The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
E. Bevan Stanley
October 18, 2020
Proper 24, Year A
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
This anecdote gives us a break from the unrelenting succession of parables we have been hearing in the past weeks. It shows us some facets of Jesus’ character and invites us to examine our own lives.
The story begins by saying the Pharisees set out to “entrap Jesus in what he said.” They wanted to get Jesus to say something that they could claim was treasonous so that they could denounce him to the Roman government. They come to Jesus and are portrayed as smarmy flatterers. “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.” Of course they are not seeking instruction; they are setting a trap. Here’s the question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” It is natural enough that the Pharisees whose spirituality is entirely devoted to obeying every jot and tittle of the Law should frame their question as a question about the Law. Since nowhere in the Torah is this situation addressed, it could be an honest question. But it is not. The Pharisees see Jesus as a revolutionary. The expect him to say, “Of course we should not pay taxes to Caesar. We Jews should never acknowledge the government of Rome or do anything that would suggest that Rome has any legitimate authority over us Jews who belong to God.” Or something like that. Then they could report him as a dangerous radical who is urging people to resist Roman authority.
Jesus sees through this immediately. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” He names it for what it is, a test. And he names the Pharisees for what they are, hypocrites. But then Jesus takes up their challenge. He could have simply refused to answer, but rather than fleeing the confrontation, he faces them. He asks his opponents to show him the coin used to pay the tax, and thy produce a denarius. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” The Pharisees answered, “The emperor’s.” Actually, the Greek text says, “Caesar’s”; I don’t know why the translators changed it. Then Jesus said to them, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are the Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. “They” in the text means the Pharisees. Yet I wonder whether the disciples observing this exchange were amazed as well.
More to the point, what do we as disciples make of Jesus’s response? Specifically, what do we owe to our government of the land we live in, and what do we owe to God? First, it is clear that Jesus is not concerned about the money. His response seems almost flippant. It feels like Jesus is saying, “If the Romans want a bit of metal with some guy’s face on it, they can have it.”
Yet this is a big issue for Jews living under this occupying force. Remember that tax collectors were despised as being collaborators with the Romans as well as for coercion and overcharging. The tax was not only an expense; it was a symbol of the Jews’ subservient status as a conquered nation.
So how can Jesus make so light of this issue? Because he takes with utmost seriousness the second part of his answer, “. . . and give to God the things that are God’s.” That is to say, it is God who has ultimate authority in our lives, not the foreign government. Being citizens of the Kingdom of God is more important than being inhabitants of a conquered nation. In other words, the issue for Jesus is not about money; it is about allegiance.
We do not live under the thumb of a foreign power. We live in representative democracy. The taxes we pay are determined by people we have elected. We understand that they are to be used to pay for things that benefit all of us. Military security from foreign powers, roads, hospitals, education, advancement of science and the arts, and so on. As citizens we have obligations to our country. Nevertheless, the question remains, what do we owe to God? And how do we pay it?
First, we owe God our love. We offer our hearts to God. At every Eucharist the priest says, “Lift up your hearts.” And we all respond, “We lift them up to God.” Our first allegiance is to God; then to our country. When our government acts in ways contrary to what we have come to know as the will of God, then we are obligated to object. We use our vote, and we use our right to free assembly to make our voices heard in our democratic system. Our allegiance to God means we are obligated to participate in building the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” That means we are part of the Church, the Body of Christ, the People of God. We know that to be loving and powerful means that we live in communities. For most of us that means being part of a congregation. It means coming together, working together, serving our neighbors together, praying together. It means sharing our resources with each other so that we can have an impact on the world around us. It means sharing our money, our time, and our skills and gifts. It means allowing the power of the Holy Spirit to act through us. It means being free from all bonds of fear or addiction that hinder us from loving God, each other, and ourselves. It means rejoicing in God’s goodness, generosity, and abundance in all circumstances. It means responding to God’s invitation to be loving, powerful, playful, and free. This is what we owe to God.
We are in the midst of an election. It is easy to be consumed with what we want from our government and from our elected officials. This gospel raises in a different way the question that John F. Kenned asked, that is, what do we owe our country? And what we owe our country is our best lives as Christians. Our wisdom as the People of God. We render unto our country our best efforts to vote in accordance with the principles of Jesus Christ who summed up the will of God as to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
And we owe God everything else.