Littlewell
Christ Centered Church Resource Site

Give unto Caesar?

Matthew 22:15-22
Sun, October 20, 1996
Rev. Ed Searcy
"The scrum of the earth".
That is Mike Harcourt's description
of the pack who hounded him
during his days as Premier.

"The scrum of the earth".
That's how Matthew
portrays the pack who hound Jesus
days before his death.
Every compliment is a fraud.
Every question is a trap.
Every time he opens his mouth
Jesus risks arrest.

"Teacher", they say,
"we know that you are sincere,
and teach the way of God ...
and show deference to no one;
for you do not regard people with partiality."
You just know that it is a set up.
Because every one knows that there is one in the Empire
who is to be shown deference
one in the Empire
who is to be given special treatment.
When it comes to the Emperor
impartiality is out the window.

That is what Caesar's special tax
is all about.
Caesar's special tax:
the T.S.T ...
the Tribute and Services Tax.
This is not just any ordinary tax.
It has nothing to do with roads and sewers
or even schools and hospitals.
The Tribute Tax is the tax imposed by the Empire
on every citizen
of every subservient state in the realm.
Whenever separatists spring up in Israel
it was the Tribute Tax that draws their wrath.
"Don't pay", they shout, "don't pay".
The Internal Revenue Service
of the Roman Empire understood.
Non-payment of the Tribute Tax meant but one thing:
Rebellion.

"So", the scrum wants to know,
"is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?"
And they are sure that he can't wriggle out of this corner.
They wink at one another in delight
over the clever trap they have set this time.

There they sit,
the underlings of King Herod,
Caesar's puppet government.
Collaborators, all.
Just a hint from Jesus
that the tax notices are to be ignored
is all that they need
for the security forces to move in.

But they are surrounded by the crowds,
Crowds of Jewish nationalists
for whom paying the Tribute Tax
is a mortal sin.
Crowds of Jewish peasants
who have begun to call Jesus:
'Messiah' ... 'King'
The one long promised who would restore Israel to glory.

"To pay or not to pay"
it is the question which dominates
the political life of Jesus' era.

Sure enough,
to the utter amazement of
'the scrum of the earth'
Jesus slips out of their trap.
He asks for a denarius,
the coin specifically required to pay the tax.
A denarius ... bearing the face of Tiberius,
Emperor of the realm.
"Whose head is this", he asks?
"The Emperor's" they respond.
Now Jesus has his opponents where he wants them:
"Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's"
he says - in one of the world's most famous sound bites -
"and to God the things that are God's".

Little did anyone know
that this little piece of witty repartee
would last longer than that evening's newscast
or the next day's morning papers.
In fact,
Jesus' answer lives on two millenia later
as Wisdom,
words to live by,
guidance for the everyday follower. But just what does it mean?

The Tributarians who heard Jesus' words went away satisfied.
He left no doubt in their minds:
"Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's".
Pay Caesar his due.
Plain and simple.
Tax to Caesar.
Tithe to the church.
Work for a living from Monday to Friday.
Worship God on Sunday.
The Tributarians are clear:
Caesar is owed allegiance.
It is the way of the world.
We have public, political, 'worldly' lives
and we have private, personal, 'spiritual' lives.
One we render to Caesar
the other we render to God.
Oh, sometimes the dividing line can get a bit muddy,
sometimes we aren't so sure whose is whose
but the principle is clear
and, besides,
Jesus said so.
Or so it would seem.

Until you stop to think about just what
the crowds were thinking about.
Why were they delighted with Jesus' reply?
Surely if they had thought that Jesus
was condoning payment of the hated Tribute Tax
they would have been quick to disown him.
Jesus' response left the collaborators in the crowd
thinking that he was no secessionist rebel.
But it also left the nationalists cheering.
Why is that?
What did they hear?

(the piano plays ... #543 in Voices United)

It was bred deep in their bones.
They had learned it from infancy:
"We give thee but thine own,
what e'er the gift may be,
all that we have is thine alone,
a trust, O Lord, from thee."
When they heard Jesus say:
"give to God the things that are God's"
the crowd heard something
that the Romans and their quislings missed.
They heard Jesus playing a trump card.
They heard him say that nothing belongs to Caesar
that everything belongs to God ...
even the coin stamped with the likeness of Tiberius.

The likeness of Tiberius.
Any audience schooled in scripture
would catch the allusion in those words.
Remember the beginning of the entire saga:
the creation of humankind.
Whose likeness do we humans bear?
To whom do we belong?
We are stamped with "the image of God",
we bear the likeness of the Creator. (Gen. 1:26-27)
We belong to God.

Here is the genius of Jesus' answer:
it doesn't solve the problem of the Tribute Tax.
It doesn't set out, once and for all,
a separation between church and state,
public and private,
worldly and spiritual..
It leaves the listener to sort it all out.

Unfortunately,
many who hear these words
find in them ammunition to aim at others
rather than a searchlight to point at themselves.
You know what they say:
"Too many Christians use the Bible
as a drunk does a lamppost ...
for support
rather than for illumination".

How might we learn to stop leaning on these words
to support our biases
and rationalize our choices?
What might our lives look like if we allowed Jesus' words
to shed light on our skewed priorities
and flawed decisions?

Outspoken American preacher
William Sloan Coffin
is surely on target when he suggests that
"the primary religious task these days
is to learn to think straight.
Seeing clearly", he says,
is more important than good behaviour."

Learning to think straight.
Seeing clearly.
This is the task at hand.

"Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's
and to God the things that are God's?"
How might this maxim
untangle our confusion
and clarify our vision?
All week long I have been asking that question
of myself
and others.

The answers that I have heard
come like little glimmers of light
brief moments of clarity
that begin to form a mosaic
shaping a new consciousness
of a different way in the world.

First, there was a sudden memory
of an exercise done in Confirmation class
many years ago.
There were ten of us fourteen year olds.
We were given a newspaper
and asked to cut out anything in it
that had to do with Christianity.
As you might imagine
we turned immediately to the religion section
Eventually, though, we found news stories on other pages
that mentioned the church in particular
or religion in general.
After awhile we were quite proud of the little collection
of articles that we had piled up.
Then to our surprise
we were given another assignment.
"That is not bad", our teacher said,
but remember that there is nothing in the world
not one page of the paper
that God is not concerned with.
Go back to the paper that you have left
and listen for the voice of God,
look for the face of Christ
on each and every page."
It is an exercise I practice to this day.
It is an exercise that undercuts all of our attempts to
separate Ceasar's world from God's world.
Might it be precisely the kind of exercise
that Jesus had in mind
when he stumped the 'scrum of the earth'?!
I think so.

Early in the week, there was Gerald
gleefully commenting that church history
provides plenty of examples for this sermon.
"Examples of what?" I innocently asked.
"Why, of giving unto Caesar" he winked.
And, of course, he is right.
So much of our past tells tales of the church cutting deals
to protect its own power and prestige.
'Give unto Caesar'
can be the beguiling voice of the Tempter
leading us into temptation.

Later in the week there was an e-mail message
from my friend Keith.
"The question is", he wrote,
"Can you have a Caesar salad with dressing on the side
or does it ruin the salad?"
Keith humour hides
an issue that cannot be ignored.
Is it possible to remove the tension
that exists in Jesus open ended statement
by putting Caesar to one side?
Can the Emperor's claims simply be taken out of the equation,
as if we could escape the dilemma
of giving unto God in a world that includes Caesar?
It cannot be done.
Just look at our own system of taxation.
How does one sort out
that which is paid in tribute to the bureaucratic Empire
and that which goes to feed the hungry,
educate the young
and heal the sick?
Imagine that ...
perhaps the largest percentage of our tax burden
is, in truth,
an act of stewardship ...
a part of our giving back to God
who would have us
do justice to our fellow citizens
and love kindness in our land.
Sometimes giving unto Caesar
can also be giving unto God.

But sometimes the two mix about as well
as oil and water.
My friend Doug is a minister in Vanderhoof.
It is a town built along the Nechako River,
site of all kinds of controversy over the past decade
when ALCAN negotiated the rights
to lower the level of the river
in order to make more power for its plants.
Perhaps you remember the outcry and the outrage.
In the midst of all the sound and fury,
Doug was surprised one night to see one of his parishioners
interviewed on the National.
It was Leo LaRocque,
an old trapper and guide,
who never spoke much about religion.
But when asked on camera
why he opposed the deal with ALCAN
his words came so naturally
that it caught even Doug off guard:
"I think we have forgotten", he said,
"that the river is a gift from God."
Sometimes giving unto God
means choosing not to give unto Caesar.
Jesus' words illuminate our lives in ways
that surprise,
delight
and confront us.
In the end he forces us to answer the question:
Whose are we?
Whose likeness do we bear?

We know how we would like to answer that question.
We would like to be theologically correct.
Yet we suspect that our lives
may reveal a different answer at work.

Around a University
that functioning answer hits you right between the eyes.
Listen to the conversations among students
and faculty ...
listen in on the parents' phone calls from home
and you'll hear it all the time:
the talk of 'careers' ...
of choosing a career,
of starting a career,
of making a career.
The word 'career' remember,
comes from latin racetrack talk.
It is all about picking your horse,
choosing the one that will get you the win.
It is very different language
than was once used around universities.
Then the latin word was 'vocatio'
calling.

Do you hear the tension there?
The language of vocatio,
vocation
assumes that we belong to another ...
who calls us into the service of others.
But the language of career
assumes that we belong to ourselves alone.
That we are each our own
'Little Caesar'
owing nothing to no one.
Belonging only to ourselves.

Don't kid yourself.
The existence of little communities of Christians
on this massive campus
and in this 'careerist' society
amounts to subversive activity.
We intend to change
to convert
the world around us
just as we have been changed,
converted by the new sight we have received.

You see,
here we don't speak of careers.
Because here we don't believe
that we belong to ourselves.
Here we speak of being called,
chosen,
needed ...
for here we believe
that we belong to God.