What Really Matters

Posted: October 18, 2017 in Uncategorized

What Really Matters

Exodus 33: 12-33.  Matthew 22:15-22

“I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen“ The message from God to Moses is that things are not as one might seem and there will always remain the element of mystery. God’s face will not be seen.

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This is one of the sayings that the Jesus Seminar Scholars judged as distinctive, unlike any known contemporary Jewish saying yet both memorable and fully consistent with the overall teaching of Jesus. It remains today one of Jesus’ most memorable statements, familiar even to people who know little about the New Testament. It’s familiar, yes, but what does it mean? We tell ourselves that there are two things that are certain in life. One is death and the other taxes, but that assumes that there exists a desire to work against that assumption because we are not comfortable with certainty.

What if we can avoid death? Maybe a supernatural God can get us past death. Or what if we can find a way to do without taxes? Change the way we fund the collective society, make it all user pays, maybe that’s the answer? We find it easier to divide the two certainties and seek a way of combating the certainty they both claim. And in doing so we miss the message that Jesus gives. His suggestion that to each their rights. Caesar and God are due their allegiance, God and the state are due a measure of allegiance, though of course our allegiance to God necessarily comes first.

Let’s just stay with the metaphor for a bit and hear Jesus says that if the state demands something that does not conflict with one’s allegiance to God, his followers should fulfill the demand. Another perhaps un fortunate but seemingly necessary corollary of this statement is that church and state should be kept separate so that people can more easily distinguish between the call of God and the call of the state. This is the way we deal with the experience that when the state begins either supporting or opposing a particular religion, or religion in general, it interferes with religion’s task of serving God, and it potentially puts religious adherents at odds with both church and state. The question is does it really do this or is this what comes with the separation? This I think is an outcome of the reformation when with Luther the religious world tried to value imagination and called it justification by faith. There has since the separation of church and state an attempt to chip away at the wall of separation be ween church and state probably because it has led to confusion about legislation, about the freedom of people to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience, and about the government’s support or opposition to particular religious groups. We are still fighting Luther’s battle.

The most important outcome of this is the constant call for Christians to heed Jesus’ clarion call to distinguish between what we owe to Caesar and what we owe to God. We think we are hard done by death and taxes but our hard done by is peanuts to what environment Jesus was talking into. Yes, we have to admit that tax collectors have never been popular.  Not in biblical times. Not in the medieval world. And not today! Yes; we need to debate the pros and cons of the tax system, because all systems need to be interpretive of needs, relevant and responsive as opposed to tools of control, taxes for taxes sake, social manipulation or ideological entrenchment, but I’m not sure that’s the point in Jesus’ words. He was advocating examination of the tax system and this we think was because the Galilee of Jesus’ time was an agrarian economy where it is likely 2 percent of the population controlled 50 percent of the wealth. Those at the top of this society were required to be two faced to achieve their wealth. They had to give allegiance to Rome and they had to buy the right to levy the required tribute and they had to maintain control of the peasantry to ensure their income because this was the basis of their business. The Roman allegiance was symbolized by the Imperial Tax.  There were a variety of taxes levied on the people of the empire, but this was the most despised of all taxes. In essence, Rome levied a tax on the people to pay for the Roman legions that controlled the region. As you might expect, occupied people never like paying the salaries of their occupiers. The tax collectors had to cover the costs of this imperial tax make a profit and maintain a business and this meant that they made loans to the heavily taxed peasants at rates that could never be met and ultimately gained ownership by default of the lands, becoming either brokers or landowners. A bit like car dealers in the 60s in this country who leased cars to people at rates they could not sustain so regaining ownership time and time again and making money of the same care over and over again. Or today’s example where rich and powerful countries topple leaders and support replacements that serve their needs and thus gain control of resources they need. Like members of the economically dominant they participate in a process designed to transform prior injustice into seeming justice. As system that rips of the peasant is justified by the outcomes for the clever, The ones who lose are the cause of their own demise whereas the ones who win are doing what all should do. Everyone deserves what they get.

In Matthew’s narrative, we are nearing the end of the journey to the cross. Jesus has already entered the city. The contest between him and his opponents in the religious and political elite is ratcheting up.  He is seen as a radical who threatens the status quo. Not because has a huge army massing against the military might, not because he has a NZ First sort of political influence but because the elite then and now fear an uprising by those living on the margins. And I am not suggesting that NZ First is on the margins but rather that the 2 percent who hold the resources are fearful of the fact that the control of the 50% of the resources will not be enough to hold off a revolution. In our text Jesus’ threat confused the Pharisees by his appeal to give both Caesar and God their due.

A group representing the Pharisees (we’re told that these were students) and the Herodians (a party that supported the client royal family, and therefore would have supported the tax system) raises the issue of paying taxes with Jesus. Note how they approach Jesus – offering him a degree of “respect” that they in reality didn’t accord him. It is assumed, that flattery will get a favourable response. They obviously knew that if he said that they should pay taxes then he would alienate his base, which included many nationalists and people just fed up with Roman occupation in general.  If he responds by saying they shouldn’t pay taxes he would put himself in hot water with the Romans (thus the reason for the presence of the Herodians).  It’s a good tactic, but Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap. He simply offers an enigmatic statement about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, to God what belongs to God.  In one sense he puts their challenge back in their lap.  It appears that he is not going to say one way or the other, but like all Jesus words there is, something subversive about his answer. Paying taxes to the Romans wasn’t something people enjoyed, but the people had little hope of overturning Roman rule. Jesus understood that, which is why he didn’t appear to follow the messianic predilections of at least some of his followers. Jesus may have had Zealots among his followers, but nothing in the biblical record suggests that he was one himself. Instead, he took a very different path. This made him very difficult to pigeon hole or categorize. And as we have said on other occasions his approach wasn’t a “spiritual” one as opposed to a “political” one, but it was one that was secular and realistic.  He pursued a path of bringing wholeness at a people level to the neighbourhood, inaugurating the kingdom through his preaching and through his healing actions even if he knew that the forces gathering against him would not be happy. We talked about kingdom language the other week and it might be more accurate to talk about the empire of God in this context. There was an understanding of empire and it was a Roman empire and God’s empire was a challenge to its very existence.

In our case; what Jesus did was ask for a coin. Then he asked the inquirers whose image lay upon the coin (a denarius). Of course, they said – Caesar’s. Coins of the realm were all stamped with the Emperor’s image, along with a statement hailing the Emperor as son of God. Of course, coins have always born the images of those who rule. Our own coinage bears the image our Queen but even these hold a certain sacredness. They are produced by the government and made available to us so that we can participate in an exchange value culture by buying and selling what we need to survive.

Since the government produces the money, they have the right to ask for something back so they can provide the services we desire. Give to Caesar what is Caesars and God what is God’s. Yes; we know that not everyone is exactly happy about the way the government spends its money. There are those who resent having to spend money to pay for some aspects of social welfare, especially that which makes people dependent or enables people to avoid their shared responsibility. There are others in some counties who are outraged that they have to pay for a military that they believe is illegitimate and unnecessary.  The fact is we don’t get to individually choose which programs our taxes pay for. Parliament and an elected government make those kinds of decision. We note here of course that in our case we can vote for or against these representatives whereas Jesus’ and his hearers couldn’t. Their economic environment was much more oppressive than ours. But more important for us is the second half of the response – giving to God what belongs to God. To whom does our allegiance ultimately belong? Even if you believe, as I do, that governments have a legitimate purpose and therefore one should expect to pay taxes to support such a government, as followers of the Jesus Way, the government doesn’t have our ultimate allegiance. Long before Constantine it seems that Jesus followers believed that they were good citizens, they just couldn’t worship Caesar. Paul affirmed the legitimacy of government (Romans 13) as did the Second Century Fathers. And even though I think that the Church Fathers were drawn into error about the constitution of a doctrinal approach, they also understood that they stood under a higher law. Peter said to the Sanhedrin, one has to obey God rather than human authority when the two come into conflict (Acts 4:19-20). The challenge is the when, where, and how we do this. and this is our task. Not to advocate that people not pay taxes where taxes are due but rather to carefully consider whether the tax system is the best way of caring for each other. As a human system there is always room for improvement.

So what belongs to God?  Well, I don’t think it’s about belonging to, but rather about responsibility for, or stewardship of. The question is how do we use what we have? Maybe the key to the answer is the issue of image. The coin bears Caesar’s image. That which bear’s image is the human creation (Genesis 1:28). Humanity has been created in the image of God, and therefore humanity is part of God. And God and humanity have a responsibility – to steward creation, or be creative as engaging in creation. Perhaps in the sense of Jesus’ words, humanity as image of God already has a higher place than Caesar.

And if talking about allegiance, and I am not always comfortable with using that word, then our ultimate allegiance belongs to God, to the mystery, the I am, or the No name, or the face that is never seen; then what does that mean for the way we live our daily lives. How do we live in this world and yet not be defined by its rule?  In the Constantinian system there has long been an assumption that membership in the church is the equivalent to citizenship in the state. While NZ has never had an official state church/religion, we have had an assumed reliance on the Church of England as our Civil Religion and this means that we have not been considered a Catholic Nation as opposed to a Protestant one. There was a time in my childhood that we were considered the second most secular nation in the world after the Netherlands. But we have always to my knowledge been considered a Christian nation.  Our anthems etc confirm this assumption despite attempts to change the words of parliamentary prayers etc. swearing oaths on the Bible, express this vision.

With regard to Jesus’ response to his inquisitors, in his answer, he offers us a way of navigating our present realities. He reminds us that our alliances are always temporary, dictated perhaps by the demands of the circumstances, but ultimately directed by our relationship with the creation and in that image that we share. This means that following Jesus’ counsel is always a matter of discernment, prayer, and confession, always a matter of interpretation. The passage seems to be saying; think about what it means to live as a follower of Jesus and as a citizen of a nation-state. What “compromises” are required of us? Where do we draw the line regarding our engagement in the public square? Do we separate ourselves from worldly affairs, or do we (even as church) engage with it, do we challenge it in our pursuit of the common good?  Amen.

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