Archive: 2018 | 2017
A Straight Answer to a Crooked Question
March 11th, 2018
It was an obvious attempt to discredit his credibility, to weaken the effect of his ministry. It no longer mattered to those asking the questions whether he was for or against their position. They were simply seeking a pretext for a criminal charge against him. After the opening denial of a hidden agenda, after the polite smiles, after the solicitous flattery, the question is posed: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Answer Yes or No, have you finally stopped beating your wife? It was that kind of crooked question.
An either/or answer will satisfy their aim and entrap him. If Jesus answers, Yes, he will be written off as a traitor to his religious heritage and a political coward, a collaborator. If he answers, No, he will provoke the wrath of Rome, for he will deny the authority of the prevailing political arrangement. Yes or No, Jesus! Give us your answer!
Jesus requests a coin and asks, Whose likeness and inscription is on this coin? They answer, Caesar’s. And Jesus then responds, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Rather than an either/or answer, Jesus has given a both/and reply. And crucially, he has left them to decide what beyond the mere coin belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. So, I wonder ... is our situation any less difficult? What beyond the symbol of our government belongs to the government, and what belongs to God?
Jesus’s straight answer to a crooked question is the basic affirmation of our Christian faith, and for that matter, Jewish tradition. His reply affirms that God, and God alone, is the Lord of all. In our Presbyterian tradition we have called that the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. It is an affirmation that ultimate and unqualified loyalty and allegiance is to be given God as the Lord, the Boss, the Authority in life. And throughout the 2000 years of the Church, the people of God have struggled with this concept of God’s sovereignty. This problem was no less real for our forefathers in the Old Testament.
Remember that group of displaced persons, still catching their breath from the narrow escape from the despotic rule of Pharaoh of Egypt, huddled near the mountain they called Sinai in the desert? The word comes to them by Moses, You shall have no other gods before me. So the ultimate loyalty is to God alone ... not false gods, whether of nation, church, or ideology. This fundamental affirmation we as Christians share with our Jewish sisters and brothers.
Those in the early church faced the same issue. Peter was told by the Jewish Council in Jerusalem to stop preaching all this nonsense about that dead rabbi, Jesus. His answer to them was, We must obey God rather than men. If in our own time, there is a conflict between what people tell us to be and become, and what God has called us to be and become, then for us our priority is clear ... we must obey God as the Spirit leads us to understand him, not matter what we are commanded to do.
There was once a group of people living under that jurisdiction of a government of far-reaching power and authority, [indeed the best government known to the world up to that time], who gathered together once a week to break bread, share a cup, and join in a two-word affirmation, Kurios Christos, meaning Christ is Lord. It was a statement of what they believed, that Jesus was their Lord, their Boss, their Authority. It was to say, as the Christian church, what their Jewish forebears had said at Sinai, We will have no other gods before us.
But, you see, it was also a statement with political overtones. Indeed, all statements of faith have political overtones. In the Roman Empire each citizen had to affirm every year, a creed, a statement of allegiance, Caesar, the state, is Lord. And the coin which Jesus held in his hand, the denarius, was a symbol of Caesar’s lordship, and the empire’s authority over the known world. So, to affirm that Christ is Lord is to deny that Caesar, the state, the government, is Lord. It is to say that highest loyalty belongs to God and to nothing or no one else. Jesus’s reply to those out to entrap him is an affirmation that the ultimate loyalty is not to Caesar, but to God and God alone. All other loyalties are subordinate, all other loyalties are conditional.
Here is the remembrance of one who faced such circumstances. Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, mentions that only once before the collapse of the Third Reich had he seen Hitler deeply disturbed. In 1935 Hitler had what was supposedly a perfunctory meeting with the intransigent anti-Nazi Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Fauhaber. The scheduled half-hour meeting lasted several hours and Hitler was badly shaken at the end of the interview. Considering the future career of the cardinal, who as one of Hitler’s most outspoken critics in Germany and a staunch defender of the Jews to the end, it is reasonable to assume that Fauhaber pointed out to Hitler the spiritual implications of the road he was on. Hitler never arrested Fauhaber for going so far as to have the Star of David with the yellow armband placed on the statues of Jesus and Mary in the churches of his diocese.
The point is, of course, that we share in this ancient tradition of the people of God. We share in this affirmation of Jesus. We simply cannot admire the first century Christians for putting loyalty to God above loyalty to the state, and then say that we do not have to do likewise. We cannot praise Martin Luther for saying in the face of demands of both church and state, Here I stand, I can do no other and then revise it in our day to read, Here I stand, more or less, until things get too hot.
Now, if you have been wondering why I’ve been walking down this road this morning, I don’t blame you. Here’s the reason ... At, first glance, Jesus’s straight answer to a crooked question would lead us to believe that there are two spheres in which we live, the religious and the political. Some call them the private and the public, or the sacred and the secular. Thus, some say, we are to give primary loyalty to the prevailing political arrangement in matters of secular life and render to God our loyalty in the so-called spiritual things of life. Well, I would like to suggest to you in the strongest possible terms that the words and life of Jesus don’t allow us to make this interpretation of his answer to those who were trying to entrap him that day.
So, let’s think about it this way. God and Caesar are not parallel options of equal weight, options at the same level, if you will. What belongs to Caesar bears his image, the coin. But, what bears God’s image? We do. Ourselves, made in the image and likeness of God. We are, so to speak, God’s coin, minted by God and therefore bound to God in our totality. Jesus’s primary concern was always for this connection, it’s meaning for God and for us, for our restoration to our Maker through repentance and forgiveness. To render to God means to turn over to God that which bears God’s image, namely us. On this basis, the question of taxpaying is clearly an item on someone else’s agenda. I, we, the human race, are God’s coin, bearing God’s image, not Caesar’s.
In other words, it is through what we usually think of as secular life that our loyalty to God is also to be expressed. Remember, for the Christian there is not separation in life, and, it seems to me, at least, that one way we occasionally express our loyalty to God is through our citizenship. When those opportunities arise, then vote, because voting is a religious act in the very best sense of the word. In our democratic republic, politics is everybody’s business. The word politics comes from the Greek word for citizen, and the Greek word for worship was the same word used for public service, and would you believe it ... a special word was reserved for anyone who refused to participate in public affairs ... that word, idiot!
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