Year A, 20 Pentecost Matthew 22:15-22
At some point in 9th
or 10th grade, I became obsessed with politics. I think it was the presidential election that
got me interested and living in Northern Virginia, which was so close to
Washington DC. I remained obsessed all the way through high school and majored
in political science. My honors thesis senior year was on religion and
politics. For a long time I have been fascinated by the intersection of
religion and politics. One of the things that drew me to the Episcopal Church
is the way that it’s governed. The
structure of the Episcopal Church was created at the same time as the structure
of the United States government. It was
even created by the same people in the same city—this city. While they were
creating that government, they worshipped at this church.
Despite all of that, I
have always been wary of getting too close to politics in the pulpit. I try to preach the Bible and how it applies
to our lives. Sometimes there is overlap
with politics, but I will never tell you how to vote or what I think of our
current tax structure. Jesus was willing to confront the political and
religious leadership of the day. He had
the right to do that as he had absolute moral authority. He deserved that right. Well at least that is
what we believe now. At the time, very few people thought he had that
right. And you know what’s kind of
interesting…when a lot of people hear Jesus’ words today, they perceive them as
political. Funny how that is…
This Gospel reading is
a familiar one. People like to depict it as Jesus’ definitive stance on the
separation of church and state—as if Jesus had a political platform and this
was part of it. “Give therefore to the
emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are
God’s.” The popular interpretation is
that Jesus was telling people that there are two spheres with a clear wall in-between
them–religion and the government.
are a few problems with this interpretation.
First of all, we cannot compare the political environment of Jesus’ day
to ours today…and thank goodness for that.
We live in a democracy, an imperfect democracy, but a democracy none the
less. Jesus was a Jew living in an
occupied territory. Israel was under the
control of the Roman Empire. Because they were a people in an occupied
territory, they had no rights. They
didn’t get a vote on who their leader was.
Even the Roman citizens didn’t get to choose their leader. They had an
emperor—not an elected official. To complicate matters further, the Roman
emperor considered himself a god and demanded the devotion of a god. There was
no separation of religion and government.
That is impossible when the leader of the government portrays himself as
a god. This put the Jews in a very difficult situation because the first
commandment is to worship no other god but the one true God.
Romans, while not known for their overall sensitivity, were fairly tolerant of
other religions. They knew that the Jewish people would never worship another
god. The Jews would revolt before they
did that. The Romans were able to keep
some modicum of peace by not forcing the Jews to worship the emperor. But they did make them pay taxes…lots of
taxes. Those taxes were controversial
because they actually supported the Roman occupation of Israel. The Jewish
people were paying to be subjugated.
In our story for today,
there were two groups who came together to challenge Jesus. We don’t know much about the Herodians. There is only one other reference to them in
the Bible. People assume they were
supporters of Herod who represented the Roman leadership. If that was the case,
it was odd that they were teaming up with the Pharisees in trying to trap
Jesus. The Pharisees didn’t usually
associate with Herod’s people. It just goes to show how threatening Jesus was
to every power structure that existed at the time.
thought that they had the perfect question to trap Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay
taxes to the emperor?” If Jesus answered the question in a way that indicated
that he supported the tax, he would alienate his Jewish followers. If he said that they shouldn’t pay the tax,
he could be accused of rebelling against Rome.
Instead of answering whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,
he asked for the coin…the coin that would be used to pay this particular
tax. He did not have the coin. The people asking the question did. That is an important detail to note.
They brought him
a denarius. It had a picture of the
emperor with the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus
Pontifex Maximus.” Augustus was a smart
man and a very effective emperor. When
he took power, he made himself not only political leader, but a religious one
as well. When he died, he was a declared
a god, making his son, the son of god.
It was his son’s picture on the coin.
Even possessing this coin was considered idolatry in the Jewish faith. It broke the first commandment. The Pharisees
should not have even had the coin, but they did. When Jesus asked for the coin, he was proving
that he was not the pawn of the Roman government, they were…especially if they
were allying themselves with the Herodians.
Even if they were not pawns, they were certainly complicit. It was a brilliant way to point out their
Jesus’ answer to
the question wasn’t clear. I am not sure
he meant it to be. “Give to the emperor
the things that are the emperor’s and to God, the things that are God’s.” Jesus paid his taxes. We know that from chapter 17 of Matthew. We also know it because otherwise he would
have been arrested a lot earlier. It
would have been impossible to remain in a land occupied by Rome and not pay
taxes. That doesn’t mean Jesus respected
the emperor or agreed with the tax. He just knew that was what he had to
do. The more important part of this
response from Jesus is the 2nd half, the half people don’t quote
nearly as often. “Give to God, the things that are God’s.” We know
(in theory) that everything is God’s.
Everything in creation is God’s.
This isn’t Jesus demarcating a separation between God and the government. Everything is God’s. Caesar can have his coins, but that’s because
God is allowing it. God doesn’t want
part of our love and commitment. He
wants all of it—not just the change in our pockets.
summed it up like this, “Live with the emperor but live for God.” We live with and within the government. We might ally ourselves with a political
party or a certain leader, but that is not our identity—that is not the heart
of who we are. Our heart is with Jesus.
We can never stop living for God, because then we lose ourselves.
When we say that God doesn’t have a
place in our government or that our faith and our politics can never touch,
then I fear that we are missing the bigger picture. God has no interest in a portion of our
loyalty. He wants all of it and he wants
all of us. Politics is occupying a large
part of our attention these days. Can
you imagine if we spent as much time worshipping and serving God as we do
complaining about politics or really anything for that matter? Try it. Just for
a day. Then maybe we will understand
what it means to “Live with the emperor but live for God.”