This past summer, there was a debate afoot in our land regarding what it is that makes a true patriot. On one side were Republicans, accusing Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama of not being a true patriot because, that far at least in his campaign, he had refused to wear an American flag lapel pin.
On the other side of the debate were Democrats suggesting that Republican presidential candidate John McCain may have given noble service to our country in the military, but that such service alone did not make him a patriot--or at least one qualified to serve as President of the United States.
In the midst of the debate, Obama decided to devote an entire speech--one delivered at the beginning of the July 4th week and in Independence, Missouri, of all places!--to the subject of patriotism. In his speech Obama traced tensions over the nature of patriotism back to the 1960s, when Americans were embroiled in fierce controversies over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. At that time, he said, you had people on the right unjustly accusing those on the left of being unpatriotic because they challenged or protested governmental policies. But you also had people on the left showing blatant disrespect for our nation by burning the American flag and by their ill treatment of Vietnam veterans upon their return home.
Neither side was in the right, Obama maintained. And the anger and the turmoil of that difficult time in our nation's history has never really drained away. Consequently, we are witnessing the same debates today as our nation is involved in another war--the Iraq War.
"What does it mean to be patriotic today?" he asked. And then he spent the rest of his speech spelling out his own view of patriotism--one based not on loyalty to a piece of land or even to a group of people, but one based on loyalty to the values of liberty and justice on which this nation was founded.
In our Gospel text for today, we see members of two opposing first-century religious parties teaming up in an effort to trick Jesus by asking him a similar question: "What does it mean for a person of faith to be patriotic in our day, Jesus?" Only the way they phrased it was: "Tell us Jesus--since you're so smart and always have an honest answer for any question that is asked of you--is it proper for those who follow you to pay taxes to the emperor, to Caesar, or not?"
On one side of this unlikely alliance of questioners were the Herodians, members of a party within Judaism that basically kept their power by forging alliances with the occupying Roman government. The Herodians (as their name implies) believed that compromise was the only way for people of faith to survive in Israel under Roman rule, and so they advocated paying the poll tax as a way of appeasing the Roman overlords.
On the opposite side of the debate stood the Pharisees, a group of religious leaders who rigorously held to the teachings of the law of Moses and the prophets and who believed that compromising with a political power like Rome was antithetical to the faith of the Jews.
And these two groups--who usually were very much at odds with each other--teamed up to question Jesus, hoping to trap him with their no-win question. If he responded in favor of the Herodians--agreeing that taxes should be paid to Caesar--he would be seen by the Pharisees and many Jews as being weak on adherence to Mosaic law and as giving into the oppressive government. But if he sided with the Pharisees and agreed that taxes should not be paid to the Roman overlords, he could be accused of treason. Either way Jesus stood to lose.
But Jesus--in his typical fashion--is not constrained by the limits of the question he is asked.
"Give me a coin," he says. "Tell me, whose image is on it?" "Why, it's the image of the emperor Caesar," both sets of questioners respond. "Exactly," says Jesus--indicating that they are already involved with Caesar whether they like it or not--simply by virtue of carrying his currency in their pockets. "Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God, what belongs to God."
Frankly, while I admire Jesus for giving an answer that, according to our text, leaves the questioners from both parties walking away amazed at his wisdom--I walk away from Jesus scratching my head in puzzlement. What kind of answer is this, Jesus? What are you saying by this cryptic response that we are to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's?
Certainly good church folk through the ages have disagreed about what Jesus is saying here--and their different interpretations have led to very different understandings of how the Christian faith and politics should or shouldn't mix.
Was he suggesting, for example (as some have argued), that we as people of faith live in two separate worlds, two separate political realms--the realm ruled by Caesar and the realm ruled by God--and that we are to go through life recognizing the divides between the two and doing our best to keep them separate? Such thinking has led some Christians to argue that topics related to politics have no place in the pulpits of Christian churches, and that our founding forbears' insistence on the separation of church and state not only meant that the state should not interfere with the functioning of the church (as was originally intended), but that the church should also not interfere or speak out on matters related to the state.
I confess that I have great difficulty with such a stance--in part because in my young adulthood I lived for a season in another country, one where it was illegal for the church to speak critically of the government and where I saw first hand the damage that can come to our Christian witness when we buy into such an interpretation. When the state tries to muzzle the church on political matters and when the church acquiesces, the very prophetic witness that lies at the heart of the ministries of Jesus and the prophets is always in danger of being silenced or compromised.
Indeed, if we are honest with ourselves as Americans we will admit that sometimes the greatest patriots among us have been those who, out of loyalty to a higher calling, have refused to be silenced by the repressive laws of our own land. Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Enron whistle blowers, the guard at Abu-Graib who broke silence regarding the torture of Iraqi prisoners--all were true patriots, not because they held to a clear separation between the realm of God and the realm of politics, but because they believed in their heart of hearts that there was a more God-like way in which to treat human beings in the political sphere.
Or was Jesus suggesting, as others have maintained, that in the ordering of our political lives, there is a certain portion of our lives and our money that we owe to the state, and a certain portion that we owe to God? So--yes, pay taxes to Caesar out of gratitude for the fact that Caesar keeps us from living in chaos and provides for the order of our society. But remember that the greater portion of what we have and who we are belongs to God.
Again, I find difficulty with such an interpretation. How do we discern which portion of our resources--and of ourselves--belongs to Caesar and which part to God? Where is the dividing line? And is it always appropriate to pay taxes to Caesar, especially if we have great difficulty with the kinds of things Caesar is using our tax money for? I think, in this instance of a pastor I knew during my young adult years who, out of his own opposition to our country's involvement in the war in Vietnam, gave most of his money to charity--rather than paying it in taxes used to support our war efforts. For him, that was an act of Christian discipleship.
While a number of different interpretations have been offered regarding the meaning of this seeming non-answer that Jesus gives in our text for today, the one I have long been drawn to is the one I heard a pastor give when he preached on this text on Sunday, July 4, 1976.
No, I don't remember many sermons I heard preached over 30 years ago, but I do remember this one, in large part because it was preached on the Sunday of our nation's bicentennial when patriotic rhetoric in our land had reached its zenith, and when many were struggling with what it meant to be a Christian and a patriot.
The preacher for the day was Dr. Albert Curry Winn--a man known in my denomination for his prophetic truth-speaking in the midst of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, and one who had had a cross burned in his own front yard by the Ku Klux Klan back in the 1950s because of his outspokenness on Civil Rights issues.
I don't remember his sermon in entirety. But what I basically remember was that there were two parts to it. During the first part of the sermon, he talked about what it means to "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's," talking about some of the core values on which our nation was founded--liberty and justice, equality for all--and about what we owe to Caesar because of gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy.
But the turning point of the sermon came when he envisioned Jesus taking that coin that was handed to him by his questioners, turning it over in his own palm, and then responding, "Yes, the image stamped on this coin is clearly the image ("eikon" is the Greek word)--the "eikon" of Caesar. But the image stamped on you from the beginning of time is the "eikon"--the image--of God. Therefore you dare not give to Caesar that which belongs to God alone."
If truth be told, I don't think Jesus was answering the question those two political parties were asking him that day. I think he was telling them that they were asking the wrong question.
The real question, Jesus seems to say, is not: "What makes a true patriot--one who pays taxes to Caesar, or one who doesn't?"
The real question is: "What does it mean to be a true follower of the God revealed in Jesus Christ? To be one who belongs to God heart, soul, mind and strength, and who has been marked as God's own from your creation. And what would it mean if you allowed that prior identity to shape everything you do in the political arena?"
Certainly there are limits such an identity would place upon us in the political arena. To be a follower of Jesus Christ means that we cannot go along with policies and programs of our country that we believe to be antithetical to the will of God. We must speak out against them--as Jesus and the prophets consistently did in their own day. Lying in order to provoke war, torturing people in the name of national security, turning a deaf ear to the cries of the poor and illegal immigrants--these things are not of God, and I frankly see no way we can justify them in the name of God.
Nor can we go into the voting booth in a few weeks, only looking out for our own self interests. The real question for Christians is not: what's in this election for me? The real question for Christians is: what is in this election for all of God's children, and especially for the least of these--those for whom Christ had special compassion.
I spent some time in Denmark this past summer, and I was moved by the pride Danish Christians have in their political system and its values. A number of Danish Christians told me that they do not mind paying actually very high taxes to their government, because their government provides health care, generous maternity and paternity leaves, unemployment and pension benefits for all Danish citizens. Soon after I returned home I saw a survey that said that Denmark had been ranked first among the nations of the world in terms of the happiness factor of their citizens. The U.S., by comparison, was ranked 23rd.
What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in this election year? What does it mean to belong heart, soul, mind and strength to God when we go into the voting both? My own prayer is that it will mean less self-interest and more other-interest. Less dishonesty and more truth-speaking. Less war-mongering, and more peacemaking. For these, I believe, are the ways of the God to whom we belong--heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Would you please join me in prayer?
God of all nations, we do belong to you, heart, soul, mind and strength; and so we seek your guidance in our political lives as well as in every other aspect of our living. Help us, we pray, to make decisions in this upcoming election that reflect the teachings of Jesus and especially his compassion for the least of these. Guide us as a nation that we might be true to our ideals of liberty and justice and equality for all and keep us ever mindful that our first loyalty, our first devotion, is always to you. These things we pray in your holy name. Amen.