In Luke 20, some teachers of the religious law try to entrap Jesus by asking him a tax question. Now, I don’t know about you but I usually don’t go around trying to field everybody’s tax questions and I often will quickly laugh and change the subject whenever a tax-philosophy is shared. Yet, these leaders wanted to put Jesus in a lose-lose scenario. You see, if Jesus told the people not to pay taxes, then he would be in trouble with the Roman authorities who had successfully squashed any notion of not contributing to the government from other Zealots. This would be the leaders best case scenario. However, if Jesus tells the people to pay their taxes and be good citizens, then in the view of the religious leaders, this stance would forfeit the Messianic fervor surrounding Jesus. He would be seen not as a rebel leader assumed in the notion of Messiah, but as a pawn of the Roman government that would be a far cry from the expectations of those following him. So, here is the story from Scripture, Luke 20:20-26.
20 Watching for their opportunity, the leaders sent spies pretending to be honest men. They tried to get Jesus to say something that could be reported to the Roman governor so he would arrest Jesus. 21 “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you speak and teach what is right and are not influenced by what others think. You teach the way of God truthfully. 22 Now tell us—is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
23 He saw through their trickery and said, 24 “Show me a Roman coin. Whose picture and title are stamped on it?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
25 “Well then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
26 So they failed to trap him by what he said in front of the people. Instead, they were amazed by his answer, and they became silent.
So, which side did Jesus take? If you’re confused then it’s okay, the teachers of religious law were too and it says they became silent! Jesus doesn’t pick a side, which might help us navigate other either/or false dichotomies that we face, but instead he presents a notion that there things reserved for Government and there are things reserved for God. The reservation is made by the word “belongs.” Therefore, we might notice that the trust of God is on our money, but the pictures are of our civc leaders and so Jesus is kind of saying that we must give to the government the stuff that bears the government’s image. Meanwhile, we are to give to God the stuff that belongs to God because it bears the Father’s image. And what we don’t want to do is give to the government that which belongs to God and think that God overly cares about our gifts of stuff that has the government’s pictures all over it.
They failed to trap him…and often that is what Christians face is entrapment when we are met with a political philosophy or a dichotomy that asks us to choose between supporting A or B. I pray that we seek the wisdom to be people of high standing in the Kingdom of God and be people who discern the proper images on our stuff. Jesus asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?” May this not simply guide our tax payments, but may we think about this in all our life’s arenas.
This year has been an interesting and unconventional ride for all of us who are tuned into politics. I think one of the big questions Americans have begun to ask is which party, if any, really represents their values, agendas, and dreams. This question was seized by Donald Trump, and he won the presidential nomination as an outsider who yesterday stood in front of the gathered crowd and proclaimed the government inept and out of touch. And yet, today there is another group of people gathering because they believe that both President Trump and the Congressional powers do not hold the best interests of some Americans as a top priority. So, I watch the pageantry of the peaceful transfer of power. I view with respect the outgoing president and thank the Obamas for their service. I respect the Trump family, but have to candidly say that Trump’s own words and thoughts have opened the door to critique, push back, and protest. So, what do we do when we think that we don’t have a voice among those in power? What action is taken when we want to be heard? We create a movement…which leads me not to a discussion of politics, but one of religious movement.
I find it odd that many of the same people who claim that there needs to be more parties involved in electing a president are the same people who sometimes condemn Christianity for having so many different denominations (that is parties). Imagine that there were only two different parties in the Christian faith and one was highly authoritarian and the other was a direct reaction to it. Over the years, groups of Christians decided to break away from the religious power structures because they thought that these established groups had moved away from the heart of Jesus’ message. So each denomination started as a movement to draw the heart of Christian groups back to the essence of Jesus.
You might recall that the Democrats and Republicans were not always the parties in control, and didn’t always think the same way they do today. American parties have included the Whigs, Federalists, and later the Libertarians, Green, and Tea Parties. Some parties are seen as subsets of larger parties, for example most Americans would see the Tea Party as a part of the larger Republican Party. And we have the same thing in religious movements as well, and we also have the incorporation of different ideas into the larger parties through the voice of smaller “protest groups.” This would be what is currently happening to the larger Episcopal Church with the smaller group of American Anglican Churches who want to support same sex inclusion. The larger fellowship is not in line with the smaller “protest group” and they are working it out. I bring this up because it is a contemporary news headline and there are so many other discussions like this happening all across religious denominations.
So, I ask you to think about the idea of religious freedom today and compare it to your own ideas of freedoms of speech and assembly. You see, America gives us the freedom to disagree and when we do so, to act upon it and to create an environment of inclusion from those who have been excluded. If I were to go to a Catholic church this Sunday I would not be permitted to take the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper, yet I am part of a church family that proclaims Jesus’ sacrifice is for everyone and all are welcomed to the table of Christ. It is a major difference, one that is still being discussed and debated. However, as we open up the Lord’s Supper to all those for whom Jesus died, we believe it is a correction that legitimizes the existence of a different party…notice I did not say the superior one or the only one, but a choice. And in the end the idea of freedom finds its practical application in choice.
I am finding myself trying to be an American and defining that not through what the parties tell me, but listening to the voice of our highest ideas and values, and listening to the dissenting voices. And likewise, I find myself trying to be a Christian by not attending to my tradition and patterns, but by going back to the essence of the Bible and the teaching of Jesus and listening to the dissenting voices. I know that some voices are extreme and harsh, but there are biblical directions about discerning. In the end, freedom that is expressed in choice must be rooted in wisdom, and so we ask for the wisdom from above so that we can properly engage the multiple avenues to fill our minds with wisdom from below. So, the next time you ask why there are so many churches, ask yourself if you are completely heard by the two party system? In the end, the government is still trying to “get it right” and the government is so much younger than the church, who by the way, is still trying to “get it right” ourselves. Of course, that concept should lead us to the one who ultimately got it right, and provided us with the opportunity to be the righteousness of God in the midst of our search.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.