Message by Pastor Pokora – October 18, 20th Sunday after Pentecost

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

A federal appeals court recently declared unconstitutional a towering cross-shaped monument, marking a major road intersection in Prince George’s County, Maryland for 90 years.

In a 2-1 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said the 40-foot-tall memorial maintained with thousands of dollars in public funds “has the primary effect of endorsing religion and excessively entangling the government in religion.”

The question for the 4th Circuit was whether the cross is a memorial to local men lost in World War I or an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion that should be removed from public land. Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory dissented, writing the First Amendment does not require the government to “‘purge from the public sphere any reference to religion.’”

The ruling comes as public displays of religion have been challenged in courts throughout the country. The Supreme Court has not given clear guidance, allowing some monuments with religious content to stand, while rejecting others on public sites.

Obviously, there is nothing new about this controversy. The debate over the intersection between religious faith and government has raged for centuries and continues to do so. We need look no further than our gospel for this Sunday to see the durability of the issue.

Here the Pharisees and Herodians plot to rid themselves of Jesus. The Roman government with its suspicion of all things local looms in the background. These opponents of Jesus believe they have set the perfect trap for him.

Jesus was asked, “Is it right to pay taxes”? The real question was, is it obedience to the law of the Bible to pay taxes? It was a trap. What would you have said? A false dilemma or false dichotomy suggests we may only choose one of two sides. This kind of argument is often used in politics where it is claimed that one side is totally right and the other totally wrong. Both may be right and wrong. In a false dichotomy truth is always a different option: In a world of moral ambiguity we pay tribute to a corrupt Caesar and to God.

Jesus answered insincere flattery, bluntly. “You hypocrites!” he said. “Why try to trap me?” Roman taxation was unjust and excessive. Was paying it right? Jesus answered this difficult question brilliantly. “Whose image and inscription is this?” The poor often lost their lands paying Roman taxes. People did not want to serve another god, Caesar. Would Jesus be branded a traitor to God? Would he be in trouble with the Roman authorities? The tribute coin was probably one labeled “Tiberius Caesar, Divine Augustus Son of Augustus” or “Caesar Augustus son of divinity, Father of his Country,” blasphemous claims caused tax revolts.

What is our responsibility to country? Love of country is part of our duty to love our neighbor. What we must not forget is, Jesus includes our foreign neighbors in that command. Read the book of Romans. What ought to be a Christian’s duty to country? “Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” Jesus was not asked whether it was okay to worship Caesar, but whether it was right to pay taxes. Whether the government is right or wrong, we owe to the government what belongs to the government and to God the things that are God’s.

Jesus could be talking to us? He is not trapping us, of course, but invites us to declare  allegiance to God. Thus, perhaps the key question here is not whose image in on the coin, but rather whose image is on us! Whose image is on our hearts? Jesus encourages us to declare our allegiance to God above all else.

Often, this text is interpreted to present a dichotomy in our lives; we have duties to both God and country. And, while that is so, Jesus speaks primarily about our duty to God. Many people have strong political views – we may be Democrats, Republicans, or Independents. But, before and above any of these, we – you and I – are Christians, followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus is or should be our first loyalty, above all others.

Jesus raises important questions for us in this text and he does not give pat answers. There are elements in our lives that are, indeed, part of the world order and should be “rendered to Caesar,” as the text states. But there are other parts of our lives, our very persons and our very selves, that belong to God alone. If we remember that, all of life can take on greater focus and meaning. We belong, not to anything this world – we belong to God.

With his proclamation Jesus acknowledges that God’s law allows what is imprinted with the emperor’s image to be given back to him, but he also insists that it be done in the ultimately more important context of giving what is imprinted with God’s image back to God. You and I were created in God’s image, and Jesus calls us to return to God all that we are and all that we have been given. Yes, we can give the emperor one coin, one day’s wage as his due, but that’s the extent of what he is owed. There is, however, no limit on what is due to God since everyone and everything is God’s.

This implies that no matter what we may do or say, no matter where we may go, no matter what may happen to us, we are first and foremost and forever, God’s own beloved children. And, if we believe this and live this, God will shape all that we say and do and how we live. We belong to God. We are God’s children.

Jesus not only models the life of giving everything to God, he makes it possible for us to do the same. Because of his trust in God’s love and care, he willingly gave up all he had and all he was. He emptied himself, humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-8). And because Jesus followed God’s way, God raised him from the dead. Through Christ’s resurrection, we have been forgiven and healed; we have been offered new life. By the dwelling of the Spirit within us, we have the power to live as Jesus did, to walk in God’s way. Like Jesus, we can trust in God’s love and care and give freely to God ourselves, our time, and our possessions for use in the world that God loves and cares for.

No one claims this life to be easy. It requires difficult, thoughtful, and sometimes painful decisions and choices. But we, as disciples made in God’s image, dutifully give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, are called to a life that thankfully and joyously first gives to God what is God’s. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.