what belongs to God?
October 16, 2011
Roy W. Howard
I’m going to speak about stewardship this morning and next, but don’t let that frighten you. We are all in this together – seeking to be faithful to God’s call in all areas of our lives. Our book of order which the newly elected elders and deacons have been studying the past week names stewardship as one of the essential tenets of the church. “We are to practice faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of gifts of God’s creation.” The proper use of the gifts of God’s creation is at the root of this encounter between Jesus and his questioners.
But first a little background may be in order. Remember the Boston Tea Party? Taxation without representation became the battle cry that eventually ignited the American revolution. Similar disputes were heard among the Jewish people in the first century. Their land was a colony of the Roman Empire and they were paying taxes to support the government and the army. Some supported that tax who were known as Herodians because they supported the government of Herod, and other opposed it who were Pharisees. (By the way, we sometimes forget that during the American revolution there were loyalists who supported the British government along with the Patriots who led the opposition.) Well, as I said the Herodians supported paying the tax to Caesar as civic duty. The Pharisees, who were deeply committed to the Jewish law, opposed paying the tax for religious reasons. In fact, even carrying the coin was an offense to the Pharisees because it meant carrying a coin with the divine image of Ceasar. That violated the first and second commandments against idolatry.
Okay. You see where this is going? The only thing that has united the Herodians and Pharisees is the common plot to trap Jesus. On the one hand, if Jesus opposes paying the tax to Caesar the Herodians can accuse him of treason. On the other hand, if Jesus supports paying the tax, the Pharisees would expose him as a Roman sympathizer and presumed heretic. The question is cleverly designed to put Jesus in a awful position. Either way he answers he will be in trouble with someone.
But, of course, Jesus confounds them with his response – and sends them away pondering their own duties and obligations. His response – give to God what belongs to God and give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – sets up the more important question. What is the right relation between obedience to the State and obedience to God?
I suppose even asking the question is to confess what some find offensive – obeying God and obeying the State is not the same thing. That probably obvious but it can get pretty confusing when singing God bless America which I always do during the 7th inning stretch – or when a second grader thinks there is prayer in school because he says the pledge of allegiance every morning, which he equates with prayer. This distinction between obedience to God and the State really gets blurred when the Cross – the symbol of Jesus’ death – is wrapped in the American flag and used to promote some partisan political agenda. What I find most interesting is that what troubled the Pharisees troubles us, too – misuse of sacred symbols for political ends. And what troubled the Herodians troubles us, too – disrespect for the rule of law and the government. It’s similar to the arguments that led to the American revolution and were repeated again resulting in the horror of the Civil War. It’s a division that apparently never goes away.
Which is why it’s so important for us to listen carefully to this text in which Jesus gives us the right relation between God and government. My pastor years ago used to say that we have carry dual citizenship in the kingdom of God and the country. Each has its own responsibilities and obligations. All is well when they co-exist without harm. It’s when the duties of each clash with the other that we need wisdom and courage, because Jesus said render to Caesar only what belongs to Caesar, nothing more. Which begs the question, just what does belong to Caesar? We can argue about taxes, the amount and the extent, but the real challenge is what the government is doing with the taxes it receives and what do we do when those actions offend our conscience before God.
This is a question of the stewardship of our lives, not only our money. To whom or what shall we give our ultimate allegiance? For instance, if the government engages in torture to extract critical information that will help in the struggle against terrorism, should Christians object to a practice that violates the dignity of another human being? Should taxpayer money be used to support abortion or family planning projects here and abroad? Should Christians remain silent as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue their deadly course as we gaze upon the faces of the fallen, and raise our caps for the wounded warriors who have fought so valiantly? What should a follower of Christ do when a local, state or federal government enacts laws that cut against your conscience and threaten your allegiance to God?
Devout Christians will disagree on the answers to particular social issues, but what we can’t do is avoid the challenge. Avoidance is a form of denial and a failure of stewardship that leads to idolatry. Jesus understood this when he raised taxes as a question of conscience and obedience.
The church where that pastor I mentioned served and I attended was a block away from the capital of Florida. In 1976, when capital punishment was restored the state of Florida executed a man named John Spinkelink. He was the first of many. My pastor and I stood repeatedly with many other members of the churches in the capitol rotounda and the prison gates to say No! Why? Because it was a matter of conscience – a line had been crossed; to say nothing would be to give allegiance to what we believed to be morally wrong.
At the end of the day, Jesus’ response is not so much a fixed answer as a guide to a way of life in which we are always seeking what it means to give allegiance to God while living in this world. It concerns every aspect of our lives, including how our taxes our spent and what we choose to do with our money, but certainly much more. It’s a whole way of life that is reflected in every aspect of our lives from our money to our political obligations to our service in the world. This is stewardship at its core.
Days after he was executed, John Spinkilink’s mother Lois went looking for a church to hold a funeral for her son. The church of his upbringing refused, as did several others who believed in the rightness of his execution. Finally, she came to the First Presbyterian Church among a people she didn’t know and whose social status was nothing like her own or that of her dead son. When she asked the session would the church hold a funeral for her son, they said yes. And pastor who once said one must learn to practice dual citizenship in the kingdom of God and the country, presided. I attended and have not forgotten the civics lesson of that day.