Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 10/19/2014

You might think that at some point the Pharisees would have figured out that Jesus was smarter than they were and would have stopped trying to trap him with trick questions. But they didn’t; and to their credit they came up with a really good question in today’s gospel. Before asking the question though, they led with flattery, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” That sounds good, but in retrospect it perhaps wasn’t the best way to start because you can imagine Jesus listening to this and thinking, “Yeah, right. What are they up to now?” It probably served to alert him more than it did flatter him. But anyway, the question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

It seems relatively innocent but actually it’s in the “Have you stopped beating your wife?” category of questions. No matter which way you answer, it’s going to sound bad. If Jesus said no, it isn’t lawful to pay taxes, he could be accused of being a rebel, in league with the Zealots, the Jewish freedom fighters who were out to overthrow Roman rule in order to set up a Jewish state; it would have made him a criminal. If Jesus said yes, then he could be accused of siding with the Herodians, a group led by King Herod, a group looked down on as having turned their back on their own people in order to collaborate with the Romans who occupied the land. Such an association would challenge Jesus’ credentials as a prophet. So…yes or no, a case could be made against Jesus. That was the trick the Pharisees had up their sleeve.

Knowing what they were up to though, Jesus asked to be shown a coin, a coin on which there was an image of Caesar, the emperor, and he responded with “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” at which point the texts says that they were amazed probably because they had no idea what his answer meant. Did he just say it was all right to pay taxes to the emperor? Or did he imply that we owe everything to God and nothing to the emperor because everything we have is from God? Or did he just set up some kind of division between church and state, something akin to Luther’s two kingdoms, the Kingdom of God vs. the Kingdom of this world? Or was it just kind of a shrug of the shoulders, Jesus saying, “Leave me alone, this really doesn’t concern me”? You can imagine them walking away, talking to themselves and each other, trying to figure out what just happened.

Jesus’ response is famous for its ambiguity, ambiguity no clearer today than it was back then with the questions it raises, especially questions that touch on politics and religion. Taken one at a time either of those two topics can be pretty volatile, put the two of them together and you just throw gasoline on the fire.

The Pharisees and Herodians Jesus was talking to were amazed at his response. We’re probably not that amazed and that’s part of the problem because this is a case of you have a problem if think you don’t have a problem. We’re not amazed because we have, for the most part, successfully compartmentalized the place of religion in our lives mostly as something of a survival technique. We’re advised not to mix religion and politics so compartmentalizing our faith seems like what you have to do to get by in the world as it is.

I would guess that most of us see ourselves as living in a complex world of competing loyalties. We hear a phrase like “Give to God the things that are God’s” and, especially at this time of year when we think about our annual financial pledge to the church, we are reminded that everything we have comes from God; it’s all gift and when reminded, most of us would probably agree with that.

But then we kind of set that aside as the right answer for the religion compartment of life as we also understand that we do have other responsibilities; we do have to “render unto Caesar” as other translations put it. If I expect the roads to be plowed in the winter it’s my responsibility to help pay for that. If I value education, it’s my responsibility to pay my share to help support the schools. If I value the freedom and protection and other services offered by all levels of government, even if I don’t like everything that’s done, I have a responsibility to help provide for it. It’s all part of being a good citizen.

I don’t get the idea that Jesus had a problem with any of that; he didn’t have a problem with paying taxes. That’s why he said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” But then you could ask, Why didn’t he stop there? That would make it a more straightforward answer. But by adding “And give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus creates a problem because it brings up the question of how do we do it? How do we give to both?

If we say that it’s all gift, that it all comes from God but then we give a portion of what comes from God to the government then we’re giving the government part of what is rightfully God’s, but for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness some worldly structure is necessary otherwise we run the risk of chaos and anarchy and possibly losing the ability to worship the way we want, but then, recognizing the need for order do we wind up as faithful servants of the state and the structures that allegedly give us religious freedom instead of being faithful servants of God? You see what happens? You can’t avoid the traps and you can just keep going round and round on this creating more questions.

I don’t think that Jesus expected his first audience or us to go home and try to figure this out because it is a problem that can’t be solved in a way that eliminates all the ifs and buts. You can’t render unto Caesar and give to God the things that are God’s without shortchanging God. But then you can’t expect to live well in this world without being a good citizen and supporting the structures that exist.

We’re left with the reality that Jesus asks for our total commitment but we know we can’t make that commitment and still live fully in this world and there’s no indication that Jesus expected his followers to withdraw from the world, quite the contrary actually. After all, Jesus himself became part of the world. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Herodians creates a problem that can’t be solved, but that is exactly what it’s supposed to do because recognizing that you have a problem and knowing that you can’t solve it is perhaps the beginning of faithfully following Jesus.

Unlike others who had a different vision for the world, visions of a new world and a new way, Jesus didn’t look for the old world to be destroyed. The kingdom he proclaimed and embodied represented transformation, not destruction. With sayings like this one today Jesus recognized the tension between living in this world and living as one of his followers. Give to the emperor indicates affirmation of the necessity of government; it doesn’t mean approval of everything the government does, only that it does have a role to play. But give to God is a reminder that despite our obligations to the government, all we have comes from God and thus life is a constant negotiation between the ways of this world and the ways of God. We can only engage in that negotiation one day at a time, one instance at a time and on some days we do it better than on others.

Jesus was well aware of the tension but he wasn’t out to eliminate it or to free us from it. He knew that it is most often at the points of tension that meaningful change comes, it’s at the points of tension that growth in faith takes place. So the goal isn’t to eliminate the tension, but to live productively and faithfully in it.

It’s kind of ironic actually because the overall story of Jesus, the overall story of our faith is one of comfort and reassurance and hope. For most of us that’s a pretty important component of our faith; but day to day life as a follower of Jesus can be anything but comfortable because with sayings like this one today, there’s always this tension around the compromises we have to make. But Jesus knew that; he knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we take comfort in the fact that on those days we don’t do well with the tension, there is forgiveness and there is another day. Our journey of faith goes on and Jesus goes with us.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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welcomes me, and whoever
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