There is a change in tone and feel as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem fresh from the hopes and excitement of his teaching ministry in Galilee. The mood becomes increasingly confrontational. Jesus’ focus becomes one of avoiding the traps that are being set for him.
In the atmosphere of religious and political extremes that characterized Jerusalem under the yoke of Roman occupation, there is small wiggle room between blasphemy on the one side, and treason on the other. It’s into this double-bind space that a particularly, unholy alliance of Herodian (the royal party of collaboration) and Pharisee (the religious part of religious reform) factions seek to lure Jesus. The question is: is it lawful to pay the poll tax (a flat-rate personal tax) to Rome? If Jesus answers yes, he commits blasphemy – admitting that Caesar is a rival authority to God. If his answer is no, he commits treason – denying the authority and what’s more the divinity of the Emporer.
How will Jesus answer them? To answer yes, or no are both dangerous options. Yet, so too is any attempt to offer a middle way answer. As we know only too well from contemporary American political debate, when an atmosphere of fear and mutual contempt characterizes a separation of competing political and religious world views, a moderate view pleases no-one.
One can only admire Jesus’ dexterity. With one question: whose, head is on the coin? he draws both interlocutors into the trap they think they are setting for him. I imagine it’s one of the Herodians who produces the coin. To possess such a coin within the Temple precincts is in itself an act of blasphemy. Caesar’s head, a forbidden graven image, appears on the coin. However, it’s the inscription that encircles the head of Caesar that proclaims him as divine that goes to the heart of the matter. Jesus’ next move is to state that some things are owed to civil authority and some things are owed to God. It appears simple, honor your obligation to each and don’t get them mixed up!
Jesus answers by not really answering. His answer silences his opponents, but we are still left with the unanswered question: what does he really mean?
Separation of Church and State
The health of the American body politic rests upon several nice and neat separations connected with today’s Gospel reading. The most obvious is the separation of Church and State enshrined in the Constitution. We are mostly, in agreement that: render unto Caesar means an obligation to submit to the lawful exercise of civil authority. Therefore, although some of us question the right of the government to levy taxes, few of us refuse to pay them. We are less clear as to what: render unto God the things of God, means. Why might that be?
Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Great Seal of the United States are all in agreement. Each affirms the truth of the motto on the Great Seal: In God We Trust. It’s an interesting aside to note that from 1782 until 1956 the motto on the Great Seal was : E Pluaribus Unam -out of many, one. In 1957 it was changed to: In God We Trust. Interesting to speculate on the reason for the change. But best not go there at the moment.
In other words, there is a legitimate distinction to be made between Church and State, but not between God and State. Yet here, as in most areas of our lives we play a subtle game of selective cognizance.
Ownership, allegiance, and accountability
There’s a nice story told about the Christian conversion of the Gauls. When the Christian missionaries led these Celtic warriors into the water for baptism, as the man was submerged under the water he raised his right arm up so that his arm and hand remained above the water. The intent here is clear. The warrior was saying: my sword arm and hand do not belong to God and with these I reserve the right to kill and maim.
Whatever the historical veracity of this story it reflects a common view today. While we may be made in the image of God and therefore everything about us belongs to God, our money at best – belongs to us, and at worst – to the Government. As I like to put it, we live as if our hearts belong to God, but not our wallets.
The heart of this Gospel encounter is not concerned with creating a clean separation between God and Mammon, or between civil and religious authority. The central issue concerns allegiance and ownership. To whom, or to what do we owe allegiance? Over which aspects of our life do we have a right to exercise ownership?
The way we choose to answer these questions reveals the kind of persons we long to be, as well as the kind of community we envision ourselves becoming?
Getting to the point
At St Martin’s, Sunday October 19th is when we launch our Annual Renewal Campaign (ARC). The Church tells us that stewardship is more than what we do with our money. But we all have a sneaking suspicion that this is mere window dressing when the only time of the year we really address issues of stewardship is in preparation for setting the next year’s budget.
You don’t need me to tell you that money matters. It matters because like every other aspect of our lives money goes to the heart of our spiritual values. Episcopalians often have an impoverished thinking about our financial pledge. We see it as giving to the parish budget. How unsexy is that? Neither is it very spiritually fulfilling! We have a need to expect that our financial generosity will bear richer fruit. Through our giving we long for fruit that leaves us with a sense of having made a difference, and not simply kept the lights on.
So, let me reframe. Let me state that while stewardship is a year-long program of nurturing the life of our community, it commences with the conversation about our accountability before God in the area of financial responsibility. The Gospel we hear today invites us to see stewardship hinging upon the core issues of allegiance and ownership. While there is a practical connection between our ARC and next year’s budget, there is no spiritual connection between the two. This bears endlessly repeating!
There is a real synchronicity between our ARC and the Gospel of the day. Several questions occur at this point:
- The main question is not how much do we need to give to meet next year’s budget? The question before us is to whom do we owe allegiance for everything that is good in our lives?
- Do we view the use of money in relation to our primary allegiance to God, or is money, in effect our Celtic warrior’s sword arm?
- Do we think our financial health and security are the fruit of our own achievement, or the grace-filled gift from God?
Jesus’ confrontation with the Herodians and Pharisees challenges our comfortable assumption that our money is the product of our own skillfulness, our own good luck, or our privileged ability to command a nice financial reward? Jesus challenges us to think about our primary allegiances. He also invites us to an encounter with gratitude as our response to God for the good things we have been given to enjoy.
On November 16th, our ARC concludes with Ingathering Sunday. This is also the date the Bishop comes to install me as St Martin’s 12th rector. Our theme between now and then is not how much do we need to give to next year budget. Our theme is celebrating our community’s rich human potential. We begin with an acknowledgement of gratitude to God for the many gifts, strengths, and qualities that already characterise our individual lives, and life together in our St Martin’s community.
As we celebrate these things, I invite us to enter into an intentional conversation together about gratitude and generosity. In the coming week you will all receive a communication from me in the mail. In it I explain in more detail how we might go about structuring our conversation about gratitude and generosity.
These conversations begin from an encounter with our a debt of gratitude to God. Drilling down to the next layer, I invite us to specifically reflect on three further questions:
- Who are the persons who fill our lives with a joy and quality of life that brings us to our knees, overwhelmed by a deep thankfulness to God? A variation on this question might be for some of us, who have the persons been that have filled our life with a quality that continues to overwhelm us with a deep thankfulness to God?
- What are the experiences, the events that have deeply shaped our lives, experience of grace and love given to us against all the odds of probability, that on contemplation bring us to our knees in thankfulness for the reckless generosity of God?
- Reconnecting with these places of personal encounter with the generosity towards God, can we risk to share our experience of gratitude, inviting others to open to a similar experience in their own lives?
Jesus answers his opponents by implicating them in the tensions they seek to entrap him within. His answer silences them, but we are still left with the unanswered question: what does he really mean?
It is never an easy task to negotiate our way in today’s world amidst the many siren calls that offer attractive, yet fruitless allegiances. Today’s Gospel challenges us to consider how we displace God from the center of our sense of allegiance. Thinking of ourselves as the source of the good we enjoy, seeing ourselves as the ultimate authority is the best definition I know of blasphemy.
In my own life I note how an allegiance to fear, to power, or the complacency of success, continually tempt me. Jesus does not say that it is easy living in the tension between the things of Caesar, and the things of God. He simply warns us about the competing powers and influences vying to sway us, to capture our hearts, and ultimately to own us? When we displace God as the focus of our allegiance we render ourselves vulnerable. Under the illusion of owning ourselves, we become vulnerable to being owned by competing worldly allegiances.
Jesus’ interlocutors in today’s Gospel go away amazed. I invite us to deepen our community’s financial stewardship conversation over the next weeks through a personal encounter with our experience of gratitude for God’s generosity. Who knows, maybe we too can become amazed by what we begin to glimpse ourselves being capable of.