By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 20:20-26
Perhaps you are one of those people who were raised to honor the adage “never discuss politics or religion in polite company.” If you were, today might make you squirm in your pew. I’m just giving fair warning.
Now don’t worry; this morning I will not tell you for whom to vote or the proper policy to pursue in relation to gun safety, immigration or health care. I am not an expert in those things. But I will speak to my area of training and knowledge and experience; I will stay in my own wheelhouse which is biblical theology and its societal, political, relational, and ethical implications.
We have become a schizoid culture and it is not healthy. Schizoid – not in the medical/psychological sense of schizophrenia – but schizoid in the vernacular meaning “a mentality or approach characterized by inconsistent or contradictory elements.”[i] In other words, we’re a hot mess; all over the map; living not as well-integrated, thoughtful persons; but dividing ourselves into a multitude of personas: our religious selves, our political selves, our economic selves. We have a face we put on in church; a face we put on in the public arena; perhaps a particular face we put on at work or out at the bar with friends or in the neighborhood book club which may be nothing like the face we put on when we post things online or meet with our financial planner.
As we continue this Lenten sermon series “A Passion for Life,” this week we come to station 4. On Good Friday, this station focuses us on Jesus’ arraignment before Pilate.[ii] It is the epitome of politics and religion coming together. Now in Luke’s gospel, when the religious leaders bring Jesus before Pilate, Pilate doesn’t care about religious stuff. If they want Jesus crucified, they need to come up with a charge that will matter to the Romans and so their accusation is directly connected to this morning’s bible story in which Jesus is asked a question about taxation; which for Jews was a question about religion and politics.
This week’s art is an abstract, but striking, representation of this messy mix of politics and religion; an odd mixture of artistic medium (latex, enamel and even Sharpie marker), Constructed Spaces. Artist Hector del Campos represents a visual and textural duality, a layering that reveals both chaos and construction. These DNA-kind-of strands that mix and overlap make it difficult to see what parts fit together. And that is the challenge of religion and politics; they do overlap and fit together, but discerning how can be a messy business.
Now, let me first make clear that I am not imposing a marriage of my own making on the biblical texts. Jesus was an extremely political figure; so were the prophets; so was Paul; and, perhaps most of all, John the Revelator. Terms that we, in our culture today, associate exclusively with Jesus and Christianity – the titles of Messiah, Lord and Savior – were, in the first-century world, political titles. Caesar was the Lord and Savior of the Roman Empire. So when a Christian proclaimed Jesus as their Savior and Lord is was a political statement; it was seditious. Now I don’t generally recommend that you get your theology from pop culture, but the 1970’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar actually does an awesome job of revealing this. Pilate (the Roman governor of Judea) and Caiaphas (the Jewish High Priest) had the longest working relationship of any high priest and governor on record and maintaining their power and control was likely what mattered most to both of them. And so in Jesus Christ Superstar, in the song “Then We Are Decided” Caiaphas sings to his fellow priest, “What about the Romans? When they see King Jesus crowned, do you think they’ll stand around, cheering and applauding… What about our priesthood? Don’t you see that we could fall? If we are to last at all, we cannot be divided.” Later in a different musical selection, Caiaphas sings, “I see bad things arising… our elimination because of one man. Blood and destruction because of one man...”[iii] that man being Jesus.
Finally for any still skeptical about these strange bedfellows of politics and religion, bible scholar Alan Culpepper reminds us that politics and religion both regulate life; both have festivals (e.g. Easter and Independence Day), both have heroes (like Abraham Lincoln and John Wesley), both are supported by rituals (such as confessing our sins before Holy Communion and laying flowers at the graves of the fallen on Memorial Day), both have sacred writings (such as the Constitution and the gospels).[iv] Both define our understandings of justice and right-ness.
So, hopefully at this point in the sermon, I have convinced you that any effort to separate religion and politics – to construct divided identities and personas – is unrealistic and, in fact, un-Christian.
We must live as people of one single, clear, integrated identity: an identity that reveals who we are at our core; to behave in all times and places with consistency and integrity.
Now, one word – perhaps more than other – in this morning’s gospel story provides us with guidance. Roman coins were imprinted with the image of Caesar… least any in the Empire forget who was in charge. Any money those poor Galilean peasants managed to acquire was stamped with the constant reminder: it and they were the property of Caesar. But Jews knew from their earliest days that no one and nothing else was to have pre-eminence over the role and status of God because God was their Lord. If you learned the Ten Commandments as a child in Sunday School, you might remember how they began: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”[v]
But this Greek word for “image” – as in Jesus’ question “whose image does it bear?” – is most powerfully defined by a scripture even earlier than Exodus. It is at the Genesis when God made the heavens and earth. After separating light from darkness, dividing the water, making trees and animals, God says, “Let us make humankind in our image… So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.”[vi] That’s a quote from the book of Genesis. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word for image there is the same one used by Jesus in this morning’s story when he asks his inquisitors, “Whose image does it bear?”
Friends, we bear the image of God. The money of the Roman Empire which bore the image of the Caesar ultimately belonged to the Caesar. We, who bear the image of God, ultimately belong to God; to the one who said, “Let us make humankind in our image.” You belong to the one whose image was stamped on you at creation; to the one who molded and shaped you and breathed into you the breath of life. You belong to God.
And if that is the case, the way we live ought to reflect the image of God; an image which, as Christians, we affirm was perfectly revealed in Jesus, the Son of God, our Lord and Savior. We don’t belong to a nation; we don’t belong to a political party; we don’t belong to an economic system. We can – and should – participate in those things; but they are not the ones to whom we belong. We belong to God who made us in God’s image.
But, here’s the thing: embracing that reality, embracing that identity, will not be easy in this world. It got Jesus crucified. Jesus was crucified because he lived out the will of God and not the will of Caesar. Jesus was crucified because he gave himself over fully to God which meant nothing was left for Caesar. God got it all.
So we must decide if that is a risk we are willing to take. We must decide for ourselves if we will live as Jesus lived: faithfully reflecting the image of God.
Now, if you decide to do that; you will need a full understanding of how Jesus lived: of what he did and what he taught. That means you’ll need to do more than read the bible. You will need to study it with an informed scholarly resource.
Let me give you one very quick example of why this important… and some might say I’m getting political here; but I prefer to say I’m getting biblical here. Some of you know that about a year ago, I decided to post each day to my FB page one scripture about immigrants or resident aliens. I tried to avoid a lot of duplication. Do you know how many days I posted? 22. 22 days. Consistently in the Old and New Testaments, God’s people are admonished to welcome resident aliens/ immigrants along with others who were the most vulnerable populations of the ancient world: groups like orphans, widows, the hungry, the imprisoned, etc.[vii] It is only if we are able to study scripture that we discover that in Matthew’s gospel the very last parable that Jesus tells is a parable about caring for the most vulnerable among our society: the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned and – you guessed it – the resident aliens/ or immigrants. It is the parable we refer to as the Sheep and the Goats and in English, when we read the word “stranger,” (as in “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”)[viii] it is the same word that translates “resident alien” in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It is the last parable Jesus tells before he enters his passion. Now, I don’t know about you, but I was always taught to “end strong.” When you conclude a speech, wrap up with what you most want your audience to remember. So friends: I cannot tell you the best way to secure our border. I don’t know enough to do that. But I can tell you this: if our standards for immigration are about bringing in the smartest, the wealthiest and the best educated to the exclusion of the most vulnerable (the poor, the hungry, the persecuted) than we are not reflecting the image of our creator. We just aren’t. But we won’t even realize that if we don’t study scripture. If the only thing we did was read the English bible, we wouldn’t even know that the word in that parable in Matthew (in the original language of scripture) is the same word used over and over and over again in the Old Testament to admonish God’s people to welcome immigrants and to provide care and safety for the most vulnerable, at-risk populations. So that’s why we need to ask ourselves, “Are we serious about taking the time to learn and understand how Jesus reveals God’s image… how Jesus shows us what it looks like to live out that image?”
And if we are, here’s what we’ll discover: that – just like last week’s story of the woman caught in adultery[ix] – Jesus always prefers restorative grace over retribution.
Friends: this way of living got Jesus crucified. You know that word for image is eikon, as in religious icons… which are generally beautiful and a source of art and inspiration. But let me tell ya, living out the image of God in our world, that ain’t gonna be pretty. Jesus hanging from a cross bleeding and dying to reveal the image and the will of God, that wasn’t pretty… it was ugly and painful and it was as hard as it gets.
But Jesus invites us to follow him; to not follow that silly adage about preserving politeness by avoiding religion and politics. Jesus challenges us to live as whole people; to live out one identity that reflects the image of the God to whom we belong. We are citizens of a nation; we may belong to a particular political party; our DNA reveals a certain ethnicity; our education or training reveals particular job skills; we may have a unique Twitter handle. But at the end of the day only one thing matters: whose image do you bear?
[i] Goggle’s online dictionary.
[ii] See Luke 23:1-5.
[iii] From the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber; debuting on Broadway in 1971.
[iv] The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes; vol. 9; 1995; Abingdon Press; pp. 386-387.
[v] Exodus 20:1. NRSV.
[vi] See Genesis 1:26-27
[vii] See Lev. 19:10; Lev. 24:22; Jer. 7:5-7; Ezekiel 22:7; Lev. 19:34; Exodus 12:49; Deut. 1:16; Jeremiah 22:3; Ephesians, all of chapter 2; Exod. 23:9; Numbers 15:14-16; Zech. 7:10; Deut. 24:17-22; Deut. 27:19; Lev. 19:33; Malachi 3:5; Ezekiel 22:29; Hebrews 13:2; Deut. 10:17-18; Lev. 23:22.
[viii] Matthew 25:35. The parable is found in Matthew, chapter 25, verses 31-46.
[ix] See John 8:1-11.
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