From the Bishop: Annual Council Homily
Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” – Matthew 22: 21
Well, given the challenges of loving one another across our political differences that I mentioned in this morning’s Annual Address, you can probably imagine how thrilled I was to see that the Gospel reading appointed for this occasion is precisely about the relationship between our Christian faith and our duties to the nation in which we live!
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
This here is a trap. It’s a “gotcha” question in modern media parlance. Because the crowd Jesus is speaking to that day is a divided crowd. Some of them are basically in favor of what Caesar’s rule is up to and so are OK paying taxes to support the Empire, and the other bunch are opposed to Caesar’s claims to authority – divinity even – and so are roundly opposed to paying the taxes asked of them. Everybody listening that day expected Jesus to answer the question posed in such a way as to lend credibility and support to one side of this heated debate or the other. He’ll either support paying taxes and so tick off the Pharisees … or he will weigh in against paying taxes and so alienate the Herodians …
But either way, half his listeners are sure to head home pleased, while the other half will head home ticked off. Because it’s a gotcha question. It is a trap.
As is so often the case, Jesus utterly confounds the expectations of his listeners with his answer to the question posed that day. “Pay to Caesar what is due to Caesar … and pay to God what is due to God.”
Both Caesar and God make valid claims on your life, says Jesus. It’s not a question of simply choosing one over the other. There are obligations you owe to your government, and it is right and good to pay that debt. But there are obligations too, that you owe to your God. And those obligations also must be met. “Pay to Caesar what is due to Caesar … and pay to God what is due to God.”
“The answer that Jesus gave them,” writes the Reverend Doctor Marvin McMickle, “is as confounding and compelling today as it was in the first century.” Jesus suggests, “that his followers have a dual allegiance, both to the teachings and commands of God and to the government under whose flag and laws they live.” This is a notion that presents Jesus’ modern-day disciples with a challenge, says McMickle. For Jesus’ teaching here sets an unavoidable question before us: “What do we owe? And to whom?”
If we don’t find ourselves asking these questions – and wrestling with the application of our answers in our actual lives – then we may not be paying close enough attention to the world in which we live and the cares and concerns of this day. You sure don’t need me to tell you, that we dwell in very challenging times:
– We live in a culture that tolerates – even glorifies – violence of every sort.
– We live in a country in which racism and xenophobia are ascendant, and increasingly tied to circles of power in government and business.
– We live in a moment in which our advances in technology and our lust for comfort and wealth have combined to put our fragile earth – and indeed, the entire human population of this planet – at risk of environmental disaster from which we may never return.
– We live in an era in which access to the American Dream is available to fewer and fewer and fewer of the citizens of this nation. And where our reputation in the wider world as “the city on the hill” is being eroded year by year like sand cliffs on the ocean’s bank.
We live in very challenging times. And as Americans – and as Christians – we want to do the right thing. So what do we owe – and to whom?
It seems to me that perhaps our greatest obligation to our state in a moment like this, is simply to be fully engaged, knowing that our elected officials and the policies we pursue – whether at city hall or in Washington DC – will have a profound impact on the real human lives that hang in the balance of this moment.
– Surely that means that we need to vote, in every election, and not just for the candidate who excites us, but for the candidate who we honestly believe will contribute the greatest good to our larger commonwealth.
– Surely that means we need to pay attention. Our government is a complex and fast-moving operation and it is making decisions that will affect our lives and those of others in this fragile moment and for decades to come.
– Surely that means we need to be in relationship with those we’ve elected to office and those who are on the payroll we underwrite with the taxes Jesus sanctions paying. If you think the women and men who represent you in the halls of power are doing a good job, let them know … and if you feel otherwise, tell ‘em.
– And surely that means that we have to march: we have to march into our city council chambers … we have to march on our school board meetings … and when our elected officials and the policies the pursue fail to realize what is right and good for the people of God in this nation and beyond, we need to march into our streets.
(And if I may: don’t fool yourself, as I have, by imaging that posting on Facebook counts as authentic political engagement. At best, you’re calling out into an echo chamber, and at worst, you’re clubbing those with whom you disagree instead of talking to them.)
Get engaged. Take some responsibility. Render unto Caesar what is due Caesar.
We are free moral agents and the decisions we make every day matter: From how we treat our neighbors, to what charitable causes we will support, to what we watch on TV. From to the food we will feed our families, to who we will vote for in the next election, to what companies we will support in the products we buy. From the schools will we choose for our kids, to the neighborhoods we choose to live in, to who we will pray for and who we name as our enemy …
We are free moral agents … and the decisions we make every day matter.
So what do we owe? And to whom?
One terrific blessing of my line of work is the fact that almost every Sunday morning, it’s my job to lead the people of God in the recitation our Baptismal Covenant. I count it a blessing because that means I am constantly reminded of the details of our shared commitment to Christ as disciples and as his present-day Church on earth. As followers of Jesus, we make extraordinary promises about how we will follow him in the world, promises founded on the beliefs we embrace as Christians, the verities we proclaim when we say the Creed together in worship every week:
– We believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.
– We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son who was born of the Virgin Mary … who rose again on the third day.
– We believe in God the Holy Spirit … and saints and the forgiveness of sins … and life everlasting.
Claiming these truths – embracing them as real and meaningful to us – is the foundation of Christian discipleship. That’s where it all begins for us.
But this is NOT where Christian discipleship ends. You might think that from watching TV preachers and talking to friends who attend churches where every single Sunday’s sermon is addressed to the “unsaved” and where being “born again” is the high point of the Christian journey. But in our Episcopal tradition, discipleship is not just about what you believe – or even about what Christ has accomplished for you in his sacrifice on the cross – it is about how we will live in light of these things.
It is a privilege and a solemnity to watch and listen as the Church raises its voice on those occasions when because of a Baptism or a Confirmation, we join with those who are committing themselves to Christ and renew our own Baptismal covenant. It feels weighty to me because those words are not merely about what we “believe” to be true about God, they are also promises about how we will act in light of those truths.
Almost every single Sunday of my life, I see you standing together and boldly and publically affirming that you will act as stewards of creation … as caregivers to the hurting and the lost … as champions for what is good and right. I watch and listen as you call out, “We will!” in answer to questions like:
Will you persevere in resisting evil? Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? Will you strive for justice and peace on the earth?
These are not affirmations about what we believe my brothers and sisters. This is not head work. These are affirmations about how we will live. These are commitments about how we will act. These are promises to be engaged … and to march!
I get that there are “dual allegiances ” in our lives. I get that the work of deciding what you will say and what you will do in any given situation that demands a moral decision can be “confounding” work. But remember whose you are:
Remember who created you. Remember who sustains you every day with what you need to live and thrive. Remember who it was that gave his very life for you, so that you might live in God’s love forever.
What do we owe? And to whom?
You belong to Jesus Christ. Before any family relationship … before any political affiliation … before even your allegiance to flag or country …
You have been buried with Christ in his death … and you have been raised with him into living a whole new kind of life. We owe it all to him.
Will you now march forth from this place, and remembering the promises that you’ve made as disciples of Jesus, render unto God what is God’s?
+ J. S. Barker