Render to God, What Belongs to God
The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. Matthew 22:15-22
For the past three Sunday’s we have listened to gospels in which Jesus, making use of parables, takes the offensive against the powers that be – the religious leaders of his day, and by extension, all those who hold power and do so dishonorably, without integrity and for their own aggrandizement and personal gain. They are all called out as hypocrites by Jesus and warned in the harshest terms to repent of their ways or face a damning judgement.
In the parable of the two sons, asked by their father to work in his vineyard, the leaders appear under the guise of the deceitful son who said that he would do his father’s will but did not.
In the parable of the wicked cultivators of the vines the leaders are the wicked tenant farmers. When the harvest was ripe the landowner sent two cohorts of his servants and finally his son to collect the yield. But the tenants seized, beat and killed them. And they did the very same to the son.
In the parable of the king’s wedding feast the leaders are the first invited guests who mistreated the king’s servants sent out to invite them to the banquet and again went so far as to murder them.
In the time of Jesus, the institution of religion had been vitiated by the religious professionals – there was law, order and judgment but not much mercy, compassion and forgiveness. There was much self- righteousness but not much in the way of being made righteousness by God. The worst of these religious leaders even cozied up to the secular powers to curry favor with them for their own benefit and at the greater expense of the people.
In today’s gospel we watch the religious leaders mount and launch a counterattack. The Pharisees shore up their forces by joining with their enemies the Herodians. These two parties were otherwise in bitter opposition to each other.
The Pharisees were the supremely orthodox. As such, when it came to something like taxes, they resented the paying of a tax to a foreign sovereign as an infringement on the divine right of Israel’s only legitimate king – the Lord.
The Herodians were the party of Herod, the Jewish puppet king of Galilee, who owed his power to the Romans and worked hand in glove to support Rome’s occupying interests.
Pharisees and Herodians were strange bedfellows. For the moment they forgot their differences and united in a shared hatred for Jesus and a desire to eliminate him.
Anyone who would propose that the life of faith is one that is without conflict has never read the gospels.
Admittedly the carefully formulated questions they put to Jesus here and at other points in the gospel, are clever. Today’s question sets Jesus at a very real dilemma.
If Jesus said that it was unlawful to pay the tax, they would promptly report him to the Roman authorities as a seditious person and his arrest would be certain. If he said it was lawful to pay the tax, he would stand discredited in the eyes of the people.
Nobody enjoys paying taxes. If you have enough money and wield enough power, you can get away without paying any. I don’t think I need to name names. We certainly would resent paying taxes if levied as a kind of economic rape, as opposed to their representing our fair share for the sake of the common good. For Israel paying taxes to Rome represented a triple violation: it was economic rape, it was a violation of national sovereignty, and also a violation of religious conviction and belief.
By the time of Matthew’s writing the burden of taxes had become even more onerous. There was a ground tax (10% grain, 20% oil and wine); income tax (1% of income), a poll tax (a day’s wage on each adult person); a temple tax – now after the destruction of the temple – paid to the temple of Jupiter in Rome.
Whichever way Jesus might answer – so his questioners thought – he would lay himself open to trouble. Clever though they were, Jesus was wise. “Whose head is on the coin”, he asks. “Caesar’s”, they answer. “It belongs to him, so give it back to him. It is his.”
Jesus lays down a great principle: Every Christian necessarily has a dual citizenship. Every Christian is a citizen of the kingdom of God and a citizen of the nation in which he resides.
Because they gave primacy to their commitment to the kingdom of God, the first Christians were perceived to be and hunted down as subversives. When Christianity became the religion of the state what began to be subverted was the conflictual nature of faith. Such that today the majority of white evangelicals, for example, equate the American nation with the Kingdom of God.
Dual citizenship must necessarily at times present a conflict in loyalties and allegiances. Some countries, like our own, are so leery and wary of even this potential threat that they prohibit dual citizenship.
Christians must be vigilant to ask again and again: Is it the American dream that motivates us or the dream of Jesus? Is it the vision of the Democrats or Republicans we seek to implement or the vision of Jesus?
Religious leaders and the communities they serve must always remain advocates and drivers of those social changes that will move us closer and closer to a social order that is as congruent, as it can be this side of heaven, with the Kingdom of God.
For sure the social order will never realize this in its fullness, but we can and have been charged by our Christian faith to spend our days and our energies moving the needle in that direction. We will always have a long way to go and the road upon which we travel will always be the way of the cross, but this remains our sacred duty and our sacred trust.
Jesus always indicated a preference for the poor with whom it was always his first choice to identify and keep company. Remember, He did not say, “They were hungry, and you fed them. They were thirsty, and you gave them something to drink. They were naked and you clothed them.” Rather, He said, “When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was naked, you clothed me.”
In sanctifying capitalism both Republicans, to a greater degree, and Democrats, to a lesser degree, necessarily disenfranchise the poor. The Republicans do so with callous indifference and with damming and blaming rhetoric mercilessly directed at the least among us. The Democrats do so with a focus on the middle class and less than what would be a real change-making mindfulness on behalf of the poor. I love the speaker of the house, but a fifteen dollar an hour wage, Nancy, does not cut kingdom mustard.
Fifteen dollars an hour is not a wage that can support life and its essentials and certainly not a wage that can get a worker and family thru an unprecedented crisis such as the one we are now enduring.
The poor don’t need a return to a pre-Covid normal. The poor require the fashioning of a new normal, which gives everyone access to all the necessities of life thru the implementation of a just and living wage.
In other words, no one that works, no matter what the nature of their job, should be paid an hourly wage that does not allow them, either as single parents or couples with children, to meet the basic human needs of their families. Included in those basic human needs are time and the financial security to accrue some real savings, and also to take and find opportunities for rest and refreshment.
And those that cannot work for one reason or another must also be sustained. Their care is our shared responsibility. Ulster County has allotted $350,000 to support 50 of our homeless sisters and brothers. Sounds like a lot of money. Do the math. Who can resolve housing and food insecurity on $7000 a year or $580 a month?
As I have tried to underline before, the pandemic has dramatically revealed the bankruptcy of our economic order. Capitalism without conscience satisfies Caesar, but it does not satisfy God. It satisfies the wealthy and the comfortable but keeps the poor in their place – a place where basic daily needs are not met and where the possibility of a future remains bleak to non-existent.
The pandemic must serve as a clarion wake-up call to many of the ordinarily comfortable, those who live from paycheck to paycheck. They have discovered that they are not as safe as they might have imagined themselves to be. Living from paycheck to paycheck does leave much room for savings and certainly not the kind of savings that can sustain life thru an extended global health crisis.
Is the principal emblem and sign under which we live, the flag of the nation or the cross of Jesus? Is the economic bottom line profit or is the bottom line, in all things, cruciform love? Is the solution to threats and violence, counter threats and counter violence or is it to turn the other cheek? Returning love for hatred, can Christians participate in acts of war? Is it the constitution that defines of individual rights or does God alone give authentic definition to individual freedom? Is not individual liberty necessarily tied to the requirements of community? No one is free until all are free. And there is no authentic freedom that violates the requirements of love.
Have we lost too much sensitivity to the points at which our citizenships are necessarily in conflict? The great principle laid down by Jesus is that it is God’s will that must be done.
As revealed in sacred scripture, God’s first identification is with the poor, the marginalized and the outcaste. These are His first dwelling place. We render to God what is God’s when we build a more just economy and a more equitable social order. An economy that continues to allow and is, in fact, predicated on the wealthiest always taking more for themselves at the greater expense of those who don’t know the experience of having enough, and a social order predicated on racial privilege, and white power are essentially demonic.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna October 18, 2020