Who’s In Charge Here? (Isaiah 45:1-7; Matthew 22:15-22)
One of the things we hear about quite frequently in the news now is the tax reform the congress is preparing to take up. There is no question that it has been a long time since the tax-code has been worked through and brought up to date. I am old fashioned enough to believe that it would be much better with free debate and bipartisan cooperation, but I am not naïve enough to think that it will probably go that way. As far as taxes go, most of us think that we pay too much and everyone else pays too little, especially those with whom we don’t agree. Well, none of that is new.
Jesus was asked a question about taxes by a bipartisan group of (other) Jewish religious leaders one day. (I say, “other,” because, by the time Matthew wrote at least, Jesus was also known as a Jewish religious leader.) This comes as the first of a series of four questions that are intended to trick and shame Jesus in his culture, but end up only enhancing his honour. This, really, only made his death even more sure. In fact, if you link the four questions with the three parables that go before them (that we’ve taken time to look at in the three previous Sundays), there are seven sections (the ancient perfect number) of texts here in which Matthew tells stories of Jesus to underline what is central in discipleship to him. Although each of the three parables has its own nuances, they all emphasize that, for disciples of Jesus, visibly doing what is right, is central. In the final parable, the whole statement about the wedding garment even emphasizes that the lack of visible lifestyle evidence of following Jesus’ teaching of love, honour, grace, and hope leads to disappearing as a credible pipeline of that love, honour, grace, and hope for people, and instead leads to weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth in darkness. This is because we choose to live in ways that lose our credibility, pictured as being in darkness, not because God zaps us into darkness from on high.
From the way many of us have been taught, Matthew’s very next great centrality of Christian discipleship is that we all pay our taxes. Frankly, I think much Bible reading, teaching, and preaching doesn’t attempt to connect things that are next to one another in the Bible and reads them as little “pearls on a string.”
There is no doubt that, given our natural tendencies, we will hear texts (from the Bible or elsewhere) through the ears of our culture. We come at today’s text and hear “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” and because the story started out as about taxes, we think that this is about what most of us do on or about April 15th. We come at this text through centuries of inherited tradition in a democracy in which separation of church and state are a foundation-stone. And, for Baptists, and some others, the whole separation of church and state is also a denominational distinctive right up there with believer’s baptism.
Well, Jesus had never heard of a democracy, or of separation of church and state. The people who listened to him, and Matthew who wrote to a Christian congregation some decades after Jesus’ death, had never heard of these things. They wouldn’t be known for centuries. Their hearers were, for the most part, people without property for whom taxes meant legal extortion. They were subjects of the conquering might of Rome. The matter of taxes was such a different thing then than now that it’s scarcely comparable.
The whole question of taxes to the emperor is really only the frame that Jesus’ opponents were using to box him in. This story is really no more about taxes than Moby Dick is about whaling or Huck Finn is about rafting on the Mississippi or Tom Sawyer about white-washing fences. These things are only local flavour and colour. Neither Matthew or Jesus was saying that paying one’s taxes (or not, depending on how one takes the saying) is one of the true basics of discipleship to Jesus. Jesus responds to a question about it as a way of teaching another lesson and Matthew repeats and reshapes the lesson to be relevant to his congregants decades later. So what is his point?
Jesus’ statement is, carefully translated, “Give back (or, perhaps, keeping the image of the tax, “pay back”) the things of the Emperor to the emperor, and the things of God to God.” The question, however, is how we understand both that which belongs to the emperor (the state, the government, whatever it is for us) and that which belongs to God.
There is no doubt that in a good deal of American law, politics, and religion generally, that this is taken to mean that there are two independent spheres, God and Emperor, we have called them “Church and State.” We assume that what Jesus was talking about here was, simply, keeping them separate. Even if God rules both spheres, the one is ruled through secular law, the other through Gospel grace. So they really don’t touch.
The real question here is what is it that belongs to God and what is it that belongs to the emperor? We usually don’t say it out loud, but all the worldly stuff like taxes and the economy, and how we make money (and spend it), and government, and politics, etc., all belong to the emperor. The churchy, ethereal, spiritual stuff (that nobody can see or spend) belongs to God. Even look at your bulletin cover. It quotes the last half of Jesus’ saying about giving to God those things that belong to God. Look at the picture. The inside of a church. That’s God’s. Don’t picture anything remotely to do with living everyday life, or with caring for people. Just stick to candles, pulpits, and Bible readings. Many of us were taught that the church should stick to talking about souls and leave the bodies to someone in the “real world.” Yet, I can absolutely guarantee you that’s not what Jesus meant by paying taxes, nor was it his view of the things that belonged to the emperor and to God.
Jesus, himself preached to people who were overwhelmingly, day-labourers and beggars, peasants, a few household servants and merchants. For none of these would the matter of taxes to the emperor be anything remotely like what happens to us. Although Matthew’s community of faith may have had a few more who were not crushingly impoverished, all would still have been in servitude to Rome. Jewish folk had been in servitude for most of the several centuries before Jesus and Matthew.
So, then, what did Jesus think belonged to God? Long before Jesus’ time, Israel was struggling as a displaced people in a foreign land. The “Caesar” of their world was Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who had taken them captive and burned Jerusalem and its temple to the ground, much as the Romans had burned to the ground the temple and the city the Jews built to replace Solomon’s Temple and David’s city. The people of God had thought that God, their God, was the Lord of the whole earth, the creator of all that was, and the defender of the righteous. That Israel was God’s chosen people with a responsibility to live their lives as examples of what it meant to be chosen was commonly thought to carry with it the assumption of a little privilege as well. Where did the privilege go when the king of Babylon who had never even heard of their God, but called on many others, successfully defeated them and, pretty much, emptied their land of inhabitants? Maybe their God (or so-called god) wasn’t so great after all. Maybe it was God who got Caesar’s (or, in this case Nebuchadnezzar’s) leftovers. It went this way for between 40 and 50 years, until, one day, they heard of another super-power, the Persians, and a new “Caesar” named Cyrus the Great. And Persia and the Persian gods were marching ever westward toward Babylon with victory after victory. Maybe, just maybe, the world didn’t belong to Nebuchadnezzar, but to Cyrus. But what of God?
It is then that the word contained in our Old Testament Lesson sounded clear that, although Cyrus was to be the instrument of Israel’s emancipation and home-going, that it wasn’t Cyrus, but God who was working to bring this about, using Cyrus as a tool. And this was puzzling, of course, because they, like we, assumed that if our God was going to do anything in this world, God will do it through us and people like us. But the principle behind the particularity of this remarkable text in Isaiah 45 is that our God is not so limited. God’s work needs neither us nor those like us. It’s God who’s in charge here. God may work through anyone. Interestingly, this text in the Old Testament and Cyrus’ own words show that, while he may have known the Hebrew God’s name, he was no convert. And God worked through him still. God’s sovereignty includes all the realms of the earth, and all the peoples, nations and tongues. So what is that which belongs to God? Everything. And that’s what Jesus thought, and that’s what Matthew, in our passage is saying is foundational for disciples of Jesus. It’s naught to do with taxes or with the emperor du jour, really. God’s in charge here.
So, why should we even mention Caesar or the emperor at all, if everything belongs to God, and God’s in charge? Well, for one thing, because that’s the question Jesus was asked by those Pharisees and Herodians. For another thing, Matthew told the story because the question of what belongs to the emperor (or the state or the world, choose your term) is still one with which the folks in his community had to cope, and so do we, in our way. We must all pay our dues in the world.
I have suggested to you in the past three weeks (and many times this year as we’ve been reading this Gospel) that Matthew was trying to help his community know the difference between what was primary and important for them as Jesus’ disciples, and what they might leave to individual conscience. This story suggests that it is central for Jesus’ disciples to trust that, although it might be necessary to pay off the emperor in the some of the coins that bear that image, our prior necessity is to recognize the sovereignty of God in Christ, and to pay God back in the divine currency of love, mercy, grace, and peace for the benefit of those who bear the image of God, which is simply every human on earth., by imitating Jesus’ actions in this world. We owe primary allegiance to God and to God’s values.
Now, of course, the particularities of the world in which we live are quite different from those of either Jesus’ time or the time of Cyrus the Great, and it’s sometimes hard to sense the sovereignty of God. How we pay Caesar is notoriously difficult to think through. But we shouldn’t give up. Disciples who don’t think, soon stink. One way, I suggest, that we can think and not stink is to see how God’s values are going forth today in the hands of many folk, those like us and those who are not like us. Whoever controls the agenda, it’s God’s work that is being done when Jesus’ love and grace, his mercy and warmth are going forth in action. If that makes us a little uneasy, or even afraid, we aren’t the first of God’s people to feel that way. Only a little earlier in the Book of Isaiah, in the 41st chapter, God said: “Stop being afraid, for I am with you, do not be anxious, for I am your God; I strengthen you, I help you, I uphold you with my victorious right hand.”
In our world, we may wonder, almost every day, “Who’s in charge here”? Jesus says that it’s the God of love, mercy, and grace. Let’s trust that, conquer our fear, and go ahead.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.