1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
The Pharisees, who believed that taxation by the Romans was an unconscionable Imperial confiscation and transfer of wealth, and Caesar’s sycophants, the obsequious Herodians, who never saw an Imperial tax that they didn’t love, met him at the Temple gates. It was a rare time of bi-partisanship in Palestinian politics.
He’d been haranguing them with stories about the Kingdom of Heaven and how they were about to lose Heaven’s mandate. The crowd had snickered and booed them every time he had bested them in their debates. They knew they had to do something.
The crowd hated the Emperor, and were clearly in the camp of the Pharisees on the whole issue of tax rates, compliance and imperial over-reach. The Romans taxed for the aqueducts and they taxed for the roads. They taxed for the Pax Romana and they taxed for the cost of putting down insurrection. Slimy King Herod had remodeled the old Temple, but the people paid for it, in Temple taxes that were nearly as high as the Imperial levy. The average Palestinian dirt farmer could barely pay for his family’s food after paying the tax collectors for his harvest. The Pharisees saw this as a chance to trap him into supporting their call for a revolt against the Empire. The Herodians saw it as a chance to get him to support their unwavering support for the oppressors.
So they stood, in a semi-circle around him, the Pharisees to the left and the Herodians to the right. The lead Pharisee, a good, faithful and conscientious disciple of Moses and Isaiah, led off with the challenge.
“Rabbi, we know you are sincere,” he began slowly. His friends looked over at him, their eyes rolling. “We know that you teach the way of God truthfully, that you are not someone given to doubletalk or prejudice. You talk straight, and we like that.” The Pharisees nodded.
The Herodians, ever the imitators, nodded too.
“So, Rabbi, tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
So this was it, the ultimate test? If he supported taxes, then clearly he was not on the side of the people, he was on the side of the Emperor. If he opposed taxes, he was on the side of the people, but was clearly taking a revolutionary stand against Caesar and the Imperial throne. One answer, and the crowd would tear him to pieces; the other answer, the Roman legions would. Bi-partisanship wasn’t so bad after all, if it meant ridding the world of a common enemy.
He looked them up and down. The Pharisees, tiny beads of sweat forming around their phylacteries, shifted from one foot to the other. The Herodians sneered down their noses..
He shook his head, sadly. “Why are we going through this charade? Somebody have a denarius I can borrow?”
The denaraius. The tiny silver coin that was the basis for all commerce throughout the Empire. Bushels of wheat and barley were traded in denarii. Olive oil was measured in denarii. Slaves were bought and sold, houses mortgaged, debts leveraged and futures gained or lost, all in denarii. The Empire ran on these little discs of silver. And in all of their pockets, the jangle of denarii bespoke their wealth.
Someone handed him one. He looked at it for a moment, and holding it between his thumb and forefinger. “Whose picture and inscription is this?” One side of the coin was inscribed with the words, “Tiberius son of the divine August,” under his image and the other named him “Pontifex Maximus” the great bridge builder, the Mediator between humanity and the gods.
“Caesar’s,” said one, and the others chimed in. “Yes, it’s Caesar’s.”
“Well, then,” he said, “Give what is Caesar’s back to Caesar.” And he flicked the coin back to them. It rose in the air, flipping end over end, the sun glinting off the silver disc with the picture of the Roman god-king. It landed on the smooth stone tiles at their feet, rolling in concentric circles, until it came to a rest next to a Pharisee’s sandaled feet, Caesar’s Imperial portrait staring up at him.
Then he looked around at the porticoes of the Temple. “But you really should give to God what is God’s.”
Here they were, in the very place that was supposed to represent the presence of God, carrying little silver engraved images of the Caesar who called himself Lord. That was why he had overturned the tables of the moneychangers, that was why he told them that Kingdom of God would be yanked out from under them and given to people who understood the precious nature of being called by God to serve. They had all, long ago sold out.
In this early twenty-first century, when many of us are having a hard time deciding what is God’s and what is Caesar’s, it is a time not unlike theirs. Our economy is shattered, and all the voodoo economics of all the computer-generated algorithms can’t put it right again. People are frightened, their bank balances too low, their mortgages too high, and their taxes? Well, their taxes only mean giving their money to people who don’t deserve it, who don’t work and suck up what precious little remains in their pockets. The sliced and diced derivatives in the sub-prime portfolios have been revealed as the massive Ponzi scheme they were all long.
But Jesus is telling us that, even if the coins and paper money we use to buy our food, pay our tithes and yes, our taxes, is inscribed with “In God We Trust,” that doesn’t mean we actually are trusting God. At a time like this, we are too often inclined to trust Caesar.
In 1934, as the long darkness began its descent over Germany, the recently elected Chancellor of the Reich invited the leaders of the Protestant church to his palace in Berlin. Some among them had been quite critical of Adolf Hitler’s vision and rhetoric. He was searching for a way to bring them all into line.
As he spoke, his quiet confidence and sincerity struck many in the group. He connected with them, he understood the pain of their parishioners. He knew that people wanted—desperately—a solution to Germany’s economic crisis and a path back to national greatness. Germany was the greatest country in the world, the German people its smartest, hardest working and most productive. If they could only work together, he said, Germany would once more take its place as shining example of Western values, rooted in the Christian tradition. He assured them that he was committed to the Church, that he would protect their tax exempt status, their legal preferences, their state support. All he asked in return was their commitment to help him turn Germany around.
In the crowd was young Lutheran pastor named Martin Niemoller. Niemoller was having none of Hitler’s rhetoric. He pushed his way to the front of the group. “Our concern, Herr Hitler, is not for the church. Our concern is for the soul of our country.”
His colleagues were shocked at his brash disrepect, and they quickly shushed him, pulling him back from the front. Hitler smiled. “Pastor, you take care of the Church. As for the soul of Germany, you can leave that to me.”
Niemoller, along with his friends, decided to give God’s things to the Chancellor. When it was too late, he finally spoke out again, and ended up in Dachau in 1937. After the war, he wrote:
First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew, Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.
Niemoller’s lament for his time is a warning for ours.
We are facing the gravest time of tribulation since the days before the Second World War. People want solutions and grasping at any old thing that is flung their way by anyone who looks remotely like a leader. We stand at the threshold of a Presidential election and two very good candidates have come forward with their plans to rescue the middle class and the upper class from ruin. But nobody talks about the poor.
But the caution with which we should approach their proffered solutions is no less than that facing the German people: it is about the very soul of our nation. Are we a plutocracy, ruled by the rich and very rich, whose only God is the one that protects their riches and power? Or are we, in the words of John Winthrop, “a city on a hill, with the eyes of all people upon us,” a nation that believes that all people are created equal, and that God holds a special place for the poor and oppressed?
In contrast to Martin Niemoller, there was another German pastor, who from the very beginning, resisted the false Gospel of Empire, who was not confused about what was God’s and what was Caesar’s. “The Church stands,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued, “not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.”
Shortly after Hitler’s inauguration, Bonheoffer condemned the government’s demonizing of political and religious minorities, urging the Church to “jam the spoke of the state … to protect the state from itself”. In his collection of Letters from Prison, he wrote of having “learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”
This was the rendering of God’s things to God: defense of the poor, the downtrodden, the one’s who haven’t lost their 401K’s because they never had them in the first place. It means calling government to account for the way it ignores those whom God has said are to be lifted up.
I, too, am fearful, beloved. But I’m not fearful of losing my home, my car, my retirement, though I know that I may yet lose them. I’m fearful for the Church, so confused about what is God’s and what is Caesar’s that it does not even ask those who come to lead, “What are you doing about those who are hungry tonight, or who have nowhere to sleep, and no one to defend them?” I’m fearful for the Church, which has so mixed its mission with the politics of a nation and Western society that it believes one political party or the other are chosen by God. I’m fearful for the Church, which has forgotten that we are called to give up our very lives for the sake of Christ and his Gospel.
My job among you as your Deacon is to remind you that there are days coming when it may be too dangerous to come to this quiet, peaceful and beautiful place, or when coming here may mean that you choose to die. My job among you as your Deacon is to remind you that a nation that loses its soul, or a Church that forgets its primary mission is to the poor, is a nation and a Church already dead. My job among you as your Deacon is to remind you that rendering to God what is God’s—which is everything—is to be willing to give everything up to God, in absolute confidence that Christ is Lord and not Caesar.
But I am not here to just remind you that we may be called upon to die for Christ. I am here to remind you that we must choose to live for him. Living for him means making every life choice with one eye to those who are least among us. I do not presume to tell you for whom to cast your vote. I do presume to tell you however, that you must enter the voting booth in just a fortnight’s time, after prayer and fasting. I implore you, I beg you to remember that human political endeavor is temporal, fleeting and, in the end, does not last. The United States of America, is not, however much we might we wish it was, the last, best hope of humankind. The United States of America, this dear nation that we all love, is a human political experiment that cannot and never could last forever. It may yet achieve another time of greatness or it may not. Only the Kingdom of Christ, built upon the Cornerstone that Hell itself could not conquer, is what lasts. For it is God’s.
Political leaders, even good, honest, tested political leaders, cannot give us life eternal. They cannot give us any sort of life. In a time when life is cheap and hope unravels, our hope must be in the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. In the great coin toss that is an election, the coin bears the image of Caesar, but we stand in the Temple of God.
Instead of a coin, take a cross and see, whose picture and inscription are on it?