Religion and Politics
Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22
For a nation proclaiming separation of church and state, politics and religion make strange, but frequent, bedfellows here in the US. With our next presidential election thirteen months away, religious issues are, once again, exercising considerable influence over the political arena. It seems Christianity has come a long way. After all, under the Roman Empire, particularly in the 200’s, publically professing your Christian faith could get you thrown to the lions. But today, a public profession of Christian faith can help get you into the White House. Yet, it seems that politicians find themselves between a rock and a hard place with conflicting moral and ethical demands from fundamentalists, evangelicals and liberals.
This morning’s gospel reading records Jesus’ own experience at the dangerous intersection of religion and politics. Here’s how it happens…
A little background to get us started. It is, according to Matthew’s gospel, the last week of Jesus’ earthly life – what we refer to as Holy Week. Jesus entered Jerusalem amid much fanfare, a large crowd waving branches and shouting “Hosanna.” And he went to teach each day in the Temple courtyard. As his popularity skyrockets, both the religious establishment (represented by the Pharisees) and the Roman political establishment perceive a potential threat to their power and security. There was a very delicate balance between the two, you see. As the Roman Empire expanded, they wanted to avoid rebellion. After all, troops needed to squash a rebellion were a waste of resources better-spent conquering new territory. So, Rome didn’t want to antagonize the Jewish religious leaders. Furthermore, Rome received a portion of the Temple taxes – meaning they got a nice cut of the action. The Jewish religious leaders, for their part, knew that, so long as everything was running smoothly, Rome wouldn’t bother them. As a matter of fact, Pilate (the governor of Judea) and Caiaphas (the Jewish high priest), while they may not have liked one another, had a pretty good working relationship. Together, they maintained that delicate balance of state and religion for a decade, which included the years of Jesus’ public ministry. But there was plenty of trouble brewing below the surface. Some Jews would not rest until those heathen Romans were expelled from the land and the Jews were, once again, governing themselves. Their discontent would eventually lead to the Jewish Roman War and the destruction of the Temple. But, I get ahead of myself.
For this morning’s purposes, it is only necessary to know that, those who ask Jesus this question about taxes, are not motivated by a desire for truth or wisdom. They are motivated by a desire to place Jesus in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” position with the crowd. Their question, they feel confident, puts Jesus between that proverbial rock and a hard place. If Jesus rejects Roman taxation, he will identify himself as a rebel, a potential terrorist, whose subversive teachings (ironically) could lead to crucifixion. But, if Jesus endorses Roman taxation and occupation, he will lose favor with the common people who bore the weight of those taxes that kept the great Roman machine grinding along. Last of all, if Jesus chooses not to answer the question he is asked, it will mean that he has chosen to ignore a challenge to his honor and credibility. And, as we know, even today, in the arena of public opinion, those kinds of challenges can’t go unanswered. And so, this is just the perfect question, Jesus’ critics assume. There cannot possibly be any way for Jesus to get out from under it. He is trapped, they believe. But, they are wrong because Jesus, very cleverly, avoids entrapment and reframes the question.
In a powerful object lesson, Jesus requests a coin from them and, as we might imagine him turning that denarius over in his hand, he poses a question: “Whose image is this; and whose title?” They respond, “Caesar.” And Jesus delivers the zinger: Well then, “give back Caesar’s things to Caesar and God’s things to God.” And that is where the dialogue ends and Jesus’ opponents must, once more, retreat with egg on their face. But, if the dialogue had continued, I suspect it would have followed the course of a religious cartoon I saw a few years back. One character says to another, “So Caesar gets the money because his image is on it? Then what does God get?” The other character responds, “Well, you were made in the image of God.” Hmm…
That word “image” is crucial for understanding this morning’s scripture. It takes us all the way back to the beginning of our bible in which we read in the story of creation that we have been made in the image of God. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, it is the exact same word. An “image” is that which has been shaped or formed to resemble someone or something else. And Genesis 1:26 tells us that human beings were shaped or formed by God to resemble their maker. And our maker, our God, is generosity personified. God gave in creation – meticulously and lavishly bringing an amazing, diverse, beautiful world to life. God gave through his Word in the Old Testament, designed to teach us fully who God is and how we could be in right relationship with God and one another. And when we failed to follow God’s Word, God gave his Son that his love and his generosity might be poured out into human flesh and even poured out unto death on a cross, all as an offering of his love. Our God is a God of grace, of generosity, of extravagant, sacrificial giving and it is his image we were created to reveal. We belong to God. We bear his image, an image of grace and generosity.
And yet, sin mars that image. At the heart of sin is a fearful, self-preservation; a selfishness that seeks our own gain over that of others. Nonetheless, when we open our hearts, our lives, to Christ, that image in which we were created is restored and renewed from the inside out, transforming our lives and our world.
Jesus, you see, moves the question beyond a question about money and taxes. There is a question far greater than the politics of religion, or the religion of politics. Jesus reframes the question to be one of proprietorship. A proprietor is one who has the legal title to something and thus the rights to manage that something. The question for is this morning is, “Is God our proprietor?” Are you willing to acknowledge God as the one to whom you belong? Are you willing to acknowledge that God, the one to whom you belong, the one in whose image you were made, has the right to manage your life and all of your affairs… including your money?
Now, just in case this morning’s sermon is too much rhetoric and not enough “rubber meets the road,” let me give you some specifics. If you are returning to God less than 10% of your income, then you have denied God his rightful proprietorship. God deserves at least 10%. In fact, God deserves far more. I can tell you that, over my lifetime, I have known people who have tithed from social security; people who have tithed from unemployment; and people who have tithed from public assistance and none of them have ever regretted the decision. And the witness of all of them is that – while they didn’t get all the things they wanted – they weren’t in need because the most amazing and peculiar things would happen to meet their needs. Now, I’m suggesting that we tithe to extort God into performing some parlor trick on our behalf. That’s not how it works. But I do firmly believe that when we’re faithful and trusting, God honors that trust.
Throughout this stewardship month, I am frequently reading and sharing the Christ hymn of Philippians in studies and meetings. The apostle Paul uses the example of Jesus’ willingness to empty himself on the cross, to generously pour out all that he had and all that he was out of love for us… Paul uses that example of generous love to challenge the Philippians. Paul tells them:
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.
Incidentally, that word “likeness” is also found in the Genesis 1:26. You see, God designed these human vessels to reveal his generous image; and, when we failed to live that out, Jesus took on human likeness; he became like us, so that we could become like him. Because of Jesus, we can become the people God originally created us to be. Jesus reversed the disfigurement of sin and selfishness so that God’s image in us could be restored: an image of radical grace and extravagant generosity.
And that’s really the goal of Stewardship. Sure; we want you to turn in a pledge card so the church can better plan its budget for 2016. And certainly, we hope your giving will go up so that our ministry can grow. But even more basic than that, it is about what it means to allow the Holy Spirit to restore God’s image in us; the image of a God who pours out and sacrifices everything out of his love for us.
Throughout this Stewardship campaign, Moving Forward with Faith, I want to keep four questions before you that are printed in the center of your program this morning. I want to invite you to read those questions aloud with me now:
Last fall you challenged us to put a lot of thought into our giving pledges before turning them in. Until that point I had always just stuck with $20 because it was easy and it is what I recall my mom doing when I was a kid. When I got home last fall I started calculating and was unsure if I could manage if I started giving a full 10%. I’m a single gal with lots of student loans and many more excuses that make it easy to skimp on giving. I kept reminding myself that my wants are many, but my needs are few and was determined that I would at least give more, even if I had to titrate up to the full 10%.
It just so happened that I was going with a small group down to Henryville to work on rebuilding [from the tornado] the week before we were to turn in our pledge cards. I had started to fill mine out several times but was hesitant to write anything less than 10% but still felt unsure I could do it. So I decided I would fill it out after the trip. While in Henryville I had a lot of time to reflect and pray. I met amazing people and was quickly reminded how lucky I am. I made the decision that, even though it might hurt a little at first, I wanted to tithe.
The next day we worked hard to make a home for people who needed it. We spent time talking with the family and returned to camp smelly and dirty. I’d missed several calls and texts from my boss so I quickly showered and returned his calls. He’d been trying to reach me all day to tell me that someone had decided to transfer to another location and vacate her supervisor position. He was calling to offer me a promotion! The hours were about the same and the commute was slightly shorter. I would be taking on more responsibility and even advancing my career. When I asked him about the salary, he said it would be about a 10% raise!
I had committed to God that I was ready to step out in faith and he quickly put a plan into place. I am proud to say that each week I attend church I am able to pass that 10% forward to do bigger and better things than I could ever imagine.
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