Paying Taxes to Caesar (Third Sunday in Lent) – February 28, 2016 (NL Week 25)

Sunday’s Reading:
Mark 12:13-17

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

The saying goes that there are two things you should never talk about in polite company: religion and politics. Behind this saying, of course, is the understanding that these areas of our lives involve such deeply held beliefs that talking about them in public, especially when there’s a good chance of widespread disagreement, tends to be, at best, an exercise in futility, and, at worst, a cause for open conflict. There are many occasions, of course, in which this bit of conventional wisdom is sorely needed. I recall more than one Christmas gathering with my extended family that devolved into intense debate on a controversial topic, which accomplished little besides casting a somber mood over the holiday meal. On the other hand, there are other occasions on which one or both of these topics are unavoidable. With apologies to those of you who think that Sunday morning is one of those times when speaking about politics is inappropriate, today’s reading doesn’t really give us much of a choice in the matter.

The heart of this passage is a question from opponents of Jesus who attempt to get him to choose sides in an on-going dispute about the relationship between the governing authorities and God. On one side of this dispute were the people asking this question: a group of Pharisees and Herodians – those who were part of the “administration” of Herod – who were aligned with the religious and political leadership in Jerusalem and who, as a result, had an interest in appeasing the Romans by encouraging people to submit to the census and the taxation that went along with it. On the other side was the revolutionary party in first-century Judaism, who saw the Romans as opponents of God, and regarded those who supported the Romans as traitors to God and the people of Israel. In asking Jesus this question, the Pharisees and Herodians were attempting to place him in a lose-lose situation. If he said that paying the tax was in keeping with God’s instruction, then he set himself against the revolutionaries, who likely had significant backing from the Galilean masses who followed Jesus. If he said that paying the tax was unlawful, he set himself against Herod and the governing council in Jerusalem – not to mention the Roman governor and the emperor himself – and put himself on the fast track to execution. Jesus, of course, wasn’t interested in taking the bait, and his response to this fraught question continues to be as amazing and provocative as it was when he first uttered those famous words: Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s; or, as our current translation has it: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Just as it did in Jesus’ day, this saying flies in the face of our attempts to equate particular policy prescriptions with a monolithic “Christian” position. That’s not to say, of course, that anything goes, or that Scripture can or should rightly be used to advocate for any and every possible viewpoint. It is to say, however, that we cannot separate our participation in civic affairs from our participation in Christ’s body. Jesus’ response tells us that – to use the terminology developed by Martin Luther in the sixteenth century – we are simultaneously living under two authorities: the state, which places certain obligations on us, God, who demands nothing less than our whole lives be given in obedient service. This way of looking at the world is challenging, because it requires us to be discerning about how the claims made on us by the authorities complement or conflict with the claims that God makes on us.

How, for example, are we to understand Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers”? In the church’s early history, Christians almost universally refused to be involved in military service, even when it was compulsory, because they saw it as incompatible with discipleship. Within a few hundred years, military service and Christianity were no longer opposed to one another outright, as the church wrestled further with its place in society and the obligation of Christians to serve on behalf of their fellow citizens. By the time of Luther, the question was basically settled in the other direction, and at present there are very few groups within Western Christianity that see an inherent conflict between military service and Christian identity. That’s why, for example, Lutherans and others train and certify chaplains to serve members of the armed services. The common thread through these conversations has – hopefully – been an honest seeking after answers to the questions, “What belongs to the emperor?” and “What belongs to God?”

This is just one issue on which Christians have argued and continue to argue about what faithfulness looks like. Unfortunately, we live in a society in which the most strident voices attempt to define what a “Christian” position looks like on any number of issues, often with the implication that those who don’t share the speaker’s position on those issues are less faithful disciples. This is not particular to any group within American politics; both liberals and conservatives are prone to seeing their own viewpoints as right and any opposing viewpoint as irretrievably wrongheaded. (In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I am guilty of this kind of thinking more often than I’d like to admit. I’m describing a a problem that besets many – if not all – of us.) If there’s any hope of leaving this kind of thinking behind, it starts with pondering the fact that Jesus refuses to engage in it when he is given the perfect opportunity to pick sides. That’s not to say, of course, that Jesus doesn’t have a clear answer to the question; it’s simply to say that his answer fails to justify one side at the expense of the other. Jesus didn’t come, after all, to confirm our own view of the world, but to transform us into a community who attempts to see the world through God’s eyes rather than our own.

We are already deeply immersed in an election cycle that is promising to be as contentious as any in recent memory. Whatever your viewpoint on certain political matters, you – and all of us – are being invited (or perhaps a better word is incited) to line up with everyone who thinks the way you do and stand against those who disagree with you. It’s tempting to give in to that kind of thinking and acting, especially when we’re being told that the fate of our nation depends on the outcome of the election – meaning that if the wrong side prevails, the country is headed for certain disaster. In the face of this apocalyptic rhetoric – and there’s really no other word for it – perhaps we would do well to take a step back and consider Jesus’ approach to his own “litmus test” moment. In the end, we will have to make decisions as individuals and as a nation that reflect our understanding of Scripture and political philosophy and any number of other things; we don’t have to play into the mentality that says “my viewpoint is the only righteous one, and anyone who disagrees with me is ungodly or unchristian”. Humility leads us to remember that – as the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians – we all see in a mirror dimly. God alone has the perfect knowledge that we so often want to claim for ourselves.

And so, brothers and sisters, as this election year continues, let us endeavor to live with that humility enjoined on us by Paul. Let us seek to be at peace with all, and to maintain a spirit of unity, even – especially! – in the midst of disagreement. Let us remember that God’s image is present in the face of all people – liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican and Independent – and that all of us who bear the name of Christ are called to follow him on the way of God, a way that does not conform to anything we can imagine or construct for ourselves. Finally, let us render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s, so that we might serve our neighbors and our God with the loyalty and integrity due to both. May it be so among us. Amen.

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