To serve God in joyful freedom, Pentecost 23, Proper 24 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99; or Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13); 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees despised the Herodians with good reason. Like their namesake, Herod, the Herodians cooperated with the Roman occupiers and oppressors. The Pharisees, though not advocates of violent revolution, were loyal to Judaism and its God. The Herodians put political expedience first; the Pharisees put the Jewish faith first.
So, it must have come as a surprise to Jesus to see both Pharisees and Herodians coming to him as a group and saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no one, for you do not regard the position of human beings.”

You know you are in trouble when your enemies begin to flatter you, so Jesus must have been instantly on his guard. Then after the kinds words came the punch line: “Now, tell us, Jesus,” they asked, “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

By “lawful,” of course they meant “according to Torah.” If Jesus said that a good Jew should support the Roman state, then he would have allied himself with a power that was occupying Israel and killing Jews. That would have alienated the Pharisees and given implicit approval to a state that regarded its ruler as a god. It would have been idolatry. But to say that Jews should not pay taxes to Rome would have been treason. The question was a perfect trap for Jesus.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” It was a good question then, and it is as difficult to answer today as it was two thousand years ago.

There is much to say in favor of Jewish or Christian support of the state. The state maintains order; it keeps the roads paved; and it operates schools. Even the Romans, for all their brutality, created a system of roads that ran the length of Europe. It took less time to send a letter from Athens to Rome in the first century when Rome was at the pinnacle of its power than it did in the 11th century when Europe was divided into hundreds of small kingdoms. Under Roman rule, Europe enjoyed a standard of living that fell drastically after the Roman state disintegrated and was not recovered until the late 19th century.

Yet, the Roman state was brutal. Persons found guilty of treason were hung or nailed to a cross and left to bleed to death and asphyxiate; it was the cruelest form of capital punishment ever devised. Men and women flocked to the circuses or amphitheatres to watch convicted criminals fight wild beasts.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

The question seems easier to answer today. Compared to Rome, the United States is a humane and beneficent power. But there are those who question the way their tax money is being spent. Liberals say that too much is spent on national defense and conservatives say that too much is spent on costly and perhaps wasteful welfare programs.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

One of the interesting things about the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the Herodians is that he never answers their question.

“Show me the money for the tax,” Jesus demanded. And they produced a Roman coin. As Jesus held it up, it glinted in the sunlight, and Jesus asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” The coin would have borne the image of Caesar, much as our coins display the profile of Lincoln or Washington or Roosevelt. Finally, Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Well, that settles the question, doesn’t it? There are things that belong to Caesar, like the money with which we pay our taxes, and there are things that belong to God. Such as? And there’s the problem.

Jesus threw the question back at the Pharisees and Herodians. His statement just raises some questions. How and where do you draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God? What are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God?

The modern Western mind likes to put things in compartments. The icon of Western civilization might be the filing cabinet or the encyclopedia. If you look in the filing cabinet under A, you might see “Annual Parish Meeting”; under C, you might find “Copy Machine”; under T, “Taxes”, of course. Should this sermon be filed under T for taxes, C for Caesar, or G for God?

The filing cabinet frame of mind has led most Biblical scholars to misunderstand completely Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the Herodians. Our habit of compartmentalization leads us to believe that “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” means that some things belong to Caesar and others belong to God. But think about what we say when the offering is brought forward on Sunday morning: “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”

We also seem to have forgotten that Jesus was a Jew who every Sabbath of his adult life had recited the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.”

A whole God demands the service of whole human beings. The God of Jesus has a claim on all of life. So if God demands all of life, what is left to render unto Caesar?

The question Jesus threw back at the Pharisees and Herodians echoes Genesis. Holding up the coin, he asked, “Whose likeness or image is this?” The image of Caesar was imprinted only upon coins; but the image of God is upon every human life.

“The things that are Caesar’s.” What are they? Caesar seems to have a claim on much of our lives, but in fact, nothing belongs to him. Everything belongs to God; the things that Caesar claims are merely on loan.

“The things that are God’s.” The way most of us behave suggests that we believe that God has a claim on about one hour per week and a small percentage of our income. But God’s mark is upon every particle of our being.

When clergy preach stewardship sermons on this text, they usually ask people to consider how much they should pledge to the church. But the real question is not how much we should give to God or the church or how much belongs to Caesar, but how much belongs to God? And if we ask that question, then the real issue of stewardship is not “How much should we pledge?” but “How much should we keep for ourselves?”

All that we are and all that we have belongs to God. But we belong to God not as slaves but as children. Rendering to God what God has a claim on is not burdensome; it is liberation. We cannot divide our lives between God and Caesar. Realizing that life is whole and not fragmented is an insight that brings us freedom. It teaches us that our first and foremost priority is the service of God.

If you, like many people, feel many claims upon your time and finances and energy, then it is freeing to realize that in reality is that there is only one claim upon our lives: to serve God in joyful freedom.

Written by the Rev. Dr. J. Barry Vaughn
The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution, and more than fifty of his sermons have been published. He is a member of the history faculty at the University of Alabama.

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