by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 22:15-22
Ever since Jesus walked this earth, his followers have struggled to live both in the Now and Coming Kingdom of God he was announcing and as subjects in the kingdoms, empires, fiefdoms, tribes, and nations of this world. In our current electoral season, it’s time to be reminded that, like people in Jesus’s world who had to answer to imperial Rome, we also struggle to square our duties as U.S. citizens with our ultimate fealty to the God of Love and Life.
The U.S. Constitution’s very first amendment guarantees freedom of religion and includes “the establishment clause” intended to disentangle religion from governmental control and influence, but the line separating the roles of church and state remains contentious. I want to share briefly how I parse its meaning in light of Jesus’s advice that we “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22: 21). We’ll make space for discussion of this topic in tomorrow’s Zoom meeting.
I begin with my conviction that a pastor in her role as pastor should not officially endorse a particular candidate or political party, but it is within scripture’s prophetic tradition for her to call to account political leaders who are doing damage. I certainly believe it is appropriate for me and for you to critique harmful actions and support life-enhancing changes. Our denomination likewise refrains from endorsing candidates or parties but expects church members to educate themselves on the issues of the day and engage in the political arena as voters, activists, and even as public servants to contribute to a more just and loving community. But there is a line we try to observe. As the monumentally important November 3rd election fast approaches, it’s timely to consider our civic duties as both Americans and Christians, citizens of our nation and of the “kin*dom” Jesus preached.
What do we owe to civil authorities and processes? Perhaps foremost is our responsibility to engage in actions, including civic processes, that can contribute to God’s justice in this world, especially by demanding equity and care for those on the margins. I believe we can contribute to a more just world by, for instance, voting wisely, running for public office, using our influence to change laws, contributing our time and money to worthy political campaigns, and calling out elected officials when they have not acted in the public’s interest. Of course, we can’t look directly to Jesus’s example on this matter because Jesus could do none of those things. He was not even a citizen of the Roman Empire that had invaded this homeland. So we have to extrapolate from his situation to consider how Jesus might have participated in a twenty-first century representative democracy.
The United Church of Christ encourages church members to educate themselves on the issues of the day and then engage in the political arena as voters, activists, and candidates to create a more just and peaceful world. At times we might feel called to publicly protest injustice. The Gospels offer examples of Jesus exposing evil committed against the poor of his day as he, for example, humbly rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to parody the imperial way conquerors paraded into a defeated city to cultivate shock and awe–and acquiescence. Matthew’s Jesus, in fact, recommended the use of guerilla theater as an anti-Empire tactic for oppressed people with no voice and certainly no vote. See this sermon from 2014 for more details on Walter Wink’s understanding of the use of guerilla theater for nonviolent responses to Empire and see the UCC website for actions in support of religious freedom.
So Jesus engaged in what we might today term political protest but which was, in his day, quite dangerous, there being no right to “free speech” in ancient Roman-controlled Palestine. Jesus’s ongoing criticism of religious and state authorities had infuriated both and soon resulted in his arrest. He was, of course, indicting religious leaders because they had made accommodations to the Empire’s injustices. Matthew says that as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, he told his twelve core disciples that he anticipated being “handed over to the chief priests and scribes” who, being official religious authorities cowed by Roman power, would “condemn him to death” (Matthew 20:17-19). His entrance into Jerusalem had made a mockery of Roman authority, and his subsequent visit to the Temple further sealed his fate when he kicked out the money changers. Both the secular and religious leaders Jesus condemned then demanded to know who had authorized him (Matthew 21:22) and began to plot his demise.
Obviously, neither the religious scribes and Pharisees nor the governmental lackeys of King Herod, Pontius Pilate, and Caesar himself had authorized Jesus’s unnerving statements or troubling antics. Jesus was his own authority. Or rather the God whom Jesus served was his sole authority.
Our Gospel reading for today picks up as a group of religious leaders (the disciples of the Pharisees) and the Heroidans (a political party who supported King Herod) gang up to discredit Jesus. He’d thus far been stirring up the crowds with thinly veiled comments that weren’t too inflammatory. But this group of interrogators double-teamed him to ask, after a few insincere words of flattery, if it were lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the Emperor (Matthew 22:17). It was obvious no answer could please both sects. The Herodians believed it was unlawful NOT to pay tribute to Herod, while the religious authorities, the Pharisees, had been compromising their religious convictions in order to appease Herod. To answer their question, Jesus would have had to anger or shame one segment of his interrogators if not both. “Aware of their malice” (22:18), he decided to become himself the interrogator, asking 2 questions and giving one order:
1) First, he directly asked why they were testing him. They did not answer. Though phrased as a question, his indirect accusation exposed them as betrayers of their own people and hypocritical henchmen of Herod.
2) Then he immediately ordered them to produce a coin, a denarius, which had the image of the emperor on it and which would serve as his visual aid, good teacher that he was. Just by producing the coin, those who brought it to him were in a sense implicated in the imperial economy. The person who produced the currency of the Empire was, unlike Jesus, participating in the ways and means of the Empire. Jesus didn’t have to say he condemned Caesar to show that he was not complicit in the Imperial economy.
3) Finally, Jesus asked “whose head” was on the coin and “whose title.” This was, of course, a question they all knew the answer to, but they had to, in effect, name and thus acknowledge the “god” they were serving. “Caesar,” they had to admit. Jesus had indicted them. Then he lessoned them: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” One way to interpret that response is that everything ultimately comes from God and returns to God. After stunned silence, his testers left.
It’s not likely Jesus was disallowing the use of money, but his tidy summation of the matter should make us wonder:
1) Are we ensnared in the socio-economic injustices of our days?
2) Is it possible for us to disentangle ourselves from the system we’ve inherited and have served so that we can evaluate it honestly?
3) How then do we give to our government the things due our government (if it’s even possible for an earthly government to be responsive to the needs of the least, the last, and the lost) while giving back to God the things that are God’s? How do we align our personal budgets, investments, charitable giving, and use of the earth’s resources with our commitment to follow Jesus?
Our denominational ancestors, the Puritans, believed they were going to create a civil government in the New World that would be for God a shining “city on a hill” (Matthew 5:14). Unfortunately, they disregarded other people who’d been living on land the European settlers laid claim to, and although many of our denominational ancestors became abolitionists, most white Americans today are descended from people who, to some extent, participated in or at least benefited from the sin of slavery. White Americans must face the complicated history of these United States, much of which we’ve for so long sanitized and glorified.
There is much to repent and much to do.
I suggest we start by paying our taxes, friends.
And vote, please, because lives may depend on it.
And work to make this country such a generous, just, safe, ennobling, diverse, compassionate, and enlightened place that those who make the most money will indeed pay the most in taxes, and it will become a joy for all of us to contribute to the American project.
God’s grace and peace be with you all.