God & Caesar
July 5, 2015
During the early part of the 20th century when America faced several periods of financial struggle, one of the industries hard hit was the mining profession. It was a time when miners with poor working conditions and low wages were constantly struggling between two unpleasant possibilities – should they fight for better wages and more appropriate working conditions and risk being fired and thus having to move somewhere else or should they play it safe in terms of keeping quite all while struggling to survive financially as well as by continually putting their lives in danger? It led them to create a uniquely American phrase – they found themselves “between a rock and a hard place”. The “rock” represented the mine where they were and the “hard place” stood for the possible danger of having to go to a new “hard” spot to begin again with no job at all. Again, they were caught squarely between these two options that were both far less than perfect.
In Matthew 22, Jesus finds himself between a rock and a hard place too. Jesus’ rock and a hard place was the competing voices of the Pharisees and the Herodians and the question of loyalty – was Jesus’ more loyal to the Kingdom of God or to the Roman Empire?
This all emerges with the Pharisees wanting to test Jesus. They approach him with a trick question – was it lawful for good faithful Jews to pay taxes to the Romans? The Pharisees opposed this idea suggesting that to pay taxes insinuated that the Roman Emperor was the leader of Israel rather than God. The Herodians, who were also present that day, however, affirmed the idea. They were also Jews but Jews who had been faithful to the various Herods that had ruled Jerusalem and the surrounding area as representatives of the Empire. Like the Herods, their perspective was that the best way to deal with the situation that Israel found itself in as an occupied land, was to be friends with the Empire and to allow that relationship at times to hold sway over their religious beliefs. They argued that being a good citizen required that taxes be paid!
Both sides wanted to know what Jesus’ thought and both sides stood ready to pounce based on what Jesus’ said. Jesus was in a no-win situation. Again, he was between a rock and a hard place cognizant of the fact that to say one should not pay taxes would be to suggest that the laws should not be followed and to say that one should pay taxes may be interpreted as meaning that the Roman Empire deserved a deeper commitment than the kingdom of God. Neither perspective was a great choice and thus Jesus’ surprised them all.
Rather than affirming one side or the other and making everyone mad, Jesus advocated finding a middle ground. His perspective was that as believers we must find a way to straddle both worlds. Our commitment is ultimately to the Kingdom of God and we cannot deny that primary commitment, but, as citizens who live in the real world and in real geographic locations, we must also obey and live true to our civic laws and responsibilities.
Jesus found the perfect response and yet his perfect response still puts all of us in imperfect places. How do we do both? How do we honor the Kingdom and honor the State? When we agree with the government how do we prevent that commitment and allegiance from overshadowing our commitment to the church? And, when we disagree with the government, how do we keep our commitment to Christ while not dismissing our need to be good citizens? How do we live as comfortably as possible in between the rocks and the hard places of our dual citizenships in the Kingdom of God and Kingdoms of this world?
Let me quickly suggest a few basic ideas, one in general and two connected deeply to this passage…
First, and in general, we can straddle the line by being people who pray. The truth is that we never compromise the Kingdom of God by praying for our country or its leaders whether we favor what is happening or live in complete opposition to what is taking place. Prayer is a perfect way to be rooted in our allegiance to God while asking for God’s blessings and guidance to fall on our leaders and our country. Prayer also is just as much about us and thus always calls us to question our motives, how we are treating others and our own problems and emotions in the daily attempt to be a good neighbor. Opening ourselves up to these daily conversations with God are good for all involved.
I remember a number of years ago being at church on a Wednesday night. That particular evening happened to be the very next day after a Presidential election. As we began our study that night with prayer, one of our members stood up and said, “I just want to say that the person who I voted for did not win last night. As a matter of fact, I am struggling with the person elected because I really didn’t want them to win. However, I plan to pray for them every day. I am not going to pray that they’ll do what I want done. I am going to pray that they do and lead in a way that would please God. As a Christian my responsibility is to pray for our leaders and I intend to do that.”
It was a good, well spoken word and it literally immediately stopped all of the spirited conversation that night that had proceeded her thoughts. “My job is to pray no matter what,” she was saying and that remains a good word for us too.
Second, we can straddle the line by modeling commitment and perseverance. There are a couple of things about this passage that we often overlook. First, Jesus was not speaking at a time when the Romans were doing things the way that most Jewish people preferred. In other words, it wasn’t like the person whom Jesus’ had voted for was in office. Yet, Jesus advocated civic responsibility anyway.
Second, in the passage, Jesus isn’t all that thrilled with the religious leaders he encounters either. It is clear that their motives for the conversation are less than perfect and that they don’t necessarily have the things of the kingdom in mind either. With Matthew pointing this out, it really is as if the gospel writer and Jesus are saying, “look, we don’t give up on our faith just because God’s leaders are less than perfect, so, why should we give up on the state or our civic duty when the same thing happens there too”. No matter the institution, as long, as humans are involved, things are going to be less than perfect. In turn, our job as believers is to straddle both worlds by modeling commitment. This doesn’t mean that we have to agree with everything. And, it doesn’t mean that we don’t get to speak up when we disagree. But, it means that we should not simply pick up our toys or throw up our hands and go home either. We must stay with it.
The closest town to where I grew up in Alabama that had a daily newspaper was the town of Decatur. Decatur, Alabama like many towns and counties around the country with that same moniker was named after the famous naval leader of the late 1700s and early 1800s named Stephen Decatur. Our newspaper was thus called The Decatur Daily. One thing I remember about it is that under that title, the paper featured the same quote every day from Stephen Decatur. His quote was this, “Our country, may she always be right; but right or wrong, our country!” “Our country may she always be right; but right or wrong our country!”
Truth be told, we could say the same about the church, “our church, may she always be right; but right or wrong, our church!” The point is obvious, commitment and faithfulness must be our response even in tough difficult times. This is the way we lead the way in the church and in our civic responsibilities and it is a good word for all of us to hear.
The final thought I would offer is that straddling the line by getting involved. Ultimately, this story of Jesus is about an act not merely rhetoric. There is a real action involved here – the paying of taxes. “Give those things to the emperor and give those things to God that they each deserve,” Jesus says. Don’t just talk about it…do it. After all, you are a beneficiary of both.
Whether we are happy with those in leadership in the government or not and whether we are happy with those in leadership in the church or not, we benefit from both and our job is thus to make positive, practical contributions. There are always very good, positive ways and places that we can make a concrete difference in both. The key is that our lives not become about a bunch of hot air but that they are more characterized by our hard, hard work.
Ann Marie and I recently watched the movie McFarland USA. If you have not seen it, I heartily recommend it. The movie is about a real life High School teacher named Jim White who was a cross country coach at a poor and tough community in California called McFarland. The movie follows White’s progress from first being totally fixated on what is wrong with the school and with trying to get away to a better place to his slow focus on making a positive difference through the cross country program. The funny thing is that the more he invested himself, the less time he had to complain or to worry about the problems that were all around him. The more he got involved, the less he sat on the sidelines playing armchair quarterback.
We can live in both worlds. We can make a difference for Christ in both the Kingdom of God and in the Kingdom of the World. That really isn’t even debatable. But, will we?? Amen.