Text: Matthew 22:15-22
A rule of etiquette in business and at the dinner table is: “never talk about religion or politics.” “Do not discuss politics or religion in general company” is from 1879. Some rules of business etiquette have changed over time, but this well-known adage from Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms, a guide to writing and etiquette from 1879, is still a common standard. The rule reads: “Do not discuss politics or religion in general company. You probably would not convert your opponent, and he/she will not convert you. To discuss those topics is to arouse feeling without any good result.” Common etiquette has extended a bit further to say, that in addition to politics and religion, you should never talk about sex or money, at least around the family holiday dinner table. But as the saying goes, “these are the most interesting things to discuss.”
Our brother Jesus never was one to follow a rule of etiquette. He ate with sinners, touched the untouchables, and traveled with the outcasts. And in Matthew 22 he talked about money, politics, and religion all in one fell swoop. If only he had mentioned the fourth hot topic, sex, there is no telling what fun the Baptists might have had all these years. But he didn’t, not at least in Matthew 22, so we will stay with money, politics, and religion as our focus this morning.
“We are at the point in Matthew’s story about Jesus where things are getting pretty tense. Earlier in the week, Jesus has entered Jerusalem and been greeted by adoring crowds. Riding this wave of popular acclaim, he immediately enters the Temple and overthrows the tables of the money-changers, challenging both the political and religious powers that be. Confronted by the religious leaders regarding the authority behind his actions, Jesus tells several provocative, even threatening parables calling into question their own authority and, indeed standing before God.” (David Lose, Working Preacher)
As a result of these interactions, two unlikely groups banned together to try and trap Jesus: the Herodians who derived their power from the Roman occupiers and the Pharisees who are aligned more closely with the occupied… Declaring “a temporary truce in order to work together to trap this upstart rabbi” they pose a question to Jesus. “The question they pose is beyond clever, asking Jesus whether it was lawful to pay the poll or imperial tax that funded Roman occupation. Should Jesus answer in the affirmative, the adoration of the crowds would likely not simply evaporate but rather be turned into opposition. Should he answer negatively, however, then he will have positioned himself over and against the Romans, never a wise thing to do. So they’ve got him trapped.” (Lose) Or do they?
Marcus Borg writes of this text, “Jesus avoided the trap with two moves. First, he asked his opponents for a coin. When they produced one, Jesus looked at it and asked, ‘Whose image and inscription is this?’ It was, of course, an image of Caesar. Moreover, its inscription heralded Tiberius as ‘son of the divine Augustus’ (that is, son of a divine being) and would have been offensive to many Jews.”
Borg continues, “The coin bearing Caesar’s image set up Jesus’ second move, the famous saying itself: ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ In context, the saying is thoroughly ambiguous. The word ‘render’ means ‘give back.’ The first half of the saying could thus mean, ‘It’s Caesar’s coin—go ahead and give it back to him.’ We can imagine [Borg writes] Jesus saying this with a dismissive shrug. Rather than a pronouncement about the legitimacy of Roman imperial rule or political authority in general, his words might very well have been a brilliant way of evading the trap. When its second half is added, the phrase remains equally ambiguous. What belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God? The possible answers range from ‘Pay your tribute tax to Caesar, and your temple tax to God’ to ‘Everything belongs to God.’” Borg then concludes, “…this text offers little or no guidance for tax season. It neither claims taxation is legitimate nor gives aid to anti-tax activists. It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse. But it does raise the provocative and still relevant question: What belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar? And what if Caesar is Hitler, or apartheid, or communism, or global capitalism? What is to be the attitude of Christians toward domination systems, whether ancient or modern?” These are weighty questions that Borg invites us to ponder. And I want to focus on one of them for just a moment. Not to ignore the others. But I want to start with the one question that I believe sets the foundation for how we answer the other ones.
Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. It was that phrase “the things that are God’s” that caught my attention when I read this passage. What are “the things that are God’s?” The easy answer came quickly: “everything.” Everything is God’s. The psalmist even says so; “The earth is God’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…” But I couldn’t rest with that easy answer. All week, I would think, “What are the things that are God’s?” My time? My talent? My resources? Things the church talks about as being God’s things. All that I own, all that I have, all that I possess, all that belongs to me? These are not God’s things, I determined. At least they are not the things God cares about. They are mine. Any value that these things have come from the value I place on them, or that the world places on them, or that the economy places on them. So while these are the things we tithe to God, I can’t believe these are the things that belong to God.
And so, I kept pressing, “What belongs to God?” “What are the things that are God’s?” And then I remembered Borg’s words, “What is to be the attitude of Christians…?” And that’s when my “ah ha” moment came. The things that are God’s things are the intangibles—those things that are transcendent and that are bigger than any one of us—love, letting go, forgiveness, grace, mystery, and mercy. The things that are God’s are our attitudes and actions that call us to live out of relationship and compassion – caring for the poor and the marginalized, the outcast and the undocumented, the other. The things that are God’s are our commitments to the work of supporting foster kids, and nurturing friendships with our roundtable guests, and praying for our sisters and brothers in Cuba and in the Republic of Georgia and in Nicaragua and in Zimbabwe. The things that are God’s are our efforts to fight racism and Islamophobia and white privilege and an economy of extraction where the rich get richer off the poor and the poor get poorer. These are the things that are God’s and the things that belong to God. Our attitudes. Our actions. Our aspirations for establishing the beloved community here on earth.
And just as I thought, “I think I’ve got this. I think I understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Give to God the things that are God’s” I realized that maybe I didn’t get it at all. That’s when I thought: Maybe the question is not “What belongs to God?” but rather “Can I believe, and live as though I believe, that I belong to God?” Can you believe, and live as though you believe, that you belong to God? Can we believe, and live as though we believe, that we belong to God?
Borg asks the question: What belongs to God? Love belongs to God. Forgiveness belongs to God. Letting go belongs to God. When we acknowledge and challenge and are honest about our white privilege that belongs to God. When we stand up against racism that belongs to God. When we practice radical hospitality that belongs to God. Mystery belongs to God. Compassion belongs to God. Mercy and grace belong to God. Justice belongs to God. You belong to God. I belong to God. We belong to God.
Yes, that felt better. But it seemed there was still more to Jesus’ teaching? If worldly things belong to Caesar, and intangibles things belong to God, then we don’t have a problem, right? But we know it’s not that simple. And here is where this gets a lot more complicated. You see, Jesus lived in a geopolitical reality of occupation – his people were not in the White House of the time. His religious “nation” was subjugated by another nation state, Rome. Jesus could see the coin of the realm for what it was – a foreign power. Yes, that coin could buy bread, it could pay taxes, it could spend toward creature comforts. But, as a Jew, Jesus would have had an innate distance from that currency. That is not to say he didn’t see it’s street value, but he would have had some inner clarity about that coin and what it stands for. So when he says give to Caesar, it isn’t just the value of the coin, but the oppressive power for which it stands.
But what of us today? There is much talk of the soul of America these days. We fret that we have lost our country to an opposition who doesn’t share our values. We long for the Obama days, when public policy was going our way, a way of inclusion and equity and justice. But I would posit that this response of Jesus’ is even more relevant for us today. America is a nation state. It has never been a religious state, no matter how Christian we have professed ourselves to be. America is the Rome of this text. How would you hear this text if it read, “Give therefore to Trump the things that are Trump’s, and to God the things that are God’s?” I’m going to give you a second to let the shutters subside.
I have to be honest. This is tricky stuff. Do I believe that we should protest an unjust government? Yes. Do I believe we should work toward electing people who will govern in ways more consistent with our values? Yes. Do I believe that America is worse off today than it was 3 years ago? Yes. But I’d like to raise the question – is that God’s? Is the question of who America elects President Gods? Jesus spoke in a moment in time when the chosen people of God were being oppressed, overly taxed, marginalized and victimized. And yet he drew a distinction between what was Caesar’s and what was God’s, and it is clear that the Empire was not God’s. I don’t believe that is because it was not Jewish, but because it was a power structure whose very existence is concerned with control over others, not relationship and community.
This passage has a powerful message for us in this day. We are God’s people. That is not the same as being American. There is much to mourn in the public square of America right now, and much work to do. But the work comes from knowing that justice love is not partisan. No matter who Caesar is, Caesar is not elected to do God’s work. No matter how vile Caesar is, it is still ours to do God’s work. God’s work will always be different from Caesar’s. No matter who is in the White House. That requires giving up a nostalgic narrative of an America that never was. But it also emboldens us to know that dark days do not prevent us from action, rather they create an abundance of opportunity.
So in the words of Jesus, “Give to God the things that are God’s.” In so doing, you may find yourself compelled to talk politics at the dinner table; and maybe even money and religion and heaven forbid sex. If you do, take heart in the fact that Jesus, the one we seek to follow, was never one to follow the rules of etiquette.