What do you not talk about when you’re with certain friends or members of the family? When I’m with my parents, I have learned not to discuss politics, especially with my mother. My parents and I don’t see eye to eye on most political issues. My father is slightly easier to talk to, because he will at least pretend to listen to my viewpoint and because he will remain rational in the discussion. My mother, on the other hand, becomes emotionally charged when she argues for her viewpoint, and will rant for at least 5 minutes without letting me get a word in edgewise. And when I dare to interject my viewpoint, she will tear it down in a minute and start ranting again. So, since I only see my parents about twice a year now, I do not bring up political issues so that I can enjoy my time with them. And if they bring up political issues, I pretend to listen and then attempt to change the topic as quickly as possible. I’m sure that many of you have such issues that you avoid in discussions with family and friends, and more likely than not, the topics that you avoid center around the big three difficult and divisive issues: politics, money, and religion.
In the few short verses that we have as our Gospel text today, all three of those difficult and divisive issues come up: politics, money, and religion. Any reasonable pastor would have decided to preach on one of the other lessons today, but since I like a challenge, and since we are in the middle of our stewardship emphasis here at Hope, I believe that the Holy Spirit has called me to preach on this. Since Jesus was not afraid to tackle these difficult questions, we who are his followers should not be afraid to tackle them, either, to discuss different viewpoints, and to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance in our discernment. It is in this way that we can be a model for the community: Yes, it is possible for two people to be Christian and to hold completely opposite views on the same subject. And yes, it is possible for those same two people to be able to discuss the topic rationally and still acknowledge one another as Christian.
So, let’s start off with some background information on this passage so we can understand what is happening in this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees and the Herodians. At the time of Jesus, Israel was under the control of the Romans. Specifically, the part of Israel where Jerusalem was located, Judea, was under the control of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The two groups who came to test Jesus with today’s question were odd bedfellows: The Pharisees emphasized holiness in personal lives, not advocating for Roman control nor for the Jews to overthrow the Romans. The Herodians were a group of people who wanted the descendants of King Herod to rule again rather than have direct Roman control over Jerusalem. These two factions were thus united only in their desire to get Jesus into trouble. That is the politics of the situation.
Now, here is where politics begins to interact with religion, in the form of money: The tax that the Pharisees and the Herodians were talking about was a particular type of tax. Each person was required to pay a denarius to Rome in order to support the Roman occupation of Israel. In other words, they had to pay their oppressors to keep oppressing them. Furthermore, the coin that they had to use did, in fact, have the emperor’s portrait on it, which violated Jewish laws against making idols of any kind. So we can guess that the Pharisees might have objected to the tax based on religious grounds—using a coin with an image engraved on it violated the Torah; the Herodians objected based on political grounds—continuing to support the Roman oppressors—and the general populace objected with a mix of the first two reasons, plus the fact that it was an economic burden on them—monetary grounds. Here is the volatile mix of religion, politics, and money, together in one question designed to trap Jesus. If Jesus answered that it was lawful to pay the tax to the emperor, then he would be seen by the crowds to support the Roman oppressors, and he would lose popularity. If Jesus answered that it was unlawful to pay the tax, then he would come to the attention of the Romans as a rebel. His opponents thought they had finally gotten him.
But Jesus, in typical fashion, was aware of what was going on and did two things: First, he made his opponents provide the coin, showing that the Pharisees were being hypocritical for having the coin with the image on it, and the Herodians for having the very coin used for tribute to the Roman oppressors. Second, he gives a mysterious answers: Give therefore to the emperor, the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And this statement, finally, is what we wrestle with today. How do we give to the emperor (or to the government) the things that belong to the emperor/government, and how do we give to God the things that are God’s? Is it possible to reconcile these two things?
Let’s begin with the theological claim that I have repeated through our Season of Creation and at the beginning of our stewardship emphasis: everything that is created belongs to God. God has given this earth and everything in it to us “on loan”: to steward the earth, to serve the earth, to care for the earth. The Nicene Creed says that we believe in God the Father, who is the maker of all that is, seen and unseen. So consider that everything around us, seen and unseen, including us, is in God, and that God is in everything. That may seem a bit broad and a bit mystical, so let me focus the lens on what we are talking about today: God is in even those institutions that govern us. Now, that does not mean that the institutions that govern us are going to get everything right all the time. In something that seems to be a paradox, the all-good God is somehow still present in an imperfect government run by sinful human beings. Hard to believe, isn’t it? But it is this idea that enables the prophet Isaiah to make the claim, in today’s Old Testament lesson, that God has anointed Cyrus, king of Persia, as his instrument to allow the Jews to return to Israel after their long exile. Isaiah saw God’s hand at work in the political actions of a king who did not even know God.
Now, again, we do have to be careful about interpreting the actions of the government as God’s actions, because we run the risk of saying first of all, that we know God’s mind, and second of all, that some really evil deeds have God’s blessing. Think of the Nazis, for example. It is hard for us to discern, when we are in the middle of something momentous, whether God has a hand in it or whether it is sinful humanity rearing its ugly head. And this is why it is good and acceptable for us Christians to question what our government is doing. We need to decide how we as faithful Christians are going to proceed: Is God truly at work in what the government does? Or do we need to speak out against the sinful actions of human beings? And, as I said at the beginning of the sermon, it is possible for two faithful Christians to discern different answers to that question and to be on opposite sides of whatever the issue of the day is.
This brings me to the issue of the day here in Wyoming: gay marriage has been declared legal in this state. This puts me in an awkward position. Yes, we have separation of church and state in this country, but in the case of weddings, I am an agent of the state and I have the authority to marry two people. However, just because something is legal does not mean that I am required to do it. For instance, if a heterosexual couple came to me with a marriage license and said that they wanted me to marry them tomorrow, I would say “No,” because I have a policy of doing premarital counseling with a couple before marrying them. And I would be within my legal rights to do so. It is the same thing with gay marriage: although it may be legal, I have the right to say “no” to marrying the couple.
And at this point in time, I would say no to a gay couple wanting to be married. Even though gay marriage is now legal and I am an agent of the state with authority to perform the wedding ceremony, I am also a representative of this congregation. And we as a congregation are divided about what we believe God says about homosexuality. In this case, the Holy Spirit has not given a clear word to us. As long as the Holy Spirit has not spoken to us clearly and given us a consensus, I will not violate my conscience or yours by performing a ceremony that has the potential to cause another rift in this congregation. What is important, though, is that we remain in conversation about this matter, and continue to discern God’s will together. In this way, we will show our neighbors that we can disagree over something and yet still remain the church together, united as the body of Christ.
Stewardship is about more than finances. When I began writing this sermon, I thought that I would be bold in saying how we should pay taxes, but to remember that when we spend our money, it should always be in service to God. This is why I wanted to do this with the children’s message today, because this is a good and valuable application of today’s Gospel. But at a deeper level, Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees and the Herodians is about how we as Christians relate to our government. And as Lutherans, we can acknowledge the paradox that God is present in human governmental institutions and sometimes chooses to work through them, but also at the same time, that sinful humanity will be present in the government and make some really bad decisions. I don’t understand how this can be, but I believe it to be true based on the evidence from history and from what I have seen with my own eyes. Just as Jesus’ response to his opponents was as clear as mud, we are not always clear on how we should respond to the actions that our government takes. As we discern, we need to pray, study Scripture, and discern together as a community what the Holy Spirit is saying. Only then should we choose to respond or not to respond. And we pray that whatever our response might be, that God would always be with us to guide us and lead us. Amen.