Psalm 99: 1-9; Matthew 22: 15-22
July 1, 2012
Four weeks. That’s how long it sat in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building. 5300 pounds of solid granite, roped off as if to protect it from unclean hands. The top of the monument was cut to resemble two stone tablets, upon which was inscribed the Ten Commandments. King James Version. On the sides of the structure were a number of inscriptions and dedications, including the familiar “In God We Trust.”
For thirty days or so, this rock created quite a firestorm during a scorching August. Chief Justice Roy Moore stubbornly resisted requests to remove what became known as “Roy’s Rock,” even after a federal Court ordered him to do so. A few weeks later, Moore was suspended by the Alabama Judiciary Inquiry Commission for his actions. This did not, however, thwart the efforts of hundreds of supporters who flocked to the steps of the courthouse to defend their martyr hero – and the monument. They swore their allegiance to “Roy’s Rock,” promising to do everything in their power to prevent it from being removed – even if it meant going to jail. John Giles, president of the Alabama Christian Coalition, encouraged Christians all over the country to come to Alabama to fight for the cause. And many did.
The monument was eventually removed from the rotunda, as was Roy Moore from the chief justice seat. Lately, though, things have been looking up for ol’ Roy. His non-profit organization, “The Foundation For Moral Law,” is humming along nicely, speaking engagements are plentiful (and profitable), and in November’s election Roy will vie once again for his old job – with a strong base of support. Amazing, isn’t it, the places that a hunk of granite can take you!
Hard to believe all that happened ten years ago! Our country continues to wrestle with what place God and organized religion should have in government and the public place. Every year or so, a new municipality deals with this cultural clash – whether it’s the Ten Commandments in a courtroom or classroom, or the slogan “In God We Trust” adorning public property, or the Christian flag flying over a public monument in nearby King.
You talk to any number of people about their thoughts and opinions on this subject, and most of them are clearly on one side or the other – there aren’t a lot of fence-straddlers here. Some do not see much of a distinction at all between faith and public life – to be American is to be a Christian; and vice versa. Others are more inclined to draw lines between religion and patriotism, viewing the absence of those lines as a watering down of both.
Now this sermon today, in case you’re wondering, is not about which view is right or which view is wrong. Because when you bring religion and politics into the discussion, things are rarely “black or white.” But hey – don’t take my word for it. Just ask Jesus in our scripture today! The Jewish nation was under Roman rule back then; and it was a tenuous pairing to say the least. That’s because Rome’s vision was about conquering the world in the name of Caesar, while Israel’s calling was to be the loyal and faithful people of God. It was the clash of church and state, first-century Palestinian-style!
So when Jesus began traveling the countryside doing his thing, it was inevitable that he would find himself caught in the crossfire. To the synagogue leaders and Pharisees, Jesus was both offensive and troubling: offensive because he challenged their treasured beliefs, and troubling because they knew the danger of a passionate man in the midst of a desperate people. To the Romans, Jesus was at best a nuisance and at worst a threat to the established order and unquestioned loyalty to the emperor. Jesus was a target for both camps; a pawn to be exploited.
Which is precisely what those Pharisees were trying to do when they approached Jesus that day. They had it all planned out: a single question that would surely stump him, make him blurt out something that would expose him as the false prophet they were so convinced he was. They began their exchange by laying it on thick: We know that you have integrity, Jesus; that you are indifferent to popular opinion, that you don’t pander to your students. Then, with the niceties aside, the gloves came off. They showed him a Roman coin and asked: So tell us: is it right to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?
Oh man – the classic “gotcha” question! Where neither answer is a good one. Don’t you just hate those?
When I was going through the ordination process many moons ago, one of the last hoops I had to jump through was my examination before presbytery. It goes something like this: you preach a sermon and share a prepared Statement of Faith before hundreds of ministers and elders, and then you get to stand there before all those ministers and elders as they are given the opportunity to ask any question of you they wish – about faith, about your life, your calling, whatever. Now by this point, most people realize that you’ve been run through the ringer so many times that, if you’d gotten this far, you’re good to go. But there’s always one person – usually someone who likes to hear themselves talk, or someone like those Pharisees living in their black-or-white world – there’s always one person who finds their way to the microphone to ask a question they are convinced must be asked.
The moderator called for any questions from the assembly as I stood there. Silence. I thought I was home-free, until I heard a voice in the back: I have a question! Ugh! The elderly gentleman – who I later found out did this sort of thing at every presbytery meeting – this guy began by waxing poetic about how “edified” he was by my sermon and “impressed” with my Statement of Faith. Buttering me up! But there was one thing he wanted to know; something he was sure everyone else wanted to know; and that was this: Steve, is the Lord’s Supper a somber event or an occasion for celebration?
And immediately, I saw the dilemma: if I said somber, he would counter, what about the new life in Christ? Isn’t that something to be excited about? But if I said celebration, he would accuse me of not taking the sacrifice of Jesus seriously enough. I had two options, and neither were good ones.
So what did I do? I went for the option! I don’t know that it was the most sophisticated answer, and maybe it was a bit of a copout. But I said it was both – both a somber occasion and a celebration. And I do think it’s both, by the way. It may not have been what that guy wanted to hear, but it seemed to appease everyone else – and, well, here I am!
The stakes were a little higher with Jesus’ gotcha question, don’t you think? I mean, talk about getting caught between 5300 pounds of granite and a hard place! Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Here’s the dilemma Jesus faced. Saying “yes” would pit him totally against the Torah, the law of the Hebrews that those Pharisees knew so well. That’s because every Roman coin – which taxes had to be paid with – every coin bore the likeness of Caesar and was inscribed with the following: “Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus Pontifex Maximus.” You know, I gotta say it’s nice after nearly twenty years of preaching to finally put my high school and college Latin to use in a sermon! Just in case you didn’t spend four and a half years studying a dead language like I did, that Latin inscription translated to: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, High Priest.” So paying homage to the coin amounted to idolatry – unequivocally prohibited by Hebrew law. “Yes” was surely not an answer for Jesus.
On the other hand, answering “no” would’ve certainly been perceived by the Romans as an act of treason – much the same way that some folks in our day and time run into all kinds of trouble with the IRS. And you can bet those Pharisees would’ve headed straight to the governor’s office and reported this carpenter from Nazareth, who would’ve been silenced before you could say “tax evader.” So “No” wasn’t an option, either.
And you know something? I think the thing I love most about how Jesus responds here is that he refuses to be pigeon-holed into the black-or-white world of the Pharisees, where there are only “yes” and “no” answers to “yes” and “no” questions. I love the fact that Jesus is given two options and he chooses a third – and in doing so, heads straight into the gray of life the rest of us live in and totally turns the tables on those Pharisees, leaving them as the stumped and silenced ones. For after revealing their hypocrisy – after making the Pharisees show everyone that they had in their possession one of those coins they considered so idolatrous, how brilliant is that! – after doing that, Jesus gave them anything but a “yes” or “no” answer – most simply worded, I believe, in The Message translation:
Give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give God what is God’s.
Wow! I mean, I know Jesus was the son of God and all, but don’t you wish you could do what he did: take the categories and holes that others try to pigeon you into, and rather than be forced to choose either/or, find a third and better way? Because that’s exactly what Jesus does here! Those Pharisees were trying to get him to determine “ownership” – what God owns, what Caesar owns. But Jesus wanted to talk about something much more important: loyalty and trust and relationship.
And see, that’s where the Pharisees’ blew it; that’s where their little plan came unraveled and they wound up, as the expression goes, eating crow. There was no question the government owned the coin the Pharisees so quickly produced – it had Caesar’s image on it. And because of that, taxes were (and still are) a reality. But did Caesar, did the Roman empire, deserve their ultimate loyalty? Was that the most important relationship in their lives?
No – no, it wasn’t. Not for them. And not for us, either. We in this sanctuary may be citizens of a country – and a great and wonderful country it is, and we should give thanks to God for that. But we are first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom on earth. And in God’s kingdom, it’s not about what we own, or who owns us. It’s about who we are in relationship with. Who we are loyal too. Who has our trust.
And see, that sort of thing is awfully hard to capture in anything we make ourselves. Just because a Ten Commandments monument sits in a courtroom or classroom doesn’t mean that everyone who walks in there will magically obey everything written on them. Just because “In God We Trust” adorns every penny, nickel, dime, quarter and dollar bill in our wallets and pocketbooks doesn’t mean we always trust in God when we buy something with them. Just because a Christian flag flies over a public monument doesn’t mean everyone who sees that flag automatically becomes a Christian.
Our lives are not transformed by a hunk of granite or a time-honored slogan or a Christian flag. Our lives are transformed by Jesus Christ and the God we trust in, the God we worship, the God we are in relationship with. And so what this broken world of ours really needs from you and me is to live like we have God’s word engraved on our hearts; like those slogans are not just catchy sayings but reflect how we truly conduct ourselves; like the thing we really pledge our allegiance to is not a “what” but a “who” – namely, a first-century Jewish carpenter from Nazareth.
As we celebrate our country’s independence in a few days, as we rightfully feel patriotic pride for this wonderful country in which we live and gratitude for those who have helped to made it that way, let us never forget that our calling as citizens of God’s kingdom is to always remember: it is in God we trust. We place our ultimate trust and loyalty and love in a living God who cannot be encapsulated in some human creation, but instead comes to us in a living, breathing human being who refused to be pigeon-holed into a yes-or-no, black-or-white kind of world. Jesus embraced the grey of life, and in doing so embraced us. And Jesus longs to be in relationship with us – this day and every day.
And that, my friends, that relationship is something most deserving of our full trust. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.