Caesar and God’s Back: Humility and Vision in Our Knowledge of God

Transcribed from the sermon preached October 22, 2017

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

Scripture Readings:  Exodus 33:12-23, Matthew 22:15-22


Presidential candidate Sarah Palen made the term “Gotcha Question” popular after Katie Couric asked her what magazines she read. Now we might disagree with her that this was an unfair question intended to entrap or do damage, but she is right that there are no shortage of gotcha questions being thrown at interviewees these days. You may have heard John McCain blowing up at a reporter this week. For instance, while being interviewed on the radio about the Sanctuary movement I was asked: “Illegal immigrants have broken the law. You have no problem with that. Are you suggesting we should not have a nation based on the rule of law?” Gotcha questions are designed to entrap interviewees into making statements that are damaging to themselves or their cause, character, integrity, or reputation. Gotcha questions are intended less to get information and more to make the interviewee appear bad. It appears that gotcha questions have been around for a pretty long time.

Some of the Pharisees sent their disciples along with some Herodians to look for a way to discredit or get Jesus in trouble. The Herodians were those who backed Herod, the puppet dictator picked by Rome. So together you have the religious authorities looking for religious mistakes and collaborators with Rome looking for revolutionary comments. After they butter him up with compliments about his sincerity, truthfulness and lack of partiality, they ask, “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  Gotcha!

If he answers yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, then he looks bad to those who seek to rebel against Rome, who take a hard line on being in contact with graven images, and to those common peasants who suffer under the tax and are his more ardent followers. If he says no, it is not lawful to pay taxes to Rome, then Rome has the clear evidence to convict him of sedition.

Jesus is clearly annoyed with the question, saying, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” They bring him a denarius and he asks “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “”Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

The emperor can claim what the emperor can claim and there is not much anyone can do about it. On the other hand God is the author of all life, our Creator, Our Father and Mother and the one whose story gives us identity and purpose.

Jesus offers no firm principle of loyal submission to the state, writes the Oxford Bible Commentary. “Implied rather is a reservation regarding the state, a lack of reservation regarding God.  While obedience to God can…coexist with doing what the state requires, obligation to the former overshadows obligation to the latter.  So there is no simple or straightforward rule, but the imperative to weigh the demands of two (very unequal) authorities.” (P.873)

Here is another gotcha question.

Is it right that a rich man puts his name on his buildings and everything he owns? No, then what about the freedom of others to put whatever they want wherever they want? Let him put his name on what he can. What name do we put on our lips? Who are we focused upon?  What name do we put on the door posts of our house? How is it that we define ownership?  Is the solution to the self-focus of a narcissist to focus on the narcissist? Even in the negative?  Whose name then is printed in the pocket of our mind?

These questions, if we are honest, will lead us to a couple of other deeper questions. Why is it that we are so consumed with celebrity, with what they wear, eat, buy, drive, fly, where they live and recreate? Why are we so worried about our own self-created image?  Could it be that we hold the same narcissistic definition of the meaning of happiness in life? If as post modernity would claim that all truth is relative and contingent, why are we surprised or upset with claims of “alternative truth.”?

Stanley Hauerwas writes that America exemplifies the project of modernity. “That project is the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they choose when they had no story.  That is what Americans mean by “freedom.” The institutions that constitute the disciplinary forms of that project are liberal democracy and capitalism.” (Hauerwas, Stanley. The End of American Protestantism. ABC Religion and Ethics. Updated 2 Sept 2015).

Capitalism naturally values what it can put a monetary price on, and human needs come to express themselves more and more through market transactions. People, jobs and things that cannot easily be monetized, (child or elder care, clean public water sources and a virgin redwood forest) for instance, are devalued. It should come as no surprise that for some, the people of Houston appear more valuable than those of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has a bunch of debt, don’t you know?

One of the things often noted by those who have traveled to poor agrarian countries is that though Americans have much more, even the vast majority of American poor have much more than most of the poor of the world, we are not necessarily happier in spirit. We have transitioned from a definition of poverty as lack of basic human need and changed it to a sliding scale of what the market tells us happy, middle class people have. Poverty is defined in comparison to our neighbor.  Jeremy Seabrook writes that “Freedom to choose between things that are on sale becomes assimilated to the idea of human freedom itself; whereas this represents a serious restriction of our freedom…We find there has been a progressive reduction in the ways in which human beings can express themselves outside the scope of what they can buy.” (Seabrook, Jeremy. The Great Consumer Swindle. The Manchester Guardian, August 21, 1982) Captitalism loves the idea that we are a people who have no story but the story we choose when we have no story because, as our values, wants and needs become monetized, our story must be bought. Those who can buy have more “freedom.”  Those who can buy more have a better story. We might even rise so high that we can put our own name on our hotel or on a coin.

Vanity is cheap and shallow. Jesus, with his deep rooted identity as the child of God flicks it away like a coin. And you can call it freedom if you want, but the necessity to create your own story so often leaves us isolated and alone. And the story that we are the story we create when we have no story is a story that we didn’t create and haven’t chosen. It is a trick. What are we to do with that fact? And if everything is contingent and relative, on what basis do our values come? For what purpose do we even exist or have a story or freedom?

In America we even have the freedom to create our god. We have freedom of religion we say and Jesus a personal choice. Our Jesus becomes so personal he has no critique of the idols of nation and market – indeed he is sold to us, blended with the market and nationalism. The MGM Corporation put out a commercial in response to the tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas. In it an African American man sings, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” This song, ripped from its Christian identity, sung for a corporation that makes money off people for whom hope is a gamble and entertainment the key to true happiness, sounds so lonely. This little light of mine, this little personal American god can say nothing of gun violence or racism or war, nothing of misuse of water in the desert, nothing but insinuate your light comes from the entertainment of spending money at their resort.

As Christians we know we cannot capture and co-opt God because God is not the God we choose to worship, God is not a character in the story we choose to create for ourselves. At best, like Moses, we might get to seek God’s back, where God just was. We are, as Christians, persons in God’s story. God created us, and has chosen us and adopted us by the grace of Christ to be grafted into the story of the People of Israel. We ought not to think that we come to Church because we choose to, as if Church is a commodity to be chosen and bought, but because God has called us to be a community that lives this story. You are somebody because God says so. You have value because God says so. Black Lives Matter because God says so. The earth matters because God created it and called it good.  We value equality and respect the opinion of others because Jesus said love your neighbor as yourself. Our freedom comes not from Caesar, Caesars money or laws, but from the realization that our lives are a gift from God.

I paraphrase part of the answer I gave the radio host:

I understand a nation must have laws. A nation will do what it will do. As a Christian minister I understand my person and my congregation has limits, but my allegiance and identity are defined by Jesus who loves me despite where I come from. When a refugee family comes and asks for help, I do not first asks if the help is lawful? Does it make sense for national policy? Will the rebels or the patriots be upset? First I will ask, what would God the father of these children have me do? Or to follow Aquinas and Martin Luther King, “Does this law abide or inhibit following God’s law? Is it just in Principal and unjust in application? We might worry about our democratic responsibility later, about policy or international politics and economics. Our God, in the end is sovereign above all of that too. Five to God what is God’s.

As we discover again we are a part of God’s story, we are a part of a Church family, we know this little light of mine is not just a lonely speck in a dark night, but, by the grace of God, a spark of the Holy Spirit, the same spark that lit that bush that was not consumed, the same light that lit up the face of Moses, the spark of the Light of all life, the light of Jesus, the one whose name is above all names, on earth, in heaven and under the earth, the eternal I AM, the one who is, and was and is to come.