage that tells you to render to God what is God’s, how do you pay back 100% of all that you have and are? Putting tokens in the offering plate wouldn’t cut it. Maybe we return gratitude and praise, that if we’re given a beautiful autumn day, we remember constantly to thank God. Maybe we ask about our vocations, of how we’re using our time and skills to press toward the goals of Jesus. Yet as vital as those efforts are, they also reveal it’s not just the hypocritical opponents in the reading today who fall short in their loyalty and devotion. It’s all of us.

One more example: We hear about foreign Cyrus doing the work of God without even knowing it. The opposite comes on Good Friday, when Jesus has a conversation with the Governor Pontius Pilate, the representative of Caesar. The conversation emphasizes our point, that not just his property or palace, but even his position of power has come from God. If he’d rendered to God and not to Caesar, Pilate would’ve pursued very different path. Maybe he would’ve stopped the crucifixion of Jesus.

Yet even in that, God’s work was done. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we know the fullness of God’s compassion and God’s abundant and amazing forgiveness and the work of God for life that just will not stop.

I’m going to conclude by suggesting you are hypocrites, but you are faithful hypocrites. You are sinners, but you are simultaneously saints and sinners. You render to God, but you also render to Caesar and the corrupt powers of this world. Even more, you are rendered by those powers. They render you helpless or trapped, in bondage, captive to sin. You are stuck supporting systems you’d prefer not to, trapped by taxes you don’t want to pay, ensnared by a consumer lifestyle, captive to carbon emissions by which you cause climate change, to prejudices and racisms you may not even always realize exist. For your life and for the good of others, it is indeed a terribly important choice to struggle against those oppressive forces that are rendering you an agent of evil, or of Caesar, opposing God.

But also know you are rendered an agent of God. The God who has given you 100% of your blessings and sustains you through every breath will continue striving for you, and with you. God doesn’t wait for you to perfect yourself, won’t repay you for your actions, never renders evil for evil, but always will be the God of life. You don’t get more just when you’ve proven you can do the right thing. It’s not taken away from you when you do wrong. God in Christ receives when you’re at your most considerate and devoted and doing your best, but God in Christ will just as much pursue blessing when you’re malicious and miserable and selfish and broke and broken.

Even when you’ve squandered 100% and given it to exactly the wrong place, the God of our whole universe is still working with that total. You can’t take anything away from God. God recycles and recreates you from the ashes of your past, from dead ends and even rising out of death. This is the true power. You are entrapped by Jesus, held captive and kept tightly in God’s love. It doesn’t matter what’s in your wallet. When God looks at your face, all that shows is the image of Jesus.

Hymn: Take My Life, That I May Be (ELW #583)

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