Church and State: Whose Image is it?21st Sunday after Pentecost
The Herodians and disciples of the Pharisees tackle Jesus on the temple grounds, hoping to score a fatal blow. They ask what they think is an impossible question: Is it lawful for a Jew to pay Roman taxes? The Herodians were the group who counseled cooperation with Rome, as their name would suggest. But note also that it is the disciples of the Pharisees, not the Pharisees themselves, who form part of this legal double-team. The disciples are a younger cohort and, most likely, tend toward a more left-wing faction opposed to Roman rule.
The question is designed to ensnare Jesus in an impossible paradox like a whale entangled in a fishing net.
If he says, “Pay the tax,” the Pharisees’ disciples can call him a collaborator and ruin his reputation with the general public.
If he says, “Don’t pay it,” then the Herodians can report him to the Romans as seditious. If he doesn’t answer, he is a coward. Jesus recognizes their ploy and calls them hypocrites. Here on the temple grounds, their intention has nothing to do with the worship of God. Jesus asks for a coin they would use to pay the tax. One of them produces a coin from his pocket. Not a temple coin that would be used for the temple tax, but a Roman coin. Jesus asks, “And whose image is that?” “Ceasar’s” is the reply. “Then give back to Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar, and give to God what is owed to God.” And, of course, we legitimately ask, “What is there that does not belong to God?” And the answer is “nothing”.
Church and state: the never-ending struggle. In our time, this has not been much of an issue. The laws and structures of our country were built by a society that itself was consciously set upon a mostly implicit Biblical foundation. The settlers of this country were Protestant or Catholic.
We know the history of Victoria was a tug-of-war between the Presbyterians and the Anglicans because the first settlers were either Scots or English. Today, our nation seems embarrassed by our religious past. At least, that’s my take.
And how easily do we become ensnared in our political and social issues? I earlier used the term “settlers” to describe us and our ancestors. You know that’s what our culture is called—settler culture. What’s your response when you hear that this or that group’s agenda is de-colonization?
Are we interested in dialogue, or do we scramble to find an argument to win the day? Those issues didn’t trouble the church when British culture was dominant and unquestioned. That’s no longer the case. Where is our dialogue with the folks who walk past this building day after day? I know that’s the question we all wrestle with, but it is still a question we need to engage.
Frederick Dale Bruner, my favorite commentator on Matthew, notes that Jesus’ words, “Give back to Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar,” is not an option.
Jesus doesn’t just say, “Alright, do it if you must.” He says, “Do it”.
At about the same time as Jesus, the Essenes lived in the desert and did their best to avoid Rome and society in general. That was never Jesus’ way. He took his disciples up and down Judea and Galilee. He visited Samaria and the Gentile towns across the Sea of Galilee. He visited them and dealt with all the issues that befuddled Jews and Gentiles.
What happens when you hear about the controversy over pronouns?
A few days ago, some demonstrated at the Legislature on this side or that, and there were sincere believers on both sides.
If I were living downtown, I would have gathered with those who assembled in candlelight to pray over what is happening in Gaza.
What should the church’s position be on that issue? I’ve heard some very passionate opinions.
Again, some sincere believers side uncritically with Israel, and others side passionately with the Palestinians living in Gaza. Denominational affiliation has much to do with where you come down. Curious, isn’t it? I keep praying, “Come soon, Lord Jesus. Otherwise, I fear there is no answer.”
No matter how we come down on these and the basket full of other issues of our times, we know that the real question is “Whose image is this?” I sat next to a young transgendered man at an extended family gathering a year or two ago. I knew he was LGBQ. He was also an artist with makeup. We sat on the mantle ledge, and he showed me his portfolio of dress and makeup he’d worked on. I had to admit he was a master of drag. He showed me page after page of trans men in full drag. He was proud of his creations. I don’t know if he knew I was a Presbyterian minister or not, but he didn’t seem to care one way or the other. I suppose just the fact that I was there and we were talking was enough. It was for me. I found the moment amusing in a way. I thought of how I’d have reacted when I was young and a newly ordained Baptist minister. First, I would never have been invited to the dinner, and if I had been, no young man would have identified himself openly as a trans drag queen and artist. I reflect on all that its taken in my life to free me of much of my younger judgmentalism.
I wondered afterward if I might have had the opportunity to offer something of substance, but maybe just being present without judgment was enough.
The Pharisees would not have approved. The Pharisee in me would not have approved.
I still struggle with the issue of pronouns. I struggle when people pull down statues and throw them into the harbor.
But those are social and political issues.
They are not people.
And its people who are made in God’s image.
Can we remake the state in God’s image?
Not entirely, and there is a danger in assuming that one or another political ideology is inherently more Christian than another.
But we can do our part. We will never succeed completely, but we can make a difference.
That day in Jerusalem, Jesus could have told everyone that they should just focus on worship of God and stay out of public business. But he didn’t.
John Diefenbaker, the quintessential prairie conservative, was a devout member of First Baptist Church, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Tommy Douglas, the epitome of NDP populism, was minister of First Baptist Church, Regina.
I believe Elizabeth May is an ordained Anglican minister. I am told by a close friend of Christy Clark that the former premier is also a devout Anglican.
There is room for differences.
William Wilberforce, who crusaded against slavery, was both a devout Christian and a member of the British Parliament. He spent his adult life struggling against slavery, mostly without success, but the revival spurred by the preaching of Charles Wesley is credited with creating the groundswell that pushed Wilberforce’s reform over the top.
Hebrews says the heroes of faith left safety behind and ventured out to find the city whose builder and maker is God. They died not having achieved it here on earth. But that did not stop them.
It should not stop us.
Yes, give back to Ceasar, what belongs to Ceasar.
But give to God everything that belongs to God.
Jesus said all authority has been given to him, and by extension, to us when we act in his name.
Two old hymns come to mind regarding the struggle.
“This world is not my home. I’m just a passing through.”
And “This is my Father’s world and to my listening ears. All nature sings and round me rings, the music of the spheres.”
Most of us, I’d guess, prefer the latter approach. Let’s find our place in this world, temporary as it is and render both to God and Ceasar what we think gives glory to our Savior.