May I begin with a joke?
Question number 3 of this evening’s debate concerns the economy and your personal relationship to it. “Tell us, then, candidates, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes, or not?”
But the president, aware of the malice in the moderator’s question, says “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” The President pulls a $20 bill out of his pocket and then he said to them, “Whose head is on this, and whose title?” The moderator answered, “that would be the President’s sir.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the President the things that are the President’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The President folded up the $20 bill and put it back into his pocket. When they heard this, everyone was amazed!
After the debate the President said to his campaign manager, I thought that went well. And his campaign manager said to him, “yeah apart from that question about paying taxes, what was all that about?” and the President replied and said, “What? You told me to appeal to my fan base by quoting more scripture!”
Watching political debates right now in Canada is a rather strange experience. For the provincial elections debate last week, for the most part I was actually interested in what the party leaders had to say, what their ideas are, what their policies are. Then watching the debates south of the border...
It's ironic because here, I’m sure most people have made up their minds on who they want to win. So we are sitting here hoping for one person to do well, and the other to fail.
Is this what we do for fun now? I’m guessing that not many people would call that ‘fun’, but I think we all feel invested in what will happen next month because of how much we will be affected by it. And so winning the debate, feels so critical.
Winning and losing in life is pretty much an everyday occurrence, from sports, to business, to politics, to computer games, to debates, winning and losing is a standard acceptance of how the world works.
I imagine that parents go through that predicament in how to raise their children, how do I teach my child to be passionate and competitive so that they care and succeed, but not to be ruthless or to put the needs of others aside for their own gain?
When we read passages like this one this morning where the Pharisees try to trick Jesus, I think our minds do go there. To this idea of winning or losing. “give to the emperor what is the emperor’s” or another translation: “give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s”, what a great a great line. The kids might call this a ‘sick burn’, we are just so gleeful In how Jesus sidesteps the question so well making the Pharisees look so foolish, we might think ‘that’s justice at work! Goodies win, baddies lose!’
But I think that this is just another great example of how we read scripture through our own framework or our own lens of culture. Did the authors of the Gospel document ‘the sick burns of Jesus Christ’, or is there more happening that we need to pay attention to?
One distinction that should be made about the question that the Pharisees make, is by asking “is it lawful to pay taxes”, their question has built within it two layers of meaning, or two ways of approaching an answer.In these interactions within Matthew’s Gospel. The Pharisees heavily scrutinize Jesus’ ability to interpret the law of Moses. The Pharisees take something that is so clearly tied to laws of the state, into the realm of the law of God. They bring the Herodians, the enforcers of the law of the state, the tax collectors who may be on the lookout for anyone or anything that might insite people not to pay their taxes or follow the laws of the land.
So if you simply come to this passage to hear Jesus’ teaching on money, Maybe read the parable of the woman and the lost coin, see how Jesus turned the tables of the moneychangers outside the temple. The people who used the house of God as a place to exploit the faithful, listen to how Jesus talks to the woman who gave what she could and the wealthy man who gave through pride. We can save those for another day, maybe for when the Herodians aren’t around.
The answer that Jesus has, is maybe less about making the Pharisees look foolish, and more about recognizing a question about how to behave in society rather than how to live through your religious faith in the eyes of God. Both of these require two separate treatments.
Jesus is clarifying in this interaction, that should the state use your taxes in ways that contradict the law of your faith, you will not be held through guilt in your observance of that law.
This is actually an important thing to consider, because the more you think about it, the wider implications it has. Throughout the entire history of kingdoms and governments that all the countries of this earth have put forward, no matter how religiously inspired, all have made decisions or had laws at some point that we can interpret through our scriptures and ethics as being ‘unlawful’ in the Christian sense. And of course one religion’s law differs from the next.
This insinuation is not particularly hard to follow. Kingdoms and governments are ruled by humans, and despite the belief in Medieval Europe, the Divine authority to rule does not mean that God’s law is enacted throughout the lands and that everyone gets treated justly.
If you ever wondered why Anglicans don’t do things like throw their weight behind political parties or politicians, it is maybe because we had this conversation early on. The Anglican 16th century philosopher and theologian Richard Hooker who is widely recognized as the key figure in Anglican Polity and Doctrine made a clear distinction between the Law of God and the Law of Society. In his adaptation of Thomas Aquinas’ Natural Law, he constructed a framework that considered the Law of God, the Law of Creation, the Law of Society and the Law of the Church all as separate entities.
So while we witness so-called ‘Christian virtues’ or the ‘Christian voice’pushed into politics down south today, we of course want to be wary and we see its dangers. But these are often hard to wrestle with. The question that we all have to balance, is where do you draw the line? Where does your faith end and where does the world begin?How does it sit in our own hearts in the way that we consider how we enact our political voices, because simply cannot be disinterested and risk not acting when we need to.
But listen to the Gospel this morning. The remarkable thing about Jesus’ declaration ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar's’ is that he literally paid the price of complicity. Jesus is crucified by the very state that he said to pay.The Law of God, what we engage with in our lives, is that which we participate with in our reading of scripture. It is sought through honesty and a commitment of faith, through love and care for our creator who loves and cares for us, it is through our love for our neighbors. Remember the Golden rule, on these two things hang all the laws.
Jesus teaches us that when we participate in our faith through a humble heart, a compassion towards those around us, prayer and a search for truth and justice. We begin to interpret the Law of God in the way that it was entrusted to us.
It is our divine responsibility to love the lord our God and love our neighbour.
These are the things that we are called to action through.Seek truth and justice from where you stand, love radically and unconditionally.
This is what we are called to.