20th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 22: 15-22; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
How should a person of faith relate to his or her government?
This question was raised at the interfaith gathering in Cedar Commons two weeks ago.
I sat on a panel with a Muslim and a Bahai colleague, and none of us had an easy answer.
What is the value of institution and order? When is the time for resistance, even revolution? And
what does God have to say?
These are questions I have been asking myself since last November.
And it is question which our passage today addresses, although Jesus didn’t have easy answers before him, either. The religious authorities knew that Jewish people resented being taxed by a Roman government, and the Herodians—supporters of Herod, the Jewish governor who was more or less a puppet for Roman authority—wouldn’t let Jesus get away with any hint of revolution.
Jesus seemed to be in a trap, but he walked right through. Scripture says that his answer amazed them.
So what did he say exactly?
Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor
and to God what belongs to God...
Part of what I said at Cedar Commons is that it is impossible to talk about Christianity’s relationship
to government without recognizing that the Western church is a product of empire. The vast
spread of Christianity in the 4th century took place after the conversion of the emperor
Constantine. I wonder how he felt about this passage.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s”
…Sounds pretty good to an emperor.
And yet we know that our faith is not summed up in, “Be obedient to your government.” Far from it. Christ suffered with the poor and the outcast, the sick and the hungry, and spoke truth to the
power—to the authorities of his own religious “party,” so to speak.
Christ’s own death, on a cross, was a form of execution reserved for political criminals.
There’s no doubt that Christ’s message had political implications in his time, and has political implications in our time.
We know this in our own hearts, as God calls us to respond to harmful actions and rhetoric of our own leaders.
So what is Jesus saying exactly?
Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, give to God what is God’s.
If taxes belong to the emperor,
What then belongs to God?
At the center of our Gospel reading is a coin--
a denarius, with the face of Caesar.
As I reflected on this coin, I kept thinking of another coin in scripture…
Can you think of one? Do you know the coin I’m talking about?
There's another parable,
in which a woman has ten coins and loses one, and she lights a lamp,
and sweeps her house—every nook and cranny—until she finds that one coin.
When she finds it, she calls all her friends to her home to rejoice with her.
This passage comes to mind a lot for me, at least once a week, which might tell you how often I lose things.
The feeling when that thing—that lost coin—is found, is of surprising abundance. Do you know what I’m talking about?
That small thing, which could have been so simple to begin with, is new again, and valuable beyond reason.
Think about it. This woman uses the oil to light her lamp, has a party to celebrate-- She probably didn’t run a cost-benefit analysis of what takes to search for and find this coin, versus what it was worth to begin with. But the economic bottom line is not the point.
When something lost is found again, its value isn’t determined by logic.
The difference between what belongs to the emperor
and what belongs to God
is the difference between the coin that is owed and paid
and the coin that was lost and is now found.
Only one of them has value that can be counted.
Here’s a joke my Dad told me after I moved into my first, admittedly a little grimy, apartment in New York. How do you know if you have a cockroach problem?
If you can count them, it’s not a problem.
So… how do you recognize the grace of God?
If you can count it, it’s not the grace of God.
There’s a problem with using that joke: far be it from me to compare the love of God to a cockroach infestation...
But there’s something overwhelming about both!
And the POINT is, our relationship to God cannot be understood in terms of exchange: “God did this for me, so I’ll do that for God.” In this Reformation month, we give thanks for the theology of Martin Luther, who taught that we do not have a transactional relationship with God. It’s God who transforms us.
As we come together to confess our sins, as we partake in God’s body and blood at the table, we are made new in God, we who have been lost like the coin.
God has swept Her house and found us,
precious and beloved beyond measure.
In the economy of God’s love,
we do not pay or count coins,
we ARE coins,
with God’s image on us.
What does this mean for us today?
Let’s go back to that denarius. There’s taking a transactional approach to relating to government. Maybe it’s in its most simple form, like paying taxes. But there’s another layer to this--
I don’t know about you, but as a good liberal, I can often take a transactional approach to social justice, adding up my own actions and statements to show that I’m on the right side. The social media post, the meeting, the sign in the lawn…
To be clear, to takes a lot of privilege to approach issues of justice like a checklist. And also to be clear, taking a stand towards social justice matters for our neighbors and for our world. Is a good and important thing.
But we can’t confuse those actions for what gives us our core identity.
As ones who are broken and lost, yet claimed by God, we are free to strive for justice from transformed hearts,
seeing our brothers and sisters in turn as individual coins who are claimed by God,
each one precious beyond measure.
If we really saw our neighbors this way, then how would we act?
If we really saw every life lost and mourning in Mogadishu,
every life threatened by terror of the state,
If we saw every person as part of the family of God,
then how would we live?
We are—of every race, gender, and political affiliation--claimed by God’s doing.
God went to the cross, God died and rose again,
for each of us.
for every last lost coin.
Brothers and sisters, we are called beloved.
and it is from that identity that we work, and labor and endure (like the Thessalonians) for God’s kingdom.
Goodness and mercy is not something you can tally.
It comes from a place of being transformed
by a God who transcends every division,
who has found us,
who has claimed us,
because He sees in each of us
value beyond measure.
Come, let us give to God what belongs to God,
Let us give our lives to God, who has given life to us.
Come, let us work toward justice not because it determines our value,
but because our value has already been determined.
Come, let us walk in this world, resisting what is evil and doing what is good, without fear.
Because God who walked with the poor and the sick on earth,
walks with us still.
Because God who transformed the world on the cross,
transforms us this morning, through bread and wine, at this Table.
Brothers and sisters, come and let us wrestle with the kingdoms of this world,
knowing that the kingdom of God is here,
and drawing ever near.