This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Belonging to the Emperor.


Matthew 22.15-22

I.
Jesus is still in the Temple during the final week of his mortal life.  The religious and political authorities seek to trap him.  They want to arrest him.  They want him to say something that will get him into political trouble with either the Romans or the people.  So they ask him this famous question about taxes.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  If he says it is not lawful, he has the Romans on his case for undermining their authority.  If he says it is lawful he risks alienating the people.  They think they have him between a rock and a hard place, in a no-win situation, a position from which he will be forced to alienate somebody.
They ask the question, then I imagine the whole place going silent, waiting for his answer to this thorny question.  It seems like there’s no way out.  It seems like he has to say yes or no.  It seems like this is it, they finally have him where they want him.
But Jesus just shakes his head and asks to see a coin.  You’ll notice that he isn’t carrying any coins himself.  This is not just because Jesus is famously poor, owning almost nothing, as far as we know.  And it’s not because he didn’t carry any cash on him, but relied upon Judas to manage the cash-box.             
It is for a deeper theological reason.  A coin was technically, and literally, a “graven image.”  The Jewish Law specifically prohibits touching, having, or making any such thing, let alone worshiping it.  For a strictly religious Jew, it would have been considered idolatry even to use graven images such as coins.  But they had to use them out of economic necessity.
Those who are testing him don’t appear to have had many scruples about coins.  He asks for a coin and someone produces one immediately.  They, who were supposed to be so strict and rigorous about the Law, had no compunction about coins.  They probably saw coins in much the same way we do: as neutral economic tools.  Coins in those days had value because of their metallic content; they also had abstract and symbolic meaning because they made wealth more portable and standardized than real estate or livestock. 
But coins also meant something else.  Using them indicated your participation in the emperor’s economic, political, and social system.  Jesus’ question when he is shown a coin is, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”  The coin, of course, had an engraving of the emperor’s profile and his name. 
The coin clearly belongs to the emperor.  It is embossed with a picture of his head.  It is made of his copper, from his copper mine, mined and minted by his slaves.  He says how much it is worth.  And he decides how many of these coins you have to pay him in order to have the privilege of using any of his coins at all.  To use such a thing would seem to indicate some level of loyalty to the emperor.   
So, simply having one of these coins could be construed as an act of blasphemy against God’s Law, and it is an act of loyalty to Caesar and all he stands for.  Just using these coins is nothing less than a participation in their own oppression.

II.
Jesus’ famous answer takes them all off guard, not because it is so ambiguous, but because it is far more radical than anything they were hoping he would say to get himself in trouble.  He says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
From Psalm 24 we learn what are “the things that belong to God.”  “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein.”  I say it nearly every week leading up to the offering.  The point of Psalm 24 is that the whole Earth, all creation, everything that exists belongs to God.  Everything that exists is to be used and managed only according to God’s Law and will.  Everything we have we hold in trust for God, we are only like tenants and managers of the Earth, as in Jesus’ recent parables.  We are only stewards of this property for the owner who has left it with us.  Our job begins and ends with doing what God wants with these resources.  Period.
And what God wants is spelled out clearly and in great detail in Scripture.  We may summarize this desire as justice and kindness, humility and love, sharing and equality.
The question remains, however, concerning what belongs to the emperor.  Jesus implies that something belongs to him.  He seems to say clearly that at the very least the coin he is shown belongs to the one whose image and name is stamped all over it.
I think Jesus would deny that even the coin really belonged to Caesar, the emperor.  After all what is a coin?  It is metal.  Metal comes from the Earth, and the Earth belongs to... God.  The people who mined and minted it also belong to God.  The knowledge of metallurgy and engraving also comes from God. 
What does not belong to God or come from God is this economic and political system of which Caesar sits at the head, which is based on violence, exploitation, oppression, fear, greed, inequality, bigotry, and war.  This system creates vast inequalities of wealth between rich and poor.  This system is contrary to God’s will.  It is a product and expression of human sinfulness.
Remember that the whole religion of Israel is based on a single event: the liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt.  In that event, God took the people out of a system in which they were exploited, oppressed, imprisoned, and forced to work to enrich someone else.  God took them out of a system in which Pharaoh and his friends owned everything and gained the benefit of all wealth, labor, and resources. 
God delivered them to the Promised Land, and on the way God gave them the Law, the whole point of which was to prevent and obstruct and reject the development of a system like that of Pharaoh.  Instead of Pharaoh, instead of Caesar, God’s people were to be governed by God through God’s Law.  God’s Law applied to everybody, even the most powerful.  Even Pharaoh and Caesar.
And God’s Law has to do with the creation of a holy people whose economy would be based on sharing in the fullness and generosity of God.  

III.
When someone presented the coin for Jesus to look at, he might as well have said, “If you use the emperor’s coins you are expressing your loyalty, allegiance, obeisance, and subjection to the emperor and his system of greed, inequality, and violence.  Good luck with that.”
If people participate in the emperor’s system, with all its “benefits” and conveniences, all its opportunity for enrichment and growth (albeit to a very few), then they need to pay for it in the emperor’s coin.  This tax is only the cost of doing business in the emperor’s regime.  If you don’t want to pay it then you can’t play; that is, you can’t participate in the system.      
And let us not fool ourselves by rationalizing, “Well, that was then, and this is now.  He’s not talking about us!  We don’t live under any emperor, we live in a democracy!  We live in a free market system!  Rich people don’t get rich by violence  or empty speculation today, they get rich by working hard, making good investments, and producing good things for people!  If anything Jesus is criticizing taxes!  Yeah, that’s it: Jesus hates taxes!”
Well: This self-serving mythology tends to pervade the minds of many, especially those comfortably situated at the top of the system.  The ruling class of every generation has always found some way to avoid or exempt themselves from Jesus’ teaching. 
But this approach is always belied by the facts on the ground.  Our system today is different from that of Jesus’ time only by degree and complexity.  The same basic principles that motivated Pharaoh and Caesar continue in effect today, and they achieve basically the same results, only now it is global.  Granted, it never would have occurred to people in Jesus’ day to invent the “credit default swap.”  But that’s not exactly to our credit. 
God’s commandments are about spreading the wealth of God’s creation, distributing it in such a way that the poor are lifted up and no one was allowed to become too wealthy.  God’s commandments are designed to prevent the rise of a privileged class, and to prevent the descent of any of the people into poverty and servitude.  God’s commandments lift up the poor and even resident aliens.  Jesus practices the restoration of outcasts, the empowerment of the powerless, and the healing and inclusion of those suffering from diseases.
The system of Pharaoh and Caesar does just the opposite. It causes a tiny percentage of the population to control nearly all the wealth.  Which is where we are today, globally.  A small percentage of the population of the planet controls and consumes the lion’s share of the resources.

IV.
So.  What are we supposed to do?  What does Jesus require of us?  That we not use money?  That we not participate in the dominant economic system?  Is that even possible in a world of economic globalization?  Are we supposed to go live with the Amish?  Live by bartering and exchange?  How am I supposed to pay my car insurance?  What about my medical expenses?  I can’t expect to go to the doctor and pay for a blood test with a basket of tomatoes I grew in my garden, can I?
I think we need to be honest: on the one hand, Jesus is saying just that.  And some of us are called to take him literally and live in self-sufficient communities, off the grid, in absolute sharing.  The early church certainly understood Jesus this way, as we see in the book of Acts.  The community of disciples in Jerusalem expected people to sell their possessions, give the proceeds to the leaders of the church, who would distribute it as any had need.
On the other hand, that practice did not hold for everyone for very long.  We don’t see this as a permanent requirement later in the New Testament.  Not all of us are necessarily called to that high a level of discipline. 
But this does not let us off the hook.  It does not mean we get to ignore Jesus’ teachings and do as we please.  For it remains the case that all of us are called to live in a way that shows that we know that everything really belongs to God.  All of us are called to separate ourselves from the corrupt and deadly values that characterize the emperor’s economy.  In our hearts and minds, and especially in our practice, in our daily lives, we need to have God’s economic values rule for us.
 Giving “to God the things that are God’s” means that everything we do and have needs to be dedicated to the One “from whom all blessings flow.”  We live in the world, interacting with people and other forms of life, managing and using objects, allocating and developing resources, only according to the will of the Creator.  This will is revealed in the Scriptures, which point to Jesus Christ.  He is our standard.  His life of justice, healing, truth-telling, simplicity, humility, joy, peace, and sacrifice, needs to be reflected in our life, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We have to live in this world; but we must not be of it.  We must not let it define us.  And we are to bring the values of God’s Kingdom into our lives; first in the church, and also in the larger society.  
This will be difficult and costly.  It could make us annoying, eccentric, and unpopular.  It will likely cause us to be less successful by the world’s standards.  But it is to be in harmony with the God who created the whole universe, and it is to place yourself within that destiny.  It is to begin to reflect in our world the life of love, the life of the Creator, the life of eternity.
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