“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give God what is God’s.”
First of all, can you think of anything that is not God’s? As children we were taught to sing, “He’s got the whole world in his hands…” And I don’t know about you, but I believed it, back then. [pause]
This text can lead us down an exciting and controversial road in the way of religion mixing with politics. Anyone claiming that Jesus wasn’t political needs to check this passage out...and frankly the whole book of Mark up to this point.
But before we go there, I think this text gives us an opportunity to simply pause, and remember, and give thanks and praise to God -- Can you think of anything that does not ultimately belong to God?
Our homes, our clothes, our jobs [doesn’t it all belong to God?...we just forget that all the time?], our nation, our Congress, our military, our land [It’s not ours, none of it’s ours! But, we just forget that?], our money, our health, our children, our food, our animals, our church -- isn’t it all God’s finally? On loan to us for our short span of life here? Can you think of anything that’s not God’s? [pre-tax tithe]
I never thought of this text on taxes as being much of a Thanksgiving text, but it is! And here in springtime Lent, as we journey through the wilderness of self-reflection, prayer, contemplation, confession of our sins, humility before God...as we move toward the Holy Week cross and finally the resurrection, today we have among other things, the opportunity to just give thanks, to just stand in praise and awe of God’s ownership of our whole lives and our whole universe. [pause] This is yet another day of grace.
But let’s dig a little more into this passage for today. [Not necessarily “deeper”, because I think the giving thanks piece and remembering that “it all belongs to God” is as deep as it gets.]
But let’s go a little more into this passage: there’s been a great build-up in Mark’s gospel, moving to this point today.
Jesus has been garnering attention, upsetting cultural and religious norms in radical demonstrations of welcome to the outsider. He’s healed women, prioritized children, touched lepers and blind men. All showing that God’s mercy is for and goes before everyone, without exception (even you). Just about every week since Christmas, we’ve been gathering around stories like this. But a radical and political protagonist like Jesus doesn’t just move through a world like his (or ours) without pushback. You don’t overturn tables and get away with it. And that’s where we are now. The powers are pushing back. They’ve been watching all this time, but now they’re closing in...
And today it’s the Herodians and the Pharisees. (Later Mark will tell us about some other groups that take their shot at Jesus: the Sadducees, the scribes, the chief priests.) But today it’s King Herod’s people and the Pharisees. That’s particularly fascinating because they are not normally allies. In fact, they would have answered their own question for Jesus about taxes with totally opposing views.
The Herodians were in bed with the Roman empire, with Caesar’s government. They were all for you paying tribute to Rome, because Rome had propped them up, and into their little pocket of power.
The Pharisees on the other hand, were religious leaders, that would love to see the Romans get toppled, and all monetary tribute going to the temple. The Pharisees held the Hebrew scrolls, and were constantly calling people back to the Bible and the laws that were there in the Bible...laws like giving to God. They remind me of church people like us, actually, because they were the keepers of “This is how we’ve always done it.”
Two very different groups here, but the things we do when our power is threatened. And Jesus’ teachings and actions were so rupturing them at their foundations, that they decided to overlook their differences, and join forces to take Jesus down. (That never happens in politics or in the church, right? ;-)
First they butter him up: “Teacher, we know you are sincere and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” Nice. “So teach us: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Sneaky, right? If he answers one way, the Herodians can get him on treason, if he answers the other, the Pharisees on blasphemy.
And Jesus slips right out of it, like Steph Curry of the GSWs, driving through the zone, defenders closing in all around him. What?! A beautiful lay-up.
Jesus lays it in with an object lesson: “Anyone have coin? Well, if it has an image of Caesar on it, it’s Caesar’s. If it has an image of God on it, it’s God’s.”
“Give your coins, give your dollars to the state. Give your whole lives to God,” Jesus says. Which is pretty political: live under the state, live under civil authority and contribute to the common good. Be in the world. Martin Luther advocated this too. But don’t be conformed to the world: don’t let your allegiances lie with the earthly powers and principalities.
This passage has been used to justify an all-out separation of church and state. Others have used it to justify -- or at least argue -- against paying taxes to the empire.
But Jesus is pretty indifferent about taxes. [shrugging] “Pay ‘em.” What he’s far more interested in is our allegiance and our whole lives: [slow] Where does your allegiance finally rest? With God, or with the state, with earthly powers? Are the two congruent? Are there times we must speak out against the vision that the state puts forth...with a higher vision, with God’s vision for this country, for this planet and for all its inhabitants?
Tough questions for today and for this Lenten journey…Not easy answers. And we’re called, especially given our themes here at SVLC this Lent, to practice humility as we struggle. To be channels of God’s peace -- as we’ve been singing in the Prayer of St. Francis on here Wednesdays -- to not so much be listened to as to listen, not so much be understood as to understand, not so much to be loved as to love...
Finally, sisters and brothers in Christ, remember this: you bear the image of God for this world. As you go around this week and through these days, know that you carry the image of the divine.
If it has an imprint of Caesar, then it’s Caesar’s [wink, wink].
If it has an imprint of God, then it’s God’s.
So that’s you.
In your baptism, in this holy meal, in this confession and forgiveness, in this Christian community, even you are sealed and marked with the cross of Christ. And so you belong to God and you carry that mark into your week. Even as we struggle, we give thanks for that. And we go in peace. AMEN.