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 Which Side Are You On?

Sermon - 10/16/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 22:15-22

We have been looking at the last weeks of Jesus' life in Matthew's gospel. Took a brief break last week for our guest John Dominic Crossan, though I note that he did comment on the parable that I had just preached on 2 weeks before out of this section.

Now we come to the 22nd chapter of Matthew, verses 15 to 22, once again Jesus is teaching in the Temple (and that becomes quite important, so pay attention):

Then 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. [They're laying it on really thick, you know, have you had that experience, where you wonder, OK, what is it you want from me?  When people talk like this]

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.

So, the first thing that has to be said about this, to be absolutely clear, is that in spite of all claims to the contrary, this is not about the separation of church and state. And I'm a big believer in that concept, I think it's one of this country's greatest contributions to modern democracy. And as I reminded folk Monday morning at the Interfaith Community Breakfast at the Hilton, I have an entire lecture of 45 minutes on this topic of separation of church and state -- Good God, Bad Politics -- but for some reason they didn't want to hear that, and preferred to hear our guest, Dr. Crossan :).

In any case, if anyone would advocate for this text as justification for that concept of separation of church and state, it would be me. However, to do so would not only be dishonest, it would violate everything I have taught about taking the Bible seriously, and letting it speak on its own terms, rather than forcing it into modern context which sometimes fits about as well as the glass slipper on the ugly stepsister's foot.

The truth simply is: there is not scriptural basis for that concept of separation of church and state. It's a foreign concept to the Bible. The same as computers, airplanes, smart phones, and Duck football. But, you know, that hasn't stopped me from any of those things.

So we have to ask then: do we think Jesus thought we could separate everything in the two realms (over here we've got government and over here we've got religion)? To do that, Jesus would have had to abandon much of the Torah, the Psalms, and pretty much all of the prophets. I don't think Jesus is going to do that.

The issue, then, that Jesus is addressing here, is not the role of government and religion, or the role of religion in government. Did I mention that I have a lecture on that topic? If you want to stay for an additional 45 minutes. . .

Rather, it is on taxation. It's such a shame that nobody talks about taxation anymore, right? And in this case, it's a very specific tax known as the Censes tax, that we remember from that story in Luke's Gospel when Mary and Joseph have to go to Bethlehem to be counted. Anytime you count something, you're going to tax it.

Only we know from the historical record that particular tax actually was not begun in this area Palestine until about the year 6, when Judah officially became a province of the Roman Empire (about a decade after the birth of Jesus). And it was a tax that was paid directly to the Emperor. By itself, it was not a huge tax, a single denarius, or about a day's wage. But it was an immensely unpopular tax in Palestine because of what it represented -- allegiance to the Emperor. To Rome.

That this is a question, then, that is designed to trap Jesus -- is it legal, permissible, for us or not, as Jews, to pay this tax -- is made obvious by those who come to ask the question. First of all, you have the Pharisees. The Pharisees were opposed to this tax -- they were the original Tea Party, so to speak. Then you have the Herodians. We don't hear much about the Herodians, but think about King Herod -- they are the 'in' party, the "Obamians", if you will. So we've got the two opposing sides, and Jesus is challenged, kind of like a parent, to choose between his children here.

He responds with an answer that shows not just great wit and wisdom, it turns the question upside down. It challenges the questioners (and the audience alike) to choose sides, alright, but in a whole different way (while simultaneously discrediting the questioners in the process).

Now, to understand the story it helps to know the location. The location is where? The Temple. So, pay attention.

Those who attended the afternoon lectures on Sunday with John Dominic Crossan heard him mention briefly an incident under Emperor Caesar Caligula, about a decade after the crucifixion. Caligula decided, OK, I'm divine, I get to have a statue dedicated to myself in every temple. Or at least in a temple in every city. Or at least in all the capital cities, right?

And in most of the Roman Empire, that was not a problem -- they already had gobs of temples, to all kinds of gods, including a temple to the Emperor, who since the time of Augustus was declared to be divine, the Son of God. No big deal.

In Jerusalem, however, there is only one Temple. The statue has to go in their temple. The Jews are not too happy about it. The incident Crossan described was this massive, essentially non-violent protest that prevented the image of Caligula from being placed in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Well, Caligula sends his General, with their troops stationed in Syria, to Jerusalem in order to force them to put the statue there. Now, the General is a smart guy, he knows that this is going to be a big problem. He knows his people. He's not interested in starting a war. So, he goes over to the coast, then he goes east, he goes back and forth -- it takes him 2 years to go from Damascus to Jerusalem! Even in those days, that's darn slow.

Caligula is not a dumb guy. He may not have been popular, but he's not dumb, he knows what the General is doing. So he sends an order for the General to commit suicide. Only the opponents of Caligula get to him first, and Caligula is the one who is forced to commit suicide, so the General gets off, the statue is never installed in the Temple.

Now, remember, Jews are not going to tolerate any image of a foreign God in the Temple. The first commandment "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me", right?

So, back to our story: Jesus asks for the coin used to pay this tax. Why does he have to ask? It's a common coin. Because he doesn't have one, right? Remember the whole business of money-changers in the Temple? This is the whole point, Jews were not allowed to bring Roman coins into the Temple, they had to exchange them for for the local currency. Why? Because those coins, like the denarius, bear the image of the Emperor. Now, that's not a problem, we've got the image of our President's on all our money, right? Not only the image, but an inscription -- "In God We Trust", right?

Except that, the inscription on the Roman coin says the name of that God is Caesar. Caesar Tiberius, Caesar Caligula, Caesar Augustus, whoever the Caesar happens to be. He's the Son of God now on earth. That's a problem, you see, in the Temple.

So imagine the surprise, the shock, probably the snickering in the crowd, when Jesus gets one of his questioners to pull out a coin that is forbidden in the Temple! So he's exposed their hypocrisy. Having discredited them even before he gives his answer, then his response (that superficially OK's the tax -- 'Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's' from the King James version), Jesus goes much further and calls for a much higher allegiance -- "give to God that which is God's". If you were to ask Jesus 'How much of all of this do you think is God's?', what do you think Jesus is going to answer?

So to put it differently, Jesus has just told everyone gathered in that sacred Temple that its all about proclaiming the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof -- that's everything, right? That's God's.

To give back to Rome, then, everything that is Rome's. Give them back their stuff. Quit participating in their empire, begin participating in God's empire. To cease working for the economy of Caesar, and began working for the economy of God's distributive justice.

We heard John Dominic Crossan describe that as the household of God, that's not about everyone getting the exact same share, but it is about everyone getting enough. Everyone has what they need, the basic stuff to survive. That's the household of God.

So, my question is: if Jesus is giving an OK for paying the tax, why then did they crucify him just a few days later?

Or, to view it from the perspective of the Roman governor, if this undermines Roman authority and their whole financial base of power (as I'm suggesting) do you think they have any other choice than to crucify him?

As Crossan pointed out to us last week, Pontius Pilate is the best independent interpretation of Jesus that we have. For Pilate clearly saw there was a choice between two sides. You're either going to support the Emperor, or you're going to support God. Or, the way he would put it, you're either going to support the God we know through the Emperor, or the God you claim to see in Jesus.

And even though Rome was very, very tolerant of other Gods (I mean, you go to Pompeii, you see this beautiful temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis, right there in the middle of the Roman empire, very tolerant of all kinds of Gods, put their temples side-by-side) they are not going to be tolerating of this one.

So now the question of Jesus, or the challenge of Jesus, comes to us: which side are we on? To put it in terms of something so basic as our stewardship campaign "Saints Alive", do you view making a pledge to the church's as a tax, simply by another name, to a different authority? Or do you see it as a commitment of faith to a different set of values and beliefs? A different way of being in the world? A different orientation of and to life?

So if it's the former (if we just see it as a tax by another name), then like the government, we will always be working out of a model of scarcity, trying to balance our budget with diminishing resources, ever short of funds to meet our basic needs and always complaining "we don't have enough".

But if it's the latter, that's part of our faith, then we will be the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven, working our of a model of abundance, sharing together in the richness of God's blessing for all. If we view it as a tax, giving to God, are we surprised, then, that we view it as taxing? But when we see it as an opportunity to bless others, even ourselves, then we experienced giving as a blessing that blesses us.

So you see, even in the church, we can have an attitude of giving to Caesar that which is Caesar's. Or we can have an attitude of giving to God that which is God's.

Now, I could end on that note, and I probably should, stay out of trouble :) But in honor of Steve Jobs, I have to say just one more thing (that's what Jobs would always end his presentations with -- 'just one more thing', and then introduce something like an iPod or iPhone).

I don't know whether you've noticed, because it hasn't gotten any attention, at least not until lately, but there's been this gathering of folks on Wall Street in New York City, right? And it has spread across the country, now even here in Eugene. And it was ignored initially by the mainstream media as this weird group of disgruntled youth with very fuzzy demands. In fact, driving in this morning I heard on the radio an interview with one of the persons in the demonstration yesterday here locally, announcing they are going to occupy a block of downtown Eugene, and they're going to stay there until their demands are met. What are those demands? "Well, we don't know yet" :) We're working on that :)

So it's a little fuzzy. There's no spokesperson to explain it, there is no Martin Luther King, you know, making these fiery speeches. There is no Nelson Mandela imprisoned for his opposition to the government. There's no politician running for office explaining his platform -- something like 9-9-9 or whatever the case may be. So I think people thought, well, maybe if we just ignore them, they'll go away -- we don't know what else to do with them.

Well, they're still there, and their numbers are growing. So what is this about? Jim Wallis, who is one the national religious leaders that I greatly admire (the publisher of Sojourners Magazine, wrote the bestseller a few years ago "God's Politics", followed that up with an even better book "Faith Values"), this week put out a letter that he entitled "An Open Letter to the Occupiers From a Veteran Troublemaker". You gotta love him :) And this is what he opened with:

"You have awakened the sleeping giant. Too long dormant but ever-present, deep in the American democratic spirit. You have given voice and space to the unspoken feelings of countless others about something that has gone terribly wrong in our society".

So what is that has gone terribly wrong?

I was trying to sort this all out, and how I felt about this myself, trying to figure out what it means, how it relates to this text, when I was sitting in my throne room where I keep a stack of old magazines I've been meaning to read when I have nothing else to do. Do you have a room like that in your house?

So there I was reading Christian Century, great magazine, from March of this year. So it's months before any of this started. And there was a book review, the book was entitled "Winner Take All Politics", sub-title pretty much says it all: "How Washington Made the Rich Richer, and Turned its Back on the Middle Class". And it cites very familiar statistics we've heard many ways, about how the wealth of the richest 1% has skyrocketed in this country while it has been stagnant or in decline for just about everyone else.

One of the statistics they cite was from a study done from 1979 to 2006, in which the bottom 20% saw their real wealth (adjusted for inflation) increase .3% over a 27-year period. How many of you would like to invest your money for 27 years and get a .3% return?

For the middle 20%, basic middle-class, over the same 27-year period, real wealth increased .7%. Meanwhile, for the top 1%, real wealth has increased 260%.

The book chronicles how 30 years of economic policies in both Democratic and Republican administrations (this is not about one party against the others), both across the board, from Jimmy Carter to George Bush, have made it all possible. Resulting not just in the greatest inequality our nation has ever known, but record unemployment, foreclosures, college graduates with insurmountable debts they cannot pay with jobs they cannot find, record number of children in schools that are homeless, record class-sizes, and on and on the list goes.

Thomas Friedman quoted Australian environmentalist and author Paul Gilding this week in his column. He said: "Occupy Wall Street is like the kid in the fairy story saying what everyone knows but is afraid to say: the emperor has no clothes. The system is broken".

On that, probably just about everyone would agree -- Tea Party on the right, as far left as you want to go. Everyone would agree -- it's broken. How it can be fixed, you see, is what the debate is all about. And we may have all different solutions. The occupiers themselves don't yet agree on any one solution, other than this general consensus that something has to change, or society will collapse from the weight of this enormous and growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

Senator Phil Gramm, in that same article from Christian Century, was quoted and I think sums it all up, really. Senator Graham from Texas is one of the champions of the deregulation of Wall Street that has lead to some of the great abuses that we've seen there recently. He nails the problem on the head, he said: "When I am on Wall Street, to me, that is a holy place".

And you see, that's the crux of the problem right there. Turning the financial market into a sacred cow that is leading us astray. And it's time that someone name it for the false idol that it has become.

I'm not sure myself of all what that means. But it would seem to me at the very least that if we are to give to the Emperor (the powers of this world), what belongs to them, and to give to God what belongs to God, then we need a clear understanding of our priorities, our values, as to which side we are on.

For the challenge of Jesus is precisely this: to decide how much of ourselves, of our way of living, our involvement, our allegiance, are we going to give to the rulers of this world, the power brokers, or how much are we going to give to God and God's way of distributive justice on earth as it is in heaven.

That is what it is about.


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