When we speak of God, we speak in ultimates. God is good to the ultra-extreme. God is holy even beyond our imagination of holy. God is loving to the point of becoming the definition of love. How could any of that not be true? And, if God is all of those wonderful-beyond-wonderful things, that influences the way we talk about our relationship with God.
When we talk about religion, we usually talk in extremes: sheep and goats, righteous and wicked, right and wrong, heaven and hell, saint and sinner. That’s the nature of religion because that’s human nature. Our instinct is to seek the comfort of clear distinctions and a black-and-white framework. If our faith revolves around obvious lines of who’s in and who’s out, we can convince ourselves that we belong on the inside, and we do so by unequivocally naming those who are on the outside.
But what happens when God shows us that it doesn’t quite work that way?
Jesus’ authority as a religious teacher had been challenged by the chief priests and the scribes—the religious leaders of his day (Luke 20:1-2). In response, he told them the parable of the wicked tenants—those to whom a vineyard had been entrusted by an owner who had gone away into a distant country. When the owner sent his servants to collect his share of the produce, they were beaten and sent away empty. In the parable’s climax, the owner decided instead to send his son, whom he presumed they would respect, but they killed him, seeking to keep his inheritance for themselves. Of course, the parable ends as the owner comes and destroys the tenants, giving the vineyard to others. When the elites realized that Jesus was telling this parable against them, they were furious, and they sought to trap him in a controversial, illegitimate teaching (Luke 20:19-20).
“Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one,” the spies said when they approached Jesus, revealing their intent by their ridiculous show of flattery. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they asked, leaning in to hear every word of what would surely be either a religious heresy or an illegal anti-Roman teaching. In those days, of course, the Roman Empire occupied Palestine. The Jews lived in the precarious place of maintaining their religious purity while living amongst their pagan occupiers. Taxes were a sore subject since the coins used to pay them bore the image of the emperor—a graven image of a pretend-god prohibited by the Jewish law. To pay the tax was an unholy acceptance of the Empire’s religion, but to not pay the tax was a direct defiance of the Empire’s authority. What was a faithful Jew to do?
We know Jesus’ answer: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” It’s one of the most famous retorts Jesus ever gave to his opponents. But what does it mean for us? Perhaps you could argue that there are tensions between our religious life and our civic life, but I don’t think we face the same sort of rock-and-hard-place circumstance that first-century Palestinian Jews like Jesus felt. Instead, I think the teaching for us has less to do with being faithful in the face of oppressors and more to do with learning to live in a world of gray.
How often do we portray our faith in black-and-white terms? How quickly do we categorize people or behaviors as right or wrong, good or bad, saintly or sinful? In other words, how often do we ask questions like the one the religious elites used to test Jesus? We do it all the time.
Did you hear? They’re getting a divorce.Can you believe that her daughter got pregnant? I thought they were good people.
I noticed that she hasn’t been to church in a while. I think she’s in rehab.
They don’t believe in the bible; they’re Catholic.
How can someone love God if they’re Muslim?
The religious authorities came to Jesus expecting to trap him by forcing him to take sides in a black-and-white controversy between religion and politics. But he refused to give them what they want because he was willing to live in that place of gray. And that’s the attitude that got him in so much trouble with the authorities. In a culture that cared deeply about who was in and who was out, Jesus spent much of his time with prostitutes and sinners. In a religion that insisted on outward signs of holiness, Jesus sought those whose holiness was hidden from public view. When he taught about God, he invited his hearers to imagine a God who cared not only for those on the inside but also those who had been excluded from the faith. What should that teach us?