Text: Matthew 22:15-22
Her beautiful dark eyes are looking down at my office floor as she clings to her mother. The baby whimpers and the little girl pats his back. She sits in the chair trying her best to be still as their mother answers my questions patiently. How many people in your household? Three. What is your source of income? AFDC. How much is your check? $272 a month. After ten years of doing this, I know the math: $272 a month x 12 = $3,264. I write it in the box for annual income. Three thousand, two hundred, and sixty-four dollars a year to support a family of three. Yes, this family receives some food stamps, although they can’t use them to buy soap. Yes, they get Medicaid so the mom can take the kids to the doctor when they get sick – if she can find a way to get there. But three thousand, two hundred, and sixty-four dollars a year to support a family of three?
This scenario happened hundreds of times when I was a Legal Aid lawyer. A young woman would come into my office with her children to get help. Usually they were about to be evicted. Or it could have been that her food stamps had been cut off or there was a problem with their Medicaid. Or if she was not among the 30% of welfare recipients who lived in subsidized housing, she might have come for advice because the landlord wouldn’t repair the hole in the floor she’d put a chair over so her children wouldn’t fall into it. Whatever it was, my reaction was always the same. I could see the love flowing between the mother and her children. The mutual deep devotion was obvious. But I would look at those beautiful children who lived in desperate poverty in a wealthy county in the richest nation in the world and think, “Who would I be if I was raised in circumstances like theirs? What is wrong with us that Americans allow our children to grow up desperately poor?”
The saddest part is that the families we served at Legal Aid were not an aberration. In 2010, there were 216,000 poor children in North Carolina. This was 14,000 more than in 2009. Last year 29% of our state’s children were poor, and we were joined by ten other states – most of them in the South – whose child poverty levels were as high or even higher than ours. In Mississippi it was 38%. Even in hard economic times, we’re a wealthy nation. Yet the odds are stacked against so many of our children. Consider this: Every day in this country 2050 children are confirmed as abused and neglected and 2200 are born without health insurance. Twenty-six hundred children will be born into poverty on this lovely October day – and tomorrow and the next day and the next and the next. And perhaps saddest of all, we will continue the practice of predicting how many prison beds we will need in the future by the performance of children in 4th grade. We don’t use the “s” word much here at Pullen, but there is only one way to describe the plight of children in our nation: sinful. If it is true that a nation is to be judged by the way it cares for its most vulnerable, we have failed miserably.
Our text for today is a familiar story. Most people recognize verse 21 in the 22nd chapter of Matthew: Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. It’s a verse some Baptists love because it is often used as Jesus’ endorsement of the separation of church and state. It seems to say that we should pay our taxes to the state and our tithe to God, and the two should remain separate. It may be convenient to use it as an endorsement of one of our Baptist “four freedoms”, but that’s not what it’s really about. Nor is it an affirmation of a government’s right to tax its citizens. Nor does it justify separating our personal from our spiritual lives.
This story is part of the controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees who, by the way, have already decided to kill him. The Pharisees oppose the Roman occupation government. For reinforcements in this encounter with Jesus, they bring along the Herodians, people obligated to Rome for keeping Herod in power as a puppet leader. The Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus during Passover week when hopes of Messianic revolution and liberation are running high. In spite of their flattering words, the Pharisees are not seeking instruction from Jesus or even a debate. They are trying to trick him when they ask, “So Jesus, what do you think about this?” They use a supposed faith-based concern to further their political agenda. As Frederick Haynes, an African American Baptist pastor, describes it, “They try to set him up in order to take him down.”
Imagine the scene. Jesus is in the temple area talking with his followers. A group of smiling men approaches him. Acting friendly and interested, they even pay him compliments. But he sees through their façade. He knows they are out to get him. He is calm and ready for what is about to happen. In fact, he can detect a smirk on the face of the Pharisee who presents their carefully-crafted question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Then a heavy silence falls on the group and spreads to those nearby.
Finally Jesus asks for a coin. As an itinerant proclaimer of the kingdom of God, he doesn’t carry Roman coins in his pocket. Purportedly, the Pharisees dare not carry Roman coins either, for they bore the image of Caesar and an inscription considered blasphemous by many Jews: Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest. Yet, when Jesus asks for one, they readily provide it. There, in the sacred space of the temple, the Pharisees possess that idolatrous image. Confident and oblivious to their hypocrisy, they wait for his answer. They know if Jesus affirms their responsibility to pay the Roman’s census, or “head-tax”, he will alienate the Jews. If he denies that the Jews have to pay the tax, he will be subject to arrest. With their question, the Pharisees and Herodians believe they have contrived a win-win for themselves and a lose-lose for Jesus. But it doesn’t work.
With coin in hand, Jesus responds. He says that which is already Caesar’s should be given to him. It is not against Torah to pay taxes to the emperor. But even with this tacit affirmation that paying something to Caesar is OK, Jesus’ answer to their question is not what the Pharisees anticipated. Instead his reply leaves them speechless and they go away in shock, knowing that they will have to be craftier if they want to trap this popular teacher.
Most commentators suggest that the important aspect of this encounter is not the part about Caesar, but that Jesus goes beyond their question by declaring that what is God’s must be given to God. It’s not about dividing the world into two realms that separate religion and politics. It is to affirm that we have to carefully determine the nature of our loyalty to government because the kingdom of God’s embrace of all of life crosses governmental borders. The question is not whose inscription is on the Roman coin, but rather whose image is on each person. It is God who claims us, who made us in God’s own image. We do not belong to anything or to anyone else. Says New Testament Professor Jeannine Brown, “The beauty of Jesus’ answer is that he both concedes payment of the census tax while subverting the reach of the emperor. If read one way, Jesus’ answer is simply an affirmation of Christian submission to governing authorities. Yet if read from another angle, Jesus affirms the all-encompassing reach of God’s ownership in a way that weakens imperial claims…”
Certainly this is true. It is an important teaching of this first century incident. But I believe another truth in the story is Jesus’ affirmation that Caesar is also a subject in the kingdom, or realm, of God. Yes, he says, we do owe something to our government. But government is God’s as well and as such, it must do holy work. Indeed, if corporations are people, then governments belong to God.
We are blessed to live in a nation where the government doesn’t control or force participation in religion and where religion doesn’t control the government. But that does not mean government is without responsibility to its citizens or that it should be allowed to operate outside of God’s work in the world. I’m not talking about our government trying to maintain us as a “Christian nation” as so many demand today. Rather I’m saying that our government must operate above any single faith to reflect the universal values of justice, freedom, dignity, and peace promoted by all of the major religions. That somehow government can do what it right only if it is “Christian” is nonsense.
Instead, my friends, we are called, in fact, commanded to build a divine commonwealth where the well-being of all—humanity and the planet itself—is the ultimate goal. Protecting the right of all to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is the purpose of our nation, according to its founders. Let me share a brief bit of history about the origin of that phrase. Three weeks before our Declaration of Independence was signed, the state of Virginia adopted its own Declaration of Rights, which said this: “… all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights…namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
But Benjamin Franklin was in agreement with Thomas Jefferson in downplaying protection of “property” as a goal of government. It is noted that Franklin found property to be a “creature of society” and thus, he believed that it should be taxed as a way to finance civil society. And so for the new nation, they wrote this instead: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Owning property, they determined, was not unalienable; it was not an indisputable right. In spite of the current fixation on property rights, our founders instead set our course toward protecting a decent quality of life for all. And they believed that taxing those who owned property was a way to protect the common good.
We live in a day when the term “taxes” has become a dirty word. Now I’m not any more excited about paying more of them than anyone else. But we have to find a way to care for the children and if that requires me to pay a little more, I’m willing. If that requires me to have a little less, I’m willing, and I know many of you here are, too. Government is not inherently bad. It’s not inherently good either. It is as good or as bad as we make it, and we’re not making it very well these days. Last Tuesday’s election was gratifying to many of us for many reasons. One of them for me was the passage of the affordable housing bond. There are more than 17,000 households in Wake County that need affordable housing, which means they either pay too much for the places they live or they don’t have a place to live at all. The bond won’t provide 17,000 units, but it is a step in the right direction.
But perhaps more important than the passage of the housing bond itself was the strong community spirit it represented. Almost two thirds of those who voted were willing to pay a little more taxes so that strangers can have a decent place to live. It is highly unlikely that any of us who voted “yes” will ever meet the people whose homes we have helped to make possible. We will never see the faces of the children who will have a decent, safe place to live, many for the first time in their lives. But we voted “yes” anyway because in God’s community no one lives on the street. In the divine commonwealth, no parent has to put a chair over a hole in the floor so their kids won’t fall through. Caesar still lives within the realm of God and it is up to us to find ways to make Caesar conform to God’s way of justice and shalom for all.
So what about the kids here at Pullen? What do they need from us? They need what all humans need – to be seen and known by their names; to be nurtured and loved; to be formed spiritually so they will become adults who care for the children, all of the children. So I am going to ask you today to do two things: Think of something you can do for our Pullen children and something you can do for children who are at risk.
Start by walking up to Libby, sending her an email, or calling her to say, “What can I do to support the children of Pullen?” If you have some time—even just a little, offer it. If you have a skill children might enjoy learning, teach it. If you can rock babies in the nursery, volunteer to do it. If you can help organize a one-time service project for the children, let Libby know. I know from personal experience that you don’t have to have kids, or even be good with kids to care deeply about their welfare. So find a way to offer something that will help our Pullen children grow up to be loving, healthy adults who will nurture the children of the future.
And for the children at risk in our community, across our nation, and around the world, find a way to make a difference, which means do something, anything that benefits the life of a child. If you’re not already, get involved with our Wake County schools. Each Thursday night SafeChild’s nurturing program for families at risk of child abuse is held in our building. Call them up and volunteer to help. Ask David Anderson, our new Community Ministry Coordinator, how you can help with our Wiley tutoring program even if you can’t be here every week to tutor. We’d like to offer enrichment activities for these kids, but we can’t do it without volunteers. Find a reputable organization that addresses the needs of children across our nation or across the globe and contribute to their work. And if you’re one of many Pullen people who are already working hard for kids, be sure you’re praying for them, too.
Two weeks ago we showed the moving film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” here at Pullen. Those of us who viewed it were then gratified just a week later when Leymah Gbowee (Layma Bo-ee), the leader of the Liberian Women’s Peace Movement, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The first time I saw the film, I was caught up in the story. But the second time as I watched it with some of you, I was struck by what Gbowee gave as the reason for her tireless peacemaking. It was for the children, always for the children, even the child soldiers who were terrorizing villagers across the Liberian countryside. Addressing the desperate conditions of children like these around the globe, actor Brad Pitt said, “Let us be the ones who say we do not accept that a child dies every three seconds simply because he does not have the drugs you and I have. Let us be the ones to say we are not satisfied that your place of birth determines your right to life. Let us be outraged, let us be loud, let us be bold.”
Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s? My friends, we need to ensure that whatever we give to Caesar is also a gift to God. We must work require the government to use our taxes in loving, life-giving, future-building ways. We must do it for the little girl with the dark eyes and for the countless children she represents. We have to make sure that Caesar cares for them, just as God does.
For they are all God’s children, but they are Caesar’s children, too.