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An Occasional Blog by The Reverend Grace P. Burson, Holy Trinity's Associate Transitional Pastor
Holy Trinity, Newington/Imanuel, Newington
Proper 24, Year A
October 22, 2017
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Or, in the old translation that became an aphorism independent of its context, “Render unto Caesar …”
Jesus, in his ongoing war of words with the religious authorities, neatly evades a trick question here. The Pharisees, in their attempts to “entrap” him, knew that the question about taxes was the one that really mattered. If he answered “yes”, he would be viewed by the Jews as a collaborator; if he answered “no”, he would be seen by the Romans as a traitor. There was no good option.
But Jesus not only finds a good option, he calls out the questioners on their “malice,” making it clear that he knows exactly what game they’re playing.
Within his clever answer, though, is another, deeper trick question.
Jesus seems to accept the idea that if the emperor’s image and superscription are on the coin, then the coin must belong to the emperor. Often his answer is interpreted to mean, “Give your money to the earthly authorities that demand it, but save the really important things – yourself, your faith and allegiance – for God.”
This is fine as far as it goes, but if we stop there, we can end up thinking that there are parts of our lives to which God and faith are relevant, and parts of our lives to which they aren’t. But this is a dangerous misconception. Taken to its extreme, it can result in one of the heresies known as dualism or Gnosticism, in which everything earthly is considered sinful and corrupt, and we are saved, not through faith in God, but through secret knowledge.
Because regardless of the verbal gymnastics that Jesus has to perform in order to get the Pharisees off his back (very temporarily, as it turns out, since he’s crucified three days after this conversation happens) – the truth is, there’s nothing in our lives that’s exempt from God’s concern.
If we were in any doubt, we need only turn to the passage from the prophet Isaiah, the first of today’s lessons. It will require a little context to understand the impact of this passage, so bear with me.
At the time of the writing of this chapter, the Israelites were in exile, but King Cyrus had just become king of Persia and was making plans (for political reasons of his own) to return the people of Israel and Judah to their homeland. Because of this, Isaiah saw Cyrus as an agent of God’s will.
It’s hard to overstate how radical this assertion – that a Persian king, a worshiper of Marduk, could be doing the will of the God of Israel – was, in the context of the 5th century BCE. The rulers of one nation were not supposed to have relationships with the gods of another. The ruler’s job was to obey and placate his own nation’s gods. The gods of other nations were the responsibility of those nations’ kings. Each nation asserted that its gods were the best and most powerful, but no one really disputed that all those gods existed. Even the stubbornly monotheistic Israelites accepted that the other nations’ gods were real, although they often called them demons or abominations instead of gods. The idea that there was one god who ruled over all the nations was practically unthinkable.
But Isaiah thought it. And he hammered away at the idea throughout the seven verses of today’s passage. “I am the Lord and there is no other; besides me there is no God. … There is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.” And just in case Cyrus has not yet gotten the point, God repeats: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.”
In other words, God is not taking responsibility only for the good things in human life (light, “weal”); God also confidently declares that the bad things are his responsibility too (“I … create woe”). The Lord is the Lord of the whole earth; there is nothing that falls outside God’s purview.
People often question how God can be all-powerful and good when there is so much suffering in the world. This doesn’t seem to be a question that bothers Isaiah’s God; he seems quite comfortable being responsible for all of it, the good as well as the bad. We are the ones who have the impulse to try to separate out the unpleasant stuff and assign it to some other entity than the God we worship – like those who use today’s Gospel passage to claim that money is dirty and unworthy of the attention of God, and so we should “render unto Caesar” and otherwise try to keep our minds on loftier things.
Actually, the entire rest of the Gospels shows that Jesus is deeply concerned about what we do with our money. The Gospels are, in fact, relentlessly economic documents, from the Parable of the Talents to the widow’s mite. Our money is the last thing that should be bracketed out of our faith lives.
In this stewardship season, we reflect on the ways we use the gifts that God had given us, our financial resources very much included. And we take a hard look at how we are spending our money, and whether that reflects the values and priorities that we claim to hold.
Since signing my first online petition circa 1999, I have gotten on the mailing list of pretty much every nonprofit in existence. Most of them send me mail at least several times a year. I let the envelopes pile up until the end of the month, and then I sit down and go through them. I can only contribute to a tiny fraction of the solicitations, but each month I do write a few checks, based on a percentage of whatever my income is at the time. And I try to remember to pray over the ones I can’t respond to (well, except for the occasional request from an organization promoting something in direct opposition to my values; it’s always entertaining to wonder how I got on those lists). And I contribute an equal amount to churches or other ministries that I support. This is very much an expression of my faith.
Of course, I also pay my taxes, because participating in the common good through government is also one of my values – though I would do so more joyfully if less of the money went to weapons and subsidizing fossil fuel production, and more of it to feeding the hungry, caring for creation, and healing the sick.
There is nothing in our lives that God does not consider relevant to our faithfulness and our flourishing. There is nothing that falls outside God’s domain of concern.
I was reminded of this once again over the past weekend, when the hashtag “Me Too” began to trend on social media. Thousands of women (and others) used this simple phrase to indicate that they, too, had been the victims of the kind of abuse perpetrated by the film director Harvey Weinstein over decades of his career. And a horrifying number of those stories came from within the church. There are too many pastors and church leaders – and one would be too many! – who think that their institutional authority gives them unquestioned access to other people’s bodies, to use and abuse as they like. They have apparently forgotten that there is no part of our lives that is not subject to God’s expectation that we love our neighbor as ourself.
And all too often, it is the victims, instead, who become convinced that they are too dirty and shameful to be acceptable to God, when in fact they are utterly innocent.
Because the flip side of the fact that all parts of our lives are owed to, and subject to, God, is the fact that there is no part of our lives that is too messy and hard for God. There is no part of our experience that is so difficult that God cannot come and be present with us, sit with us in the pain and confusion, and help us to bring good out of evil. Even the perpetrators of abuse can be redeemed – if they realize the extent of the harm they have done, repent, and resolve to do better.
All of us belong to God; and God helps all of us.
“There is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
And, it turns out, even the things that are the emperor’s, are also God’s.