Who’s in Your Pocket?

Matthew 22:15-22
September 25, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

In the gospels, the Pharisees are usually the bad guys. Every hero needs an arch enemy to battle and so the gospel writers give Jesus the Pharisees. It is important to remember that in real life not all the Pharisees were as bad as the gospels sometimes portray them. Many of them were decent people trying to live as the prophet Micah instructed, “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God,” and so when we read about the Pharisees in our gospels, we have to keep in mind that these particular Pharisees represent the worst of the worst. Moreover, we should see them as representatives not just of the worst of the Pharisee sect but as the worst of every religious person. As we read these stories about the tension between the Pharisees and Jesus, we shouldn’t say, “Those terrible Jews. Why couldn’t they see the light?” we should instead ask, “When am I this Pharisee? When is this person a reflection of my worst self?”

With that in mind, then, let’s look more closely at this famous confrontation between some Pharisees and Jesus over the question of taxes. These particular Pharisees, the gospel says, have been trying to find a way to deliberately trap Jesus so they confront him with a tough question about the relationship between faith and politics, between church and state, between our responsibility to the governing powers versus our allegiance to God. It’s not the question alone which is the trap, however; the trap lies in who is listening to Jesus’ answer because the Pharisees have invited a few Herodians to the party. You see, just asking Jesus whether he supports the Roman tax isn’t much of a test. Most of the Jews, like people throughout history, hated the taxes and they hated Rome meddling in their affairs. Even the Pharisees recalled the good old days when the Jews were independent and didn’t have to answer to a foreign power. If it had been the Pharisees alone asking the question, it wouldn’t have been much of a trap because Jesus could simply have said, “Don’t pay the tax,” and he would have been a pretty popular guy with the Judean people. The No Tax platform will always win votes with the public.

But the Pharisees deliberately invited a few Herodians to come and hear what Jesus had to say because the Herodians were, as their name implies, loyal to King Herod, a Roman appointee, and undoubtedly they would carry any whiff of treasonous talk back to Herod’s ears. Anyone, then, who wanted to preserve his own skin in front of the Herodians would tell the crowd, “You should absolutely pay your taxes to show honor to our benevolent Roman ruler.”

In other words, Jesus’ opponents believed they had designed the perfect “Gotcha” question. If Jesus supported the tax to stay out of trouble with Herod, he’d be very unpopular with the people, but if he rejected the tax, he’d be hauled in for sedition. Jesus was going to be in trouble no matter how he answered, and you can imagine the Pharisees and Herodians chuckling with glee as they thought to themselves, “Let’s see you squirm out of this one, Jesus of Nazareth.”

But Jesus isn’t a fool. He sees the trap and he sets a trap of his own, one that the Pharisees don’t see coming.

“Show me the coin used for the tax,’ Jesus says in an ever so casual way.
And they hand him a coin.

SNAP! The trap clangs shut on the Pharisees.

To understand what just happened, I want you to imagine a different scene for a second. Imagine that a Catholic bishop is publicly debating a man who advocates marriage for the priesthood. Now, I know that seems completely unrelated but stay with me for a second. Imagine that the bishop makes an eloquent argument for the importance of sexual chastity of the priesthood, moreover presenting himself as an example of the connection between spiritual purity and abstinence. As the debate goes on, the subject of prophylactics comes up and the Bishop’s opponent says, “Let me illustrate what I mean. Does anyone have a condom I can borrow for a second?” And the bishop says, “Hold on, I’ve got one,” and pulls a condom out of his pocket.

That’s the trap that Jesus has just sprung on the Pharisees. Here they are talking about whether paying taxes is in conflict with one’s allegiance to God and who is it that is walking around with Roman money in their pockets? Not Jesus; he doesn’t have a coin on him, but the Pharisees who claim to reject the pagan Roman emperor worship as idolatry, are carrying the Emperor’s image in their pockets. In front of everyone, Jesus shows that the Pharisees, who present themselves as paragons of religious purity are in cahoots with the very powers they decry. And we know, in fact, that these Pharisees have sold their souls to the state because they convinced the Herodians to participate in this charade, and later they will orchestrate Jesus’ arrest and work with the Roman governor Pilate to ensure Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus knows that these Pharisees’ faith has been corrupted by their collusion with the governing powers and after he pulls the curtain back on their hypocrisy, he tells the crowd, “Give to Caesar what is Caeser’s, and to God what is God’s. You cannot give allegiance to both,” he warns, “so choose; who will you serve?”

Jesus and the Pharisees lived in a very different time under a very different political system than ours; nevertheless, we can see in this confrontation the reason why the founders of our country chose to maintain a separation between the church and the state. As the comedian George Carlin said, “I’m completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death.”

When the Pharisees blurred the line between faith and political power, the result was Jesus’s execution. When the Medieval Catholic church blurred the line between faith and political power, the result was the Spanish Inquisition. When 21st century Muslims blur the line between faith and political power, the result is the Taliban. When religion turns to the state to enforce its beliefs — whether those beliefs are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhism, or even state sponsored atheism — violence and oppression are always the result.

And the strangest thing of all is that we never seem to learn that lesson. Over and over again we say, “Well, I know it turned out badly before but this time when I ask the government to enforce my particular beliefs, it’s going to work out well,” because we convince ourselves that the problem was not the collusion of church and state; the problem was that the wrong beliefs were being enforced but this time, our beliefs are the right ones. These beliefs, we convince ourselves, are ones that will truly bring all of the people to salvation, and so why shouldn’t we look to the government to help us save people from their own sinful selves for their own good? Why shouldn’t we strive to put God in charge of the nation, and make the laws of the land conform to the rule of God if we really believe that the rule of God is good?

The problem, of course, is that while the rule of God may be holy and divine, the government through which we are asking that rule to be mediated will always be human, fallible, and corruptible. No matter how good our intentions might be, asking the state to do the church’s job will not lift the state to heaven but will drag heaven down into the mud of our earthly imperfection.

Toscanini, a 20th century Italian conductor, once said to a trumpet player in his orchestra, “God tells me how the music should sound, but you stand in the way.”

Human institutions are like the trumpet player, standing in the way of the perfection of God’s image. We in the church have enough difficulty embodying the will of God in our lives; how much more risky of an enterprise it is to attempt to mediate God’s intentions through the hands of the state. The state will always necessarily be an arena of competing claims and compromises and so when we turn to the state to do the church’s job, we compromise God’s vision and confuse our allegiance. In the end, we can’t remember what parts of our faith are Christian and what parts are simply patriotism because we are now carrying the coin of the realm in our pockets, bills marked with the words, “In God we trust,” in tiny letters below the great banner “United States of America.”
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus said, “and give to God what is God’s.”

The separation of church and state rescues us from the danger of the violence and oppression that inevitably results when religion looks to government to do religion’s job, but the separation of church and state also rescues us, the faithful, from a weak and easy faith, from the shallow Christianity that results when being a good disciple is no different from being a good citizen.

When I was a kid, everyone I knew went to church. Some went to the Baptist church, some to the Methodist church, or the Presbyterian, or Episcopalian, or Catholic church, but all of my friends went to some church on a Sunday. Did they go to church because all of my friends were seriously religious people? No, they went to church because that’s what everyone did on Sunday and frankly, there was nothing else to do on a Sunday anyway. State Blue laws restricted shopping on Sunday mornings so most stores were closed, and no school would have ever thought of holding a soccer practice on a Sunday. Even on those Sundays when I was too sick to go to church and could stay home and watch TV, the only thing on was “Davy and Goliath” or other religiously uplifting programs. We didn’t have to make choices about our faith because our culture had already made all of those choices for us.

An easy faith, however, isn’t a real faith. Jesus said that whoever would save their life must first lose it, because Jesus knew that our recognition of the importance of God for our lives will come only when we measure our allegiance to God against our allegiance to all of those other competing demands. If practicing our faith demands nothing of us, if we never have to give up anything for God, or make hard choices, then we never really think about what our faith means.

A year ago when the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to deny gay couples the right to marry, Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, refused to submit to the ruling. She made headlines when she declared that she would not sign any marriage license for a gay couple because she said, as a Christian she could not endorse homosexual unions. I disagree with Ms. Davis’ interpretation of the Bible and I support gay marriage but my problem with Ms. Davis’ stance was not just over the issue of gay rights: my problem with her refusal to sign the certificates was she wanted the government to make her faith easy to follow. She wanted the government to fix her faith problem by making her exempt from the law that conflicted with her belief. What she should have done is say, “My allegiance is to my faith and therefore, I must quit my job because I cannot serve both Caeser and God.”

Again, I disagree with her belief that gay marriage is sinful but I support her freedom to believe differently from me. What I cannot support, however, is her attempt to force a compromise with the state so that she could avoid making a tough choice for her faith.

Isn’t that, after all, what people are doing whenever they ask the government to do the church’s job? “If everyone follows my beliefs,” we in essence are saying, “then I won’t have to make tough choices about my belief.” But choices are what define us and if the church looks to the state to make those choices easier for the faithful, we will inevitably weaken the very faith we are trying to save. When we choose to come to church on a Sunday morning in spite of the fact that the stores are open and there are a dozen shows to watch on TV and the fitness center is beckoning, by that choice we reinforce for ourselves and our children the importance of Christ to our lives. When we quit our jobs because we have been asked to do something that we believe conflicts with our service to Christ, we demonstrate the importance of Christ to who we are. And when we support the right of someone else to practice their faith in a way that is meaningful to them, rubbing elbows with such diversity will cause us to ask ourselves, “Why do they believe what they do? Why do they worship they way they do? And why do I worship and believe the way I do?” Those questions and those choices will make us delve more deeply into our own faith understanding and we will be strengthened.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” Jesus said knowing that it is our choices that define us and our allegiances that make us who we are.