Sunday Night Worship – 10/19/08

The Things That Are God’s

Matthew 22: 15-22

Jesus would have been a horrible presidential candidate. Don’t get me wrong: I love him – and I hope you do, too. He has a great platform. How can you top the kingdom of God? But he would have been a horrible candidate.

Today’s candidates seem to cultivate the skill of staying “on message.” Sarah Palin famously announced, one or two questions into her debate with Joe Biden this fall, that she wasn’t too concerned about answering the questions the moderator asked because she had certain things she wanted to say. If you watched the final presidential debate last Wednesday (or any of the others) you saw both McCain and Obama practicing less obvious forms of the Palin pronouncement.

It seems that no matter the question, the topic, the mood in the room, or the spiraling, out-of-control state of the economy, today’s candidates have a script and they are sticking to it. It gets so tedious and ridiculous that I fantasize that if Jesus himself walked in at the middle of the debate and said, “I have something you haven’t thought of and it could solve the health care issue,” both candidates would say – talking over top of each other – “That’s a nice idea, Jesus, but have you heard about my plan?” I could go off on the whole debate scenario here, about how there is really nothing debate-like about the debates and how they are not much more than nationally-televised 90-minute soap-boxes. The only part that resembles a debate is that they take turns talking – when they aren’t taking turns interrupting one another.

But I’ll refrain from (further) ranting.

I’m afraid that most political dialogue in our country resembles the debates. Whether it’s a conversation, an article, a panel discussion, or chatting at a bus stop, we tend to go into political conversations ready to talk and refusing to listen. And what is there to listen to anyway, if the other person is poised as we are to do all the talking?

If the topic of abortion comes up and two people on opposite sides of the issue want to talk about it, there is not usually much to talk about. At the most basic level, the one who’s pro-life is not ready to accept that there may be more than one way to practice being pro-life or that the period between conception and birth could be categorized as anything other than life. At the most basic level, the one who’s pro-choice is not ready to accept the same definition or starting point for life or that anything or anyone else could trump a woman’s choices about her pregnancy.

I said, “at the most basic level” but that is not even true. At the most basic level there are not only two, opposite sides. At the most basic level, there are questions about authority and care for children and health and the ethics of decision-making, and how we receive and respond to the many gifts of life. At the most basic level, we are humans trying to make good choices about tough, complex, real-life scenarios. So why do we settle for the paucity of vision and integrity involved in a “two sides” issue? Why do we pitch our tents with the pro-choicers or the pro-lifers and never look back? What about “option C” (Jan Richardson,

Jesus loved option C. It’s why he would have made a horrible presidential candidate. The Pharisees ask him about paying taxes to the emperor (Mt. 22: 17). Is it lawful? It’s a simple “yes” or “no” question. A or B. Lawful or not.

But Jesus refuses the initial premise of the question. He reframes it and goes for option C. He says, It’s not about paying taxes or not, it’s about knowing where your allegiances lie.

He asks his questioners whose image is on the coin used to pay the tax and they respond that it’s an image of the emperor. What Matthew (and Mark and Luke) record him saying is, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” (vv. 19-21).

When you are looking for A or B, yes or no, and you get C, it can be maddening, humiliating, thwarting, frustrating….or it can be enlightening and life-giving. It can be life-transforming. What would option C look like on the issue of abortion or health care or the war in Iraq and Afghanistan or the economy? What would it look like in your own life?

Ernie and Joey got me to squirm last week when we played “stand for what you believe” during forum. They posed tough choices like “Is war ever okay or never okay?” and then asked us to stand on one side of the room or the other. A or B. Nothing in the middle. I tried hard to comply – really! But there were about 3 questions when I just absolutely could not take one side or the other. I could not agree with enough of one position or the other to stand solidly on that side. Or I could not agree with the initial premise of the question enough to agree that the two sides presented were adequate or mutually exclusive.

That made it hard to play the game. But – without elevating my poor gamesmanship to the level of good discipleship – isn’t that what Jesus does when they ask him about the taxes? It is a question meant to entrap him: either you choose the emperor and deny God or you choose God and incur the penalty for unlawfulness. Jesus avoids the trap and somehow manages to answer the question while also going beyond it (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII, p. 420). His answer enables and condones paying taxes but it also renders the question moot. If I give to God the things that are God’s, isn’t that everything?

We trap ourselves when we settle for this being a primer on paying taxes. Yes, the Pharisees and Herodians pose a question about taxes, but what they are really interested in is laying a trap for Jesus. They are annoyed by now with his sneaky parables and upstart ways and they attempt to get him to say or do something for which they can rally the crowds to execute him. For them, the question is a trap, with taxes as the bait. Jesus sees this but he also has his own point to get across. For Jesus, it’s not about the taxes. It’s not even about the emperor. It’s about God.

I had a great theological discussion with Annie this week. If anyone is hankering for some good God-talk, she’s your woman. I highly recommend doing some theology with her. In the middle of our conversation she told me that, during a long and very stressful struggle to settle some decisions, she had an epiphany when she realized, “It’s not about me; it’s about God.” What a freeing and transformative moment!

It’s not about the taxes or the emperor and it’s not even about you or me. It’s about God! It’s interesting to me that I most often hear only half of this answer that Jesus gives. Maybe that’s how you’ve heard it, too. What I usually hear is, harkening back to older translations, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” That’s usually it. Just half. As Woody said we when we were discussing it this week, “‘Render unto Caesar’ is just the throw-away line.” Exactly. What about the “rendering unto God” part?

We aren’t so unlike the Pharisees and Herodians sometimes. We look to the Bible for guidance and answers but sometimes what we really want is a loophole. Sometimes we’re looking for something to bolster the status quo, something to sanction what we plan to do anyway, something that seems right but that’s really only half an answer. Or half a life.

We settle for “give to the emperor” and leave God out of it altogether. We want this to be a story about civic duty. We want this to bolster either the Obama or McCain tax plan. We don’t want this to mean more work for us, more discipleship. We want a one-size-fits-all solution with no wiggle room or ambiguity or nuance. Thank God we don’t always get what we want.

All those “wants” have to do with us and what would work well in our lives. But notice that Jesus doesn’t say, When you’re faced with a tough question about civic duty and religion here’s how you sort out your own thoughts and feelings on the matter. All he says is, Who does this belong to?

Well that makes it simpler and more complex at the same time, doesn’t it? Who do you belong to? Whose Body is this? Whose are all those October-Song-singing trees outside? Give to God the things that are God’s…It all belongs to God and that simplifies our allegiances and makes more complex how we might behave in a given situation.

We might be pro-life Democrats or anti-war Republicans. We might redefine terms like “pro-life” and “anti-war.” We might refuse to accept the contrived “two sides” of our current political climate. We don’t accept that paying taxes means our highest loyalty is to the state. We recognize that in every moment of every day we are God’s blessed children and that our whole lives and all that is in them belongs to God.

Annie’s right. It’s not about us; it’s about God. What a freeing and transformative realization!  Now, what are you going to do about it?

Thanks be to God!

© 2008 Deborah E. Lewis