October 22, 2017 CCC Matthew 22: 15-22
Have you ever felt that you have fallen into a trap?
Today’s gospel passage is about people setting a trap for Jesus. His opponents have joined forces. The Herodians, who are the collaborators with the occupying Roman forces, the people with money and influence, and the Pharisees, the religious teachers that you found in every local synagogue throughout the country and in Jerusalem as well.
The trap was to see if they could get Jesus to either lose his popularity with the people, who loved him, or to get the Roman authorities who ruled the country to arrest him. The whole question was about the poll tax, a flat tax that everyone hated. Should people pay it? Say no, the Romans would arrest him for encouraging revolt. Say yes, and the people would be ticked. Who wants to pay taxes?!!! Somethings never change!
Jesus was faced with a difficult choice.
Jesus handles it and blows away his challengers. First, he sees through their game, calling them hypocrites. Was it the way they were dressed, or did they have a smug look about them? We don’t know, but he saw through them.
Then he asks them for a coin. Touché again! They were in the Temple, they were not to have that coin in the Temple because it had Caesar’s profile on it and it also called Caesar divine. You might remember the story of Jesus chasing the money lenders out of the gentile’s courtyard that went around the main temple. You were not to have a roman coin in the temple itself so the money changers were there in the outer courtyard to fleece you with a terrible exchange rate!
He has got them again. They are able to get one. That is a no, no. No Roman coin in the Temple.
Then he asks them whose head and whose title is on it. They answer, the Emperor’s. He then tells them the enigmatic statement. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” They were all impressed.
But what did he mean? And what would it mean for us?
Before I go any further though I want to be honest I am going to push us maybe out of our comfort zone. I am going to do it because I believe that is why I am here, a priest in the Anglican Cathedral, a Mennonite for 40 years, a Mennonite minister for 30 of those years. When I began my discernment process towards becoming an Anglican priest, I was meeting with the Bishop then, Barry, and I was saying that I was trying to become an Anglican, you know getting the theology and everything else right, when he said to me, No, what I bring to the Anglican Church, is that I am a Mennonite.
So how would I have us look at this passage?
First, we have to separate ourselves from the paradigm of the State Church. What the State asks of its citizens and what God would ask of us as followers of Jesus is not always the same thing.
Probably the worst thing for the Gospel has been when the Church and the State got into bed together with Constantin, the emperor of Rome making Christianity the religion of the state in the Fourth Century C.E. We have to be aware that they can be in opposition to each other.
Going back to the scripture then, Jesus says, give to Caesar what is owed to Caesar.
Pretty clear isn’t it. Pay your taxes.
Before we go any further, just a few questions for all of you. Who has ever walked on a sidewalk? Who has ever gone to school in Canada? Who has ever used any medical services in Canada and only had to give your health card? The list goes on, doesn’t it?!
Now who has ever paid for services under the table so they could avoid paying the GST and PST? Don’t show your hands. That was a trap!
I have generally tried to avoid those situations since I believe we are all called to carry our share for the services we receive. Recently, I have found myself though in situations where I needed the service and cash with no receipt was the only way I could get it. Not always easy, but we have to remember, avoiding paying taxes has been around for a long time but we are to render onto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
Now we can infer also that we are talking here not just about paying taxes but obedience as well.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar, means we owe certain things to the State.
Let’s go on and look at Jesus second part of his reply to those who would have wanted to trap him. Give unto God what belongs to God.
And what belongs to God? For that answer, we remember in another test Jesus answered to what is the greatest commandment, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul & mind and your neighbour as yourself. That pretty much covers everything! What we do, what we say, our priorities, where we spend our money. You name it, we who carry the name of Christ, need to be sure that our lives have God as the guiding force.
Now the problem comes up when there is a tension between what the State asks of us as citizens and what we believe God would ask of us as followers of Christ.
This is where it is much harder to do when the Church is tied into the State to be able to differentiate between what the State asks of its citizens and what Christ asks of his followers.
I want to give a few examples drawn from WWII.
You may have seen the movie, Hacksaw Ridge, the story of Desmond Doss, a seventh day Adventist, conscientious objector, who remained true to what he believed Christ was asking of him, not to carry a rifle, not to kill. He became a combat medic. He found a way to render onto the emperor what was the emperor’s and to God what was God’s.
In Canada, we also had many, who to remain faithful to what they believed they owed Christ, chose to be conscientious objectors. They believed they could not serve in the military. Quakers and Mennonites, to name just a few, served in Canada building roads, working in hospitals. They were rendering to Caesar what was Caesar and to God what was God’s.
In Europe, two men, Detrick Bonhoeffer and Bishop George Bell, one in Germany and the other in England, each chose their own way to render unto God what was God’s. Before the war, they worked together at the very beginnings of what became known as the ecumenical movement. Later, Bonhoeffer became known as one of the founders of the Confessing Church in Germany. One of the few voices that stood up to Hitler’s Aryan policies and persecution of the Jews. He also wrote a now famous work entitled Cheap Grace, a must read. His writings would seem to indicate that he was a pacifist for a time. Later, he joined the failed plot to assassinate Hitler. His stand against Nazism cost him eventually his life.
Bishop Bell, on the other hand, became the spokesperson for the Conscience of his own country. He, a bishop in the Church of England, would speak out against the policies of his country, what were called then mass bombings, calling them barbarian and crimes against humanity. He would speak out against the propaganda of hate, propaganda that vilified the enemy.
In difficult times, it is not easy to know how we are to render onto Caesar what is Caesar’s and what is God’s, Bonhoeffer and Bell followed their conscience to do so.
In our own times, we see this clearly with what is happening with our neighbours to the South, a nation torn apart and that includes in the Church. For example, the Evangelical wing of the Church frequently supports Trump. I have admired the courage it has taken for Churches, and Evangelical Christians even more so, to speak out against policies that are the furthest thing from what Jesus was getting at when he said we are to give God what is owed to God.
Fortunately, here in Canada, we live in peace and our country is not at war. The State is not asking of us, in obvious ways, as Christians to compromise ourselves. There are some though that would argue that our government spends too much on the military and as Christian tax-payers we can and should speak out against this. Conscience Canada is an organization that gives out some very interesting information about where our tax payer dollar goes.
We are not off the hook as Canadian Christians. We must always remain vigilant. We are Christians. We must not be afraid to speak out when the State in our name is doing what we know is wrong in the eyes of God. We must know how to say to the State, No, not in my name.
I had written the first draft of this sermon Thursday when I read our Church volunteer Ann’s newsletter closing statement questioning the provincial government’s recently passed Bill- 62, which states that to receive any provincial service, a person would have to have their face uncovered. That would mean any woman wearing a niqab or a burqa, even taking the bus, would have to remove her face covering.
She wrote, I hesitate to bring politics into this newsletter, but separation of Church and State, the apparent justification for Bill 62, shouldn’t mean that the church has nothing to say to the state. As Christians we should call out injustice and intolerance when we see it.
Amen Ann! As Christians, whether we are United, Anglican or Mennonites, we are to remember that our obedience to the State comes after our call to render onto God what his God’s! We are called, at times, to say to NO to the State.
Voices are rising to say No, including the mayor Coderre and the association of municipalities.
At times, to be faithful to our first allegiance, to render what is owed to God, we must be prepared to say No to the State.
Sisters and brothers, Jesus was able to outsmart his questioners by reminding them where their first priority must always lie. The same is true today.
Yes, we are to pay our taxes, in a sense that means obey the government.
But we are to never forget, that in all we do, we are, first of all, called to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind and soul and that may mean speaking out against the State and at times, saying No.
May we always be ready, as the Saints that have preceded us, find the wisdom and courage to know when we must say No to the State to be faithful to the one we follow.