Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Giving to Caesar and God                                                                                                                         October 18, 2020

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s.”

This verse is often quoted to support the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States which insists upon our freedom to practice our religion but also the separation of Church and State.  Oh boy….this is always a fun topic, isn’t it?

Of course Christians don’t agree on how that separation between Church and State is to be understood. Some Christians believe they need to stay away from politics of any kind and just focus on personal salvation. Some even go so far as to say that Christians need to shut themselves off from the world completely because they see “the world” in general as a contaminating force.

We actually stand within a tradition that strongly affirms the need to separate church and state. And yet Progressive Christians also feel very much called to engage with the world outside the church… to build a more just world….to be mid-wives of a new creation…and we look to the teachings of Jesus to tell us what such a world would look like. We tend to be aligned with the great theologian, Karl Barth who once said, we hold the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

So this week I was re-reading the Williamsburg Charter. Never heard of it? Well neither had I under a couple of years ago. Published in 1988 it was the result of a summit meeting that included conservative and liberal Protestants, Roman Catholics, Easter Orthodox Christians and Jews, along with members of Congress, academics, media people, business leaders and various other representatives and it was intended to be a unifying statement about the relationship between faith communities and the state. And yet the sad fact is that so few have even heard of it.

It starts out by affirming that fear of creating a Christian America is justified. . .that there needs to be separation. But it also recognizes that politics is an extension of our values and ethics so it should be well grounded in our personal religious and philosophical perspective. “However,” it says, Iin the public sphere we need to be able to translate our arguments into language that can be rationally articulated and readily understood across different faith traditions.”

And then it affirms the importance of religious tolerance: “Too often religious believers have been uncharitable, liberals have been illiberal, conservatives have been insensitive to tradition, champions of tolerance have been intolerant, and defenders of free speech have been censorious.”

Ultimately it suggest that what we need to work toward is, “Neither a naked public square where all religion is excluded, nor a sacred public square with any religion established or semi-established.” The ideal is “a civil public square in which citizens of all religious faiths, or none, engage one another in the continuing democratic discourse.”

It is a wonderful document, but what is most remarkable about it is who signed it…100 leaders of our nation at that time…names you would know. They cross every political and religious line and include secular folk, religious folk, social conservatives and social liberals. People as diverse as Jimmy Carter, William Bennet and Phyllis Shaffley. Phyllis Shaffley…. Remember her? She’s the one who did everything she could to fight the ERA. She signed on too! It really is sad that this thing never really gained any traction.

But the Williamsburg Charter is addressing the issue of religion and state primarily from a constitutional point of you. As followers of Jesus we must of course wonder what Jesus had to say about this complex issue…which leads me back to this morning’s scripture reading.

It’s one of many stories that shows Jesus at his best…we get to see him not only able to dodge the bullet, but to also lead us to deeper waters of truth.

The story takes place in the Temple on Tuesday of Holy week. Jesus has already cursed a fig tree, challenged the authority of the chief priests, and angered the Pharisees….and it wasn’t even noon yet. The Pharisees apparently took advantage of the lunch break to enlist the help of their opponents, the Herodians. The Herodians weren’t particularly religious and they supported the Roman authority given to Herod over Israel. This was an unholy alliance based on a common enemy, Jesus, and intended to expose Jesus as either a rebel against Rome or a blasphemer against Judaism.

The problem these religious and political leaders set before Jesus is one we face every day: To whom do we owe our primary allegiance? When the law of the land seems to go against the law of God, what choice should we make? Is our allegiance first and foremost to the state or our religion?

They are very sneaky in their approach…start by buttering him up….but then comes the question: “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus says yes he is guilty of blasphemy. If he says no he is guilty of treason.

But Jesus doesn’t answer the question. Instead he says, “Show me the money.” It was a brilliant move, because notice for one thing, Jesus didn’t have one on him. Even carrying a Roman denarius with Caesar’s face inscribed under the word Divine would have been blasphemy for the Jews.  So Jesus already has his challengers down on the mats in a half nelson because he just exposed who was carrying a coin like that in his pocket and who wasn’t.

But then also consider the fact that the image of Caesar on it was not the only problem with that coin they just handed Jesus. A denarius would have been the very coin that the Jews used to pay their tax to Rome. denarius per year… it was the coin used to finance their own oppression.

So, what does Jesus say? “Whose image is on the coin?” I have to imagine it was the Herodians, those Jews who supported the Roman occupation, who answered first. “The emperor’s.” They probably thought Jesus was about to affirm the authority of Caesar. But instead Jesus says, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

You can almost hear the wind going out of their sails, can’t you? The Pharisees and Herodians are silenced… and like all those who have considered this story for some 2,000 years we are left to ponder what Jesus really meant.

At first, it seems as if he has foiled his opponents once again with a “both/and” answer to an “either/or” question. But for those of us who have chosen to ground ourselves in the ancient stories of our faith,  an unspoken question hangs in the air: If the image stamped on a coin determines whose it is, what has God’s image stamped upon it?

And that’s when we hear echoes of the story of Creation from Genesis: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” It’s God’s image that is imprinted upon us….not an image of any flag or national symbol….but of God, God’s-self….which means God always has a higher claim upon us in this world and we are called to bear that image in this world.

We might not always agree about how that image is best born in our world. Living that out is often complicated and full of ambiguity. I mean let’s just start with that issue of taxes. IS it right to pay taxes to Caesar? Personally I have no problem paying taxes to support our schools, maintain an infrastructure, and provide a safety net for those who need one. I am happy to pay taxes for a lot of things…and although I have strong pacifist tendencies I can even live with some of my money providing for our national defense….but when my money is used to support the Saudi war against the people of Yemen…I am deeply troubled.

And of course it’s not just taxes. How to live out our faith in this world is complicated, isn’t it? But three things I know for sure: First, as followers of Jesus we are called to live in and engage with this world with all its problems and joys. Second, while guilt is unavoidable the greater guilt is to live with our heads in the sand; I know it’s tempting these days, but that is not going to help. And third, these are the kinds of  discussions we need to have; In any given moment how do we best bear God’s image into a world often filled with political division and social chaos.

But let’s not ever forget that discernment always begins with prayer. So, let us pray.

O God, sometimes we want to just give up….turn our backs on the problems of this world…focus on our own lives and forget about everyone else. And yet we are also grateful that you trust us…and that you have entrusted us with the work of birthing your just and beautiful kingdom in this world. Give us the strength to persist. Give us the wisdom to know what your love requires. Give us hope that the power of what is good and right is greater than the power of evil and darkness. For we ask these things in the name of the one who we call the Light of the World. Amen.