Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
October 20, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Sometimes Christians like to think of Jesus as quite meek and mild, always honest and straightforward, dealing directly and honestly with everyone. The idea that he might dissemble or even mislead someone seems unacceptable. Well, as the Gershwins wrote in Porgy and Bess, "it ainít necessarily so." Jesus could be really tricky when he wanted to be. The Gospels report him giving cryptic, unclear, or even perhaps deceitful answers to questions posed by his opponents when it suited his purposes. Sometimes he just refused to answer, as when he asked by what authority he did the things he did and he refused to answer because the questioners would not answer his question about whether John the Baptist was of God or merely of humanity. Other times he gave answers that sounded like answers but really werenít, or gave answers that sounded clear enough but upon further evaluation turn out to mean something quite different from what the people answering the questions probably thought they meant. It may not be apparent that the famous line, which we all know best in the King James Version translation, "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesarís and unto God the things that are Godís" is one of those tricky, even deceitful answers, but it is.
The story begins with Matthew telling us that the Pharisees, presented here as Jesusí opponents, were trying to entrap him in what he said. We know from the outset that the people asking the question here are not honest conversation partners seeking Jesusí view on a pressing question of the day. Rather, they tried to design a question that would get Jesus in trouble however he answered it. That wasnít too hard for them to do. The situation in Palestine at the time was that there were two sets of ruling powers who were in cahoots with each other-the Jewish political and temple authorities and the Roman occupiers. There was also the people to deal with, who often had views that were at odds with both of these power centers. So whatever Jesus said, he was bound to antagonize at least one of these groups. The question the people in this story asked Jesus was designed to do precisely that. The issue was a hot one in Jerusalem at the time. The Romans, of course, demanded payment of taxes. The Jewish authorities supported this demand out of necessity. It was part of their policy of collaboration with the Romans. The people, actually including Iím sure many Pharisees (who were not the demons Matthew makes them out to be) however greatly resented the tax and believed that paying it violated the law of Torah. Thus, Jesus had a problem. If he said paying the tax was unlawful the Romans and the Jewish authorities could charge him with treason. If he said it was lawful, he would betray the people who followed and supported him and put himself at odds with their understanding of the demands of the Jewish faith. So, as he did so often when faced with situations like this, he answered the question in a way that didnít really answer it and that actually meant something other than what it appeared to mean. The Roman tax had to be paid in Roman coin, while the Temple tax, which was also a heavy burden for the people, was paid with a different currency. So rather than just give an answer, Jesus asked to see a Roman coin. Of course, the coin had the image of the Roman Emperor, or Caesar, on it. Because the image was Caesarís, Jesus said: Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesarís and unto God the things that are Godís.
Now, that answer has usually been taken to mean that submission to the state is consistent with the Christian life, or even that such submission is required by the Christian faith. It has often been cited in support of the notion that there is some kind of radical discontinuity between the secular and the spiritual realms, between the world and the Kingdom of God. That may well have been what Jesus wanted his questioners to hear. But thereís a problem here. Jesus couldnít possibly have meant that. He couldnít possibly have been saying that the realms of the world and of the spirit donít have anything to do with each other. He couldnít possible have been saying that faith and politics are somehow radically separated. He couldnít have been saying those things because, you see, those things are radically inconsistent with the Jewish faith of which Jesus was such an outstanding representative.
Take a look, for example, at the passage we heard this morning from Isaiah. Jesus clearly knew this passage, as indeed he knew all of Isaiah and all of Hebrew Scripture. It is a truly remarkable passage. It is part of the book of Isaiah known as Second Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah. Second Isaiah, the author of chapters 40 through 55 of what we have as the book of Isaiah, was an anonymous prophet writing during the Babylonian Captivity of the Hebrew people in the sixth century BCE. Up until that time, it would never have occurred to a Jew that their God, Yahweh, was also the God of other peoples. It is only with Second Isaiah that Judaism became a truly monotheistic faith. Before that, Jewish monotheism consisted of the demand to worship only Yahweh as the God of Israel. It did not include a denial of the reality of the gods of other people. Those gods just werenít Israelís God, and Israelís God wasnít concerned with the people who worshipped those other Gods. With Second Isaiah that all changed, and we see the change in todayís passage. Here Second Isaiah makes a revolutionary claim. To understand that claim you have to know who Cyrus was, since the passage begins "Thus says the Lord [that is, Yahweh] to his anointed, to Cyrus...." Cyrus wasnít Hebrew. He was the king of the Persians, a people of south central Asia who were, at the time, the rising new Imperial power in the region. It was pretty clear that Cyrus was going to lead the Persians in the conquest of the Babylonians, who had exiled the Hebrews from Palestine several decades earlier. Second Isaiah here makes the claim that Yahweh is the God not only of the Jews but of the Persians as well. Yahweh, the old tribal deity of the Hebrews, now claims to have anointed Cyrus, a Persian, to do Yahwehís will. This claim becomes even more startling when you realize that Godís anointed used to refer to the kings of Judea, and that the Hebrew word used here is messiah.
Then Second Isaiah goes even farther. At verse 5 he makes the claim that in fact Yahweh is the only real god, the only god who exists. "I am the Lord [that is, I am Yahweh], and there is no other; besides me there is no god." This passage in Second Isaiah is perhaps the worldís first statement of radical monotheism. And look at the context in which it is made. It is made when God is announcing that he is using an Imperial power, Persia, to do his will, to achieve his purposes. This passage says, in short, that there is no God but God (to borrow a phrase from our Muslim cousins) and that this God controls everything in creation. The secular power, Imperial power, is not outside the realm of Godís concern and activity in the world.
Jesus knew that his faith tradition taught this truth. He clearly did not believe that there was in fact a radical disconnect between faith and politics, between the secular and the spiritual realms. And therein lies the trick in his answer to the question about paying taxes to Caesar. There is in fact no distinction between the things that are Caesarís and the things that are Godís. Everything is Godís. Even if some part of creation does not know that it belongs to God, it still does. The workings of Empire, that is, politics, is as much within the purview of God as are matters more purely spiritual. Jesus was quite content to let his questioners believe he was saying something different, but he wasnít. Our tradition may have consistently taken the bait and misunderstood Jesusí statement in the same way his Pharisee questioners probably did, but thatís our mistake not Jesusí. He knew better.
And if we think about it, we know better too. We know that Jesusí primary concern during his earthly ministry was the welfare of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized in the society in which he lived. We know that that concern is fundamentally political. We know that God is the God of all creation, not only its spiritual dimension. We might want to believe that the things that are Caesarís and the things that are Godís are somehow different, but we know they arenít.
Now, it is not my contention here today that any particular political position flows of necessity from this conclusion. Iím not trying to tell you what your political position should be on any particular issue. I am trying to tell you that the Christian faith that we profess calls us to examine our political positions in the light of our understanding of the faith and not to claim that the two realms are separate. God created us to be whole, integrated people of faith, not to be one kind of person in matters of the world and another kind of person in matters of the faith. God didnít create us to compartmentalize our lives and our spirits in this way. Rather, our faith in the God we know in and through Jesus Christ should inform all of our thinking and all of our decision making. Thatís what is means to be a faithful Christian.
And Scripture tells what can happen to our faith, and to our church, if are such truly faithful people. We see it in the third passage we heard this morning, the passage from Paulís first letter to the church at Thessalonica. Paul tells those early Christians that they had received the Gospel in power and in the Holy Spirit, with full conviction. They became imitators of the Lord. An imitator of the Lord will, I believe, share Jesusí compassion for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. An imitator of the Lord will share Jesusí fundamentally political passion for justice. I believe thatís what the church at Thessalonica did. We know from numerous sources that these early Christian communities were in fact known for their faithfulness in caring for one another and, beyond that, for caring for all in need in their communities. And look what happened! That little church in Thessalonica became an example for all others in the region and because the cause of the spread of the Gospel throughout that region.
Truly, there is nothing that belong to Caesar that does not first and more importantly belong to God. And that is great good news indeed. Because, you see, it means that there is no sphere of our human activity, no part of our lives that is separate from God. All aspects of human life come from God and live and move and have their being in God. At no times of our lives, no matter what we do, are we separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.