Oh, I surely do wish today that Jesus would have made it easier on us than he does now. For while his reply to the Herodians and the Pharisees walked an important and tenuous line, it leaves us with the responsibility of wrestling this question through our whole lives long.
Now understand, please, that what follows here may be less an outline for preaching than just an entry into the text before us now. I’ve lived with these particular words of Jesus in Matthew for just a few days this time through. As I have before, no doubt I am just chipping away at it, wondering at its meaning for me, for us today in the world we find ourselves in now.
It was a long time ago when these words were spoken to me, but they have stayed with me all these years.
- I was in college, majoring in Political Science, the study of which I have not once regretted, as far afield as it may at first seem from where my life’s path led.
- I was 21 years old with all the idealism of a young adult.
- I had just finished spearheading our small campus’s effort to elect a representative to congress. I was an effort which ultimately failed, however I was still proud of the fact that local election officials took note of the blip in returns from that corner of Bremer County, Iowa.
- By then I had begun to give my own loyalty over to one end of the spectrum of political perspectives, believing it made a difference. (I still do, by the way, although I have been given pause to weigh this deeply countless times over the years.)
It was in that time that one of my professors spoke words I have never forgotten stating that there really was no discernible difference between the two political parties in our country. He insisted that they were of the same mind with slightly different emphases across a spectrum. I was so surprised by his pronouncement that I did not ask him to more finely state his position, which I regret. Even at the time, though, I knew that he came of age in the generation or two before my own. He was shaped in the maelstrom of the late 1960’s when at least one resounding call was to overthrow it all. To be sure, in the decades since I have become deeply aware that it is likely that most of those who find themselves in ‘public service’ have competing loyalties at best. More than this even, all of them are part of a larger system on which they are no doubt too dependent for their income, identity, power, esteem, opportunity, etc. They are, quite simply, part of the ’empire.’ At best and worst it is probably in their own personal best interest to only tinker around the edges and not change things much at all. But it’s not only them, of course. All of us who benefit from how things stand have an interest in keeping things as they are. With what we do and what we do not do. By when and how we speak and when we choose to keep silent. Which is why Jesus’ words press so hard on us still…
I do not know where that particular professor is today. A quick internet search did not reveal his whereabouts. I do wish, however, for one more chance to ask what his take would be on this question in light of today’s political climate:
- What IS the state of the ’empire’ today?
- And what, I wonder now, is my, is our relationship to it…?
- And what does this look like in terms of how are resources are allocated: both in terms of money, yes, but also in terms of time, energy, voice, presence, and more?
For while I did not entirely believe him at the time, my old professor’s take on the world may have been closer to Jesus’ perspective than not, for Jesus no doubt saw the whole mess as problematic at best. (Indeed, I expect Jesus would not have registered with either major political party as we know them now!) And this is where we find ourselves still. Indeed, the similarities would not end there:
- For then and now there are those like the Herodians who place their loyalty with those in power (thus the name ‘Herodian.’)
- Then and now there are those who say that one should not have anything to do with the other, not unlike the Pharisees with their legalistic interpretation of this journey of faith we find ourselves on.
In this way, too, Jesus does not take either side, as we hear today. He simply tosses the question back to them and to us to sort it out. And as you well know, this is no easier to do today than it was a couple of thousand years ago.
I have written of this before and in other times, my conclusions were the same: In the end, while we may ‘give to the emperor,’ it all really does belong to God. (Giving to God the Things That are (Already) God’s and It All Belongs to God… All of It) As has always been so, though, the decisions before us are not necessarily any easier, however. Not when in real life, in real time, my own loyalties are also still much too divided too much of the time. And yet, we cannot turn our back on it like the Pharisees would. Nor can we completely turn ourselves over to the powers that are, as the Herodians did.
So it is I would offer now some examples of times when I have found myself in this struggle Jesus tosses back to us in a very real way.
- I was twenty years old. As I indicated above, my undergraduate field of study had me looking at big problems and bigger forces at work in the world. In one class my sophomore year, we focused in on the power of multinational corporations and the ways in which they kept people poor the world over. In particular, one stood out for me for the way in which it leached the soil of its resources in Central America so that we could purchase fresh produce all year around at our grocery stores. It was the same corporation which had given me summer employment the two years before. The same one I was dependent on to get through school. It felt like a moral dilemma to me at the time, but one I felt I had no voice in, no power to change. Which of course, I did not. And yet, I remember thinking that sometime, some way, some day, I would address this. I cannot say that I have yet. And I wonder, I do, if I am paying the ’emperor’ too much to this day.
- I was forty years old. 9/11 had just happened and with all of you, I sat glued to the news broadcast, day after day, weeping for all that had been lost. War seemed inevitable then, which of course, it was. It was in the days immediately following that I heard from a trusted friend in Tanzania, begging me to urge our government not to go to war. She spoke especially of the impact of such conflict on women and children. She named the inevitable suffering of refugees too many to count. I had the chance then to speak to a group of church people who would gather. I was putting my thoughts, my words together when another trusted friend reminded me that among those listening would be mothers of children who would be fighting in that war and my words could hurt them. I took the easy way out, I’m afraid. I did not quote my friend from far away and instead bowed to pressures closer at hand. I paid the ’emperor’ then. I am quite certain I was wrong to do so.
- I was fifty-four years old. The horrific news had come that a young man had shot up a group who had gathered for Bible Study at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine and traumatizing people the world over. The young man had been raised in the same Lutheran denomination I call home. I called my friend across town and asked if I could come and speak the next Sunday — offering a word of confession, of apology for the heartache which was also theirs. I read my words in my own place of worship that morning before I went, for I felt the Lutherans who gather at the corner of 3rd and Pine needed to know what I was about to say. I got little feedback then or later, but I do remember standing on the brink of what Jesus says today. With fear and trembling, I was trying to find my way to a deeper understanding of what it is to ‘pay the emperor,’ what it is to give God God’s due.
Taken to heart, it is a daily struggle this one. And oh, most days I wish Jesus had not thrown us into the fray to figure it out.
- What do we owe the ’emperor?’
- What is it that we owe to God?
And yes, as we stand today on the edge of what some have called the ‘most consequential election of our lifetime’ I wonder every day what it means. For my own loyalties. And for how I am called to live into them or in spite of them or against them.
I can only say that I am still and always unsettled by this and maybe, just maybe, that is Jesus’ first goal here: to stir us up enough so that we enter the fray.
And maybe there is grace in that alone.
Maybe there is gift and grace in this struggle now.
Oh, I surely hope so. I really do.
- How do you find yourself weighing out your own loyalties in this life long conversation about what we owe the ’emperor’ and what we owe to God?
- I have offered three examples of times when the struggle has been real. When have you found yourself in similar places?
- How do these words ‘preach’ when we are but a few weeks away from a consequential national election? How will they ‘preach’ the day after the results of that election (and countless others) are known?
- Is there gift and grace in this struggle? What makes you answer as you do?