As we all keep vigil in America as voting for a new president ends and the wait for the results begins, I thought a few words from Jesus on our relationship to government might be both help and distraction.
The most well-known teaching by Jesus on this subject is in Matthew 22:
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" 21They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
The verse that’s most memorable and in the cultural consciousness is often spoken this way: Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. As usual in these Super Quick Bible Studies, I’ll give you a brief, “what the heck is this all about” section and then offer some thoughts about what Jesus continues to say to us.
Jesus was asked a trap question about taxes that was the “packing the Supreme Court” question of the day. Remember that during the time of Jesus in the 1st C, Palestine was occupied by the Roman empire. Caesar was the head of everything and called the divine Son of God. Coins and currency in Jesus’ time, just like ours, had images of leaders and symbols on them that communicated who controlled the economy. If you think taxes are an issue for us as Americans, imagine if we were conquered by Russia and had to pay heavy taxes to Moscow every year. That’s what it was like to the Jews back then.
When Jesus is publicly asked for his opinion on paying taxes to Caesar, he asks to see the coin used for the tax. The coin was called a denarius and had the image of Emperor Tiberius on it along with symbols and text that basically declared, “This guy is the boss of everything!” For the Jews who believed that the Lord God was the creator and ruler of all, the coin itself was totally idolatrous.
When quizzed, Jesus gives a two-part answer. Jesus says, yes, it’s appropriate to give back to the emperor coins that clearly belong to him. And I suspect another reason is that Jesus wasn’t about to encourage the poor and oppressed people around him to revolt over paying taxes. Rome would have just crushed them. There were plenty of crosses around for their easy crucifixion. It happened all the time. Caesar could have cared less.
But secondly, Jesus also said that everyone should give to God the things that are God’s. The folks listening would have remembered the story of creation when the Bible says humans were made in the image of God. Like the coin bears Caesar image, we bear God’s image. We are called to give back to God what is hers. The trap question did not spring.
What do we learn? What do we hear?
Jesus taught how we are to live with Caesar but live for God. Our discipleship obligations trump those of nationalism. They always have. This is one of the ways Christians are to be different in the world in order to make a difference in the world.
As American citizens we use the “almighty dollar” to pay taxes, to give back to those who rule our economy. It’s part of the deal in democracy. But what currency do we use to give back to God? What currency do we use to make a difference in the world? The currency is whatever brings wholeness, transformation and healing to communities.
When our communities are healthy, faith organizations and local government are good partners in working together for the common good. Whatever the outcome of the present elections, partnership for the common good will still be our calling and our mission. We might have an easier road ahead of us or a very difficult road. In either case, it’s the road before us and Christ goes with us.
Sometimes us post-modern folks seem to think the Bible, in its pre-Enlightenment days, didn’t ask the same hard questions of life, other people, and this thing named “God” that we do. But they had the same core hopes and questions that all human people do. Jesus often taught and preached about such mysteries in the genre of the parable. Matthew 13 is absolutely full of them. Take a look!
In Matthew 13, there is this fascinating parable often titled, “The Weeds and the Wheat”. The mystery it speaks to is this perplexing dualism of good and evil co-existing in the world. Evil is often viewed as a person, a system, an ideology, etc. that is deemed to be ruining everything good. We assume we’d all be better off if he/she/it just went away or was nuked out of existence so the good guys could all have a party. It’s Darth Vadar and Luke Skywalker. It’s Gandalf and Sauron. It’s that co-worker who just needs to be fired vs. all the rest of the wonderful functional staff. Of course, evil is very real, it’s not just a movie or a personality conflict. That’s where the parable comes in.
It’s a short plot. Jesus relates a story of a farmer who planted good seeds of wheat in his/her field. But somehow, overnight, weeds sprang up among the wheat. They grew up together. The farmer’s workers ask if they should get out there and pull up the weeds and get rid of them before they take over. (That’s how we garden, right?)
But the farmer doesn’t agree to this strategy. In pulling up the weeds, they might also pull up the wheat. The farmer says they will wait until the harvest time and gather up the weeds to burn as kindling and gather the wheat up for food in the barn.
In the parable, Jesus doesn’t try to explain where the weeds/Evil come from. It just is. Mystery. We already know from human history that Evil is ever-present. Hitler is gone, but others arise who are just as sick and cruel. One death or a thousand doesn’t eliminate the weeds. Of course, one death or a thousand doesn’t eliminate the good either. Mystery.
I remember in the years after September 11th when those who had carried out those horrible acts were absolutely the enemies, totally demonized; that somebody reminded us: one nation’s freedom fighter is another nation’s terrorist. It’s not always apples to apples, but it should give us pause. Here in early August, we find ourselves in a chilling time of remembrance – the 75thanniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A total of 210,000 Japanese were killed and so many others damaged for life, physically and emotionally. Americans celebrated at the time and for decades after. Now the Japanese are our friends in the world. Plenty of Americans have learned to make origami peace cranes. This too should give us pause.
The farmer’s servants think they can tell the wheat from the weeds, but they’re told not to be so hasty in their judgment. They’re told judgement isn’t their job. Just take care of the garden, all of it. If you look up the definition of a “weed” it isn’t a variety of plant, it just means it’s something that is “not valued where it is growing.”
The farmer’s servants were told to “stand down” and drop their sharp hoes. Our fingers are often itching to pull up every weed we think we see. But God the gardener says, “Wait. Watch.” The story isn’t over and none of us are done.