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This post focuses on considering our loyalties in fractious times. There is a scripture reading, a reflection, and music from Hilton Jones. Barbara Donohue reads Matthew 22:15-22. In this story, religious leaders want to bait Jesus into saying something controversial that he will regret. Kind of sounds like a political debate or a judicial confirmation hearing which we are very familiar with at this moment in contemporary American life. But Jesus avoids the trap and his challengers retreat, stunned.
Video from Barbara Donohue.
Scripture Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went off and began to plot how they might trap Jesus by his speech. They sent their disciples to Jesus, accompanied by sympathizers of Herod, who said, “Teacher, we know you’re honest and teach God’s way sincerely. You court no one’s favor and don’t act out of respect for important people. Give us your opinion, then, in this case. Is it lawful to pay tax to the Roman emperor, or not?”
Jesus recognized their bad faith and said to them, “Why are you trying to trick me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin which is used to pay the tax.” When they handed Jesus a small Roman coin, Jesus asked them, “Whose head is this, and whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
At that, Jesus said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.”
When they heard this, they were astonished and went away.
Video from Kim
Reflection from Kim
Back in Jesus’ day, separation of church and state, religion and empire, was not a thing. The Roman Empire, the state, the government required worship of gods and cultic worship practices to entrench its influence and power. Caesar was seen as a god, and people were to worship Caesar, among a pantheon of other gods. This was the civic duty of those living in the Roman Empire. The Jews got a bit of a pass and were allowed to practice their own religion, albeit with restrictions. For Jewish people, their ideal was a territory where their religion dictated the laws of the land. Religion and civic life were seen as one, just as they were in the Roman Empire. So religion and government were seen as a whole, a package, mutually reinforcing.
So, there is this question, about the preeminence of Caesar and God. If Jesus says flat out that God is more important than Caesar, he is committing treason against the Roman Empire. If he expresses support of Caesar and the Roman Empire, he is betraying his religion. And he’s talking with religious leaders. So, Jesus gives an answer that leaves the inquisitors stunned. And, like a good Jewish teacher, his answer is open to multiple meanings. And the listener is not just handed an easy fix but has to do some sorting.
Here is how this helps me in my walk of faith today. What is God’s? Everything. Everything is in God. God is in everything. God is reality. So for me, that means the values and commitments I associate with God, as I see them in Jesus, are the energy field that hold my life and my reality together.
When everything is God’s, everything falls into place. It gives you a way of seeing everything including government and politics. I get the values that I live out as a citizen from Jesus. So, in a way, we are back to no separation of faith and civic engagement because it is all in God. Indeed, civic engagement can become an expression of faith. It should be an expression of faith for those who are followers of Jesus.
Are there conflicts and compromises along the way? YES!!! And everything gets more complicated when the issue involves money, and money is part of just about everything, especially in politics!
But Jesus is very clear. What is God’s? If we don’t say everything and everyone, then who is the judge? Are we to judge? To play God? It is not up to us.
In February, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a passionate statement about the relationship between faith and governance. In a hearing, she said:
“I know and it is part of my faith that all people are holy and all people are sacred unconditionally. . . We love all people. There is nothing holy about rejecting medical care for people no matter who they are. . . There is nothing holy about turning someone away from a hospital. There is nothing holy about rejecting a child from a family. There is nothing holy about writing discrimination into the law. And I am tired of communities of faith being weaponized and being mischaracterized because the only time religious freedom is invoked is in the name of bigotry and discrimination. I’m tired of it. . . . because you are not to be denied anything that I am entitled to, that we are equal in the eyes of the law and we are equal in my faith in the eyes of the world. . . It is not up to us to deny medical care. It is up to us to feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to protect children, and to love all people as ourselves.”
AOC is clearly well-schooled in the teachings of Jesus and that has led her into politics and public service.
Give to God what is God’s. It is all God’s, in God. No compartmentalizing. No areas of life that fall outside the scope of our faith commitment. Everything is in God: Our work lives. Our relationships. Our engagement as citizens. Our sexual activities. Our bank accounts and economic activity. Our consumption and food. Our activities and pursuits. All of it is of God. Sacred. Holy. Universal, unconditional love encompassing all of reality. Each one of us it to live our lives accordingly, in our circumstances, in our situations, with our unique gifts and talents and experiences.
I am reading a book about arctic exploration, and there is discussion of the avid faith of Lieutenant William Edward Parry was part of polar expeditions in the 19th century. Apparently, Parry was known for his strong evangelical faith. We’re told: “To Parry, a man without religion was like a clock without weights or a mainspring. He himself prayed constantly, day and night. His sense of the infinite, already well developed, was certainly deepened and strengthened by the Arctic. In a later remarkable declaration Parry announced that he would give up his wife before he would give up his God.” [From Arctic Grail: The. Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909, Pierre Berton, p. 28] Oh, dear. Well, since his commitment to God was so sincere and complete, then I think his spouse had nothing to worry about. She had a loving, caring, faithful partner.
Jesus’ words do not leave me stunned or perplexed or confused. They give me a center. They root me. God. In all. Everything of God. Holy. Sacred. This illuminates everything else. This is the lens which enables us to see life clearly and honestly. And the right to live out our faith, in God/Spirit/Divine Love, as made known in Jesus, that right is protected and respected by the law of our land. Taxes? They can be seen as a way of supporting the common good, an expression of faith. Some people of faith are very willing to pay more taxes so that everyone can have access to affordable housing, food, clothing, higher education, and, yes, healthcare. If only those were the main functions of government spending! So, we are reminded to stay grounded in God first and foremost – pray, read the Bible, help others, and be sure to vote. Amen.
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