Sermon October 18, 2020

First Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
I will go before you
and level the mountains,
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things.

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘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.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

The Sermon

I don’t know who invented the sayings to never mix religion and politics, or to never discuss politics, religion or sex, but I think often enough we are following these thoughts because differing opinions might be a recipe for nasty exchanges and fallouts, especially in our current, tense climate. There are families and friends who don’t gather anymore for Thanksgiving and other major holidays because they cannot stand each other’s political views. Or, they still gather but talking about politics is strictly prohibited.

Our gospel today seems to separate clearly between the areas of faith and politics: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.

The Pharisees tried to put Jesus in a tough spot by asking whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. Had Jesus answered ‘no’ he would have gotten into hot water with the Romans, the occupying power. Had he answered ‘yes’, the people would probably have turned away from him as the taxes were used to finance the Roman occupation. There was no simple answer.

Jesus asked for a coin that was used to pay the taxes. It had the head of Caesar engraved on it and claimed in an inscription the divinity of Caesar. So by using this coin, everyone pretty much violated the first commandment, namely that there is only one God and we should not have any others besides him. Using these coins compromised every person of faith, the Pharisees included. Instead of giving a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer Jesus presented the Pharisees with this challenge of the coin and Caesar’s claim on divinity.

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s. The next question then is what is the emperor’s and what is God’s. Obviously, the emperor wanted his taxes. But what is it that we owe God? The simple answer to that question is: Everything.

God is the power that trumps everything. Our allegiance is supposed to be in the first place to God, which means to seek God’s will in all things and check them against the vision Jesus has given us of God’s rule or kingdom.

Belonging to God, following God has consequences for our lives. For starters it means to realize that not only we, but everyone around us is a child of God made in God’s image and therefore has profound value. It also means to strive for God’s mandates that are outlined in the bible over and over again, and are embodied in the life of Jesus, which is seeking justice, caring for the poor, liberating the oppressed, feeding the hungry, loving our neighbors, and working for peace.

Although at first sight this gospel passage suggests that worldly issues and divine issues are not connected – you give to Caesar one thing and to God another thing and they are not connected – but, really, they cannot be separated.

As soon as we start to think in practical ways about the poor we are in the middle of all these worldly issues like fair wages, education, health care, affordable housing – and taxes, because it matters where all this money goes, whether it is used to seek justice and care for the poor, or not.

Just as an example, we feed the hungry. And I am glad that we collect food every week; plus, at least once a year, we have the weekend snack program. This is all great. But shouldn’t we also ask why people are hungry or less fortunate in the first place, especially when we consider that more than half of those relying on food pantries are actually working people, or seniors who have worked all their lives, and yet, they cannot carve out a moderate living.

There used to be a time when a family could live on one salary or really well on two salaries. But living expenses have gone up disproportionally to income or hourly wages over the last 40 years. And that is a political issue.

The minimum amount of income that a household needs to be able to afford housing, food and other basic necessities is about $24,000 for a family of four. If you earn $11/hour and work 40 hours/week, you don’t make this amount of money and if you get sick or injured or your car needs repair work you already have to choose between food and other bills.

With this issue, as an example, we are at the intersection of politics and faith.

Or, we can look at environmental policies and see how they match with our call to be good stewards of God’s creation, which is another intersection. A neat separation between politics and faith is really not possible.

What this passage does is calling us to wrestle with the question what it means to be a Christian in this world with all its complex and complicated issues that cannot be resolved with sound bites.

As we struggle with the question what our role in this world can be and as we deal with issues that easily mix religion and politics, it is important to remember who we are and whom we belong to. Our allegiance to God should always have a priority in our decision making. I think if we manage to keep the focus on that we will be alright.

The apostle Paul said, “Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another…” (Romans 13:7f.) That is a place to start. Amen.

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.