Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Testing Jesus; Testing Us
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
In today's daily Eucharistic lectionary, we find ourselves in Mark 12, when the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day is approaching its breaking point. They aren't just offended by what he says and does. They're actively looking for a way to get him in trouble with the Roman authorities. Mark lets us know in the editorial insertions to today's encounter that "they sent to him some Pharisees and Herodians to trap him in what he said." Even without these editor's notes, the way that they phrase their question was a dead giveaway: "Teacher, we know that you are sincere and show deference to no one..." Yeah, right. Preachers then and preachers now know that flattery like that usually leads to trouble.
Eventually, Jesus' testers got to their real question: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or not?" Perhaps you remember that this was a thorny issue on many sides. First, no one likes paying taxes--then or now--but, more than that, paying taxes to the Roman Empire meant supporting the very occupying army that was interfering with the God-appointed destiny of the Jewish people. One could not pay taxes to the Emperor without undermining God's Law, God's Word, and God's will. Throw on top of that the fact that the Jewish Law forbids graven images--any likeness of anyone or anything cast out of metal--and we see just how controversial these taxes were. To hold a Roman coin was to place a violation of Commandment #3 into the palm of your hand. So to say that this question came to Jesus as a ticking time bomb isn't really an understatement.
I bet you remember what Jesus said to them even before you read it in Mark 12: "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God’s." In that clever response, Jesus uses the very coin--the very expression of ungodliness, the very source of contention--as the tool to teach them what to do. We're told that they were "utterly amazed at him," genuinely stunned at his response. It is a pretty profound teaching. Jesus strips away all of the controversy and just lays it out there in a common-sense, hard-to-dispute way. As such, he welcomes the multi-faceted, multi-valiant nature of human life. We're all sorts of things all the time, and sometimes those things are in conflict.
But part of me wants to ask Jesus what he would have said if he had been approached by some genuine, earnest disciples instead of the "hypocrites" that Mark tells us came to him. Notice how Mark shapes the encounter before Jesus opens his mouth: "But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, 'Bring me a denarius and let me see it.'" Partly, Mark wants to preserve for us an understanding that Jesus knew what he was getting into--that he recognized the trouble that was ahead of him. But I feel an instinct to take Mark's words at surface value. Jesus' words are in direct response to their hypocrisy. I don't mean to suggest that he did not mean them, but I wonder whether he would speak more freely, clearly about this dual-mindedness if he were not being pressed by some opponents.
What is Jesus' overall teaching on the intersection of our religious and political identities? Does he encourage us to encapsulate and separate each from the other? I don't think so. Over and over, Jesus leads his disciples to a deeper, fuller, more confrontational engagement of public life. In the last several Sundays, as we've heard from the Sermon on the Mount, we have been reminded that our religious identity places great demands on our common life. For example, we cannot divorce simple because divorce is legal--to do so denies the two-become-one-flesh-ment of marriage. So what, then? What does Jesus really mean when he tells us "give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God's?"
Doesn't everything belong to God? Isn't God the one who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous? Isn't God's vision for the world a reality when all peoples are drawn to God? Isn't peace and prosperity for all people God's business? Even the denarius, with its graven image, belongs to God. Paying taxes to Caesar, therefore, may be a requirement of the law, and Jesus may encourage his followers to be obedient to the civil authorities, but there is an element of subterfuge at work here. When Jesus says, "Give to Caesar...," he is toeing the line of legality but, at the same time, questioning the real authority of the one who falsely claims divine power.
We cannot live forever in two different, opposed worlds. We don't like it when our preacher gets political. We don't like it when we hear politics in the pulpit. We don't like it when we start praying for an end to gun violence in direct response to the police shootings. We don't like it when presidents or governors or attorneys general or legislators are called out for promoting policies that fly in the face of the gospel. Whether it's three-strikes-and-you're-out prison sentences or preemptive military action or open-carry laws or mass deportations of illegal immigrants or closing the border to refugees, the emperors of this land have a history of passing laws that are antithetical to the word and will and law of God. And what will we do about it? Send in our 1040 to the IRS, place our hand over our heart and say the Pledge of Allegiance, rise to sing the Star Spangled Banner with gusto? Yes, we will do all of those things, but we will not pretend that half of us belongs to our country while the other half belongs to God. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, but remember that it all belongs to God, even you--your voice, your money, your loyalty, your prayers, your heart, your time. If the whole of you is not active in God's work, you're betraying the one who calls you his child.