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On God and the government

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on October 21, 2020 at 1:50 PM

Matthew 22:15-22

 

“Is it lawful to pay taxes or not?” the religious leaders come asking. Because in Jesus’ day, this kind of question made you take sides and the leaders were trying to ask trick him into saying something that would get him hated by one group of people or the other.

 

You see, this tax was an annual reminder for the Jewish people that they were ruled by the occupying Romans and every coin they gave supported a regime that oppressed them. And the only way to pay the tax was with a Roman coin with Caesar’s face on it that proclaimed him son of a god. So their question about taxes was not only a question about supporting an occupying force that they disagree with, but it’s also a religious question about whether paying this tax to Caesar was denying the only true God.

 

It was one of those questions with no perfect answer and yet one that defined who you were- either one of the resisters who is going to mess up this uneasy peace with have with the Romans or one of the taxpayers who ignores God’s laws when it’s hard. This morning the leaders come to make Jesus choose sides. Sound familiar this election season?

 

But thankfully Jesus isn’t partisan and has this habit of refusing to get trapped by the categories that we create and the boxes we try to put him in. He refuses to take one of two choices and so often finds a third way. The way that gets past our prejudices and our polarizing thinking and points us back to God.

 

So Jesus asks the Pharisees for a coin and says, “whose inscription is on it? Whose face?” “The emperor’s,” the Pharisees say. Then, Jesus says, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God's.”

 

The coin is marked with the face of Caesar, Jesus says. That is how you know whose it is. But look at your reflection and see that you are marked with the face of God. That is whose YOU are. That is first and foremost. In the early moments of creation, God proclaimed, “Let us make humankind in our image.” And we were all imprinted with the seal of God again in our baptisms. So whether we like it or not, we are God’s. We do not belong to anything or anyone else.

 

So, as God’s own, how do we actually “give to God what is God’s?” It means we give all we have to the work of God- the work of forgiving and reconciling and bringing peace and caring for life. It means serving your neighbor more times than we think we should instead of finding a reason why we don’t have to. It means praying in the morning and the night even if we don’t know what good it will actually do. It means daring to give money away to those in need and to the work of the gospel constantly and joyfully instead of debating whether the other person really deserves it.

 

That is what the early church did. They risked believing that all they were and all they had were God’s. They gave to God what was God’s, even to the point of death. They shared all their money, they preached the gospel where it wasn’t popular, they served others when they were tired. And people were so amazed by how they lived that they flocked to them. The early church had a courage that we often don’t. They risked living like Jesus called them to.

 

If we had the courage to live like that- if we continually supported each other in such things, I have a hunch that we wouldn’t have the same questions about life that we do now. I know that in the moments when I have been caught up in the joy and challenge of living out the gospel, I have a whole lot less time to get caught up in questions that paralyze us into inaction. I’ve found that when I focus on giving who I am to God first and foremost, a lot of other questions fall into place. That’s what Jesus is reminding us this morning.

 

But it’s not fair to leave the question of taxes unanswered. Because taxes are a mixed blessing. They go toward good stuff like rebuilding places that have been destroyed by natural disasters. And paying for healthcare for seniors and those living in poverty. They pay for courts that seek, even if they don’t always achieve, justice. These are things that our God tells us to be about. But our taxes also support things that stand against who God calls us to be in the world. So there are no easy answers.

 

And yet, if Jesus’ life is any indication, we’re called to live primarily within the bounds of government. Jesus turned over the tables of those wielding power a few times and relentlessly called them to remember justice, but he didn’t overthrow the ruling powers. He simply refused to give his allegiance to them or place his trust in them. He refused to let them define who we was or keep him from living out God’s call. And he refused to stay silent when the government ignored God’s intention for the world.

 

Jesus seems to be saying that we have responsibilities in this world, including responsibilities to the government like paying taxes and advocating in the political process for the sake of our neighbors. So, Jesus says, do what is necessary to protect your neighbor and keep some order for the common good, even if it’s far from perfect. Give to the government what is the government’s, but don’t dare mess around with the things that belong to God. Don’t be willing to give to the government or any political party your complete loyalty or your full trust. Don’t let them define your hope or your vision. Don’t give them your whole self.

 

Because we are made in God’s image, defined by God’s hope and love and we will always be God’s- 100% completely. That is the joy and treasure that we get to know for all of our days. And we are called to give to God what is God’s. To dare to walk in the way God created for us- a way that reflects to the world the love that we were created in. And to dare to entrust all we are and all we have to the only one who is faithful enough to care for it.

 

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