Eric Shafer: You're Gonna Have to Serve Somebody

Reading this week's Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, I kept hearing Bob Dylan's song, "Gotta Serve Somebody," in my head:

You may be an ambassador to England or France, You may like to gamble, you might like to dance, You may be the heavyweight champion of the world, You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls. But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed, You're gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

"You're gonna have to serve somebody." "Gotta Serve Somebody" was the lead song on Dylan's 1979 album Slow Train Coming and was his last hit single (Copyright © 1979 by Special Rider Music). It won the Grammy Award for best male rock vocal for 1979.

This song also marked Bob Dylan's conversion to Christianity from Judaism. "You're gonna have to serve somebody," wrote Dylan and he now knew who he would be serving, "the Lord," Jesus Christ.

I thought of this song as I studied this weekend's Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, a text which includes Jesus' oft-quoted words, in response to the trick question from the Pharisees and the Herodians, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?," "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."

I agree with the Rev. Dr. David Lose’s reflections on this text, which I am quoting from extensively in this sermon. Lose notes that, like all the recent texts we have been hearing from St. Matthew's Gospel, this one needs a lot of context and background explanation. Jews in first century Palestine paid a lot of taxes. There was a temple tax; there were also land taxes, customs and trade taxes to name just three more. The tax in this text was additional tax, one particularly despised by the Jews - it was called the Imperial Tax, required as a tribute to Rome to support the Roman Empire's occupation of Israel. Think of that a moment - first century Jews were required to pay their oppressors a yearly tax to support their own oppression!

Lose also notes that not everyone saw the tax that way. The Herodians were local sympathizers with the Roman rulers. They were a family political party related to King Herod, the local puppet ruler supported by the Romans. Some folks think the Apostle Paul came from this family. The Herodians supported the Imperial Tax, they benefited from it. The Pharisees, also a political party as well as religious scholars, did not have much use for the Imperial Tax, but they probably grudgingly supported it since it also helped keep them in power. And, as far as Matthew was concerned, the Pharisees would do anything to try to trap Jesus.

The Imperial Tax was opposed by the most, if not all, of Jesus' followers. Many of them were nationalists who found the Imperial Tax particularly offensive since it daily reminded them of their humiliation and occupation by the Roman Empire. Now, the Imperial Tax should have been a problem for the Pharisees, too, and not only for political reasons. A coin engraved with a picture of the Emperor Caesar Tiberius and a proclamation of his divinity - why, that broke the first two commandments! Thus, in Jesus' time, any conversation about the Imperial Tax was very divisive and immediately revealed where one stood in relation to Rome and faith.

And that is how the Herodians and Pharisees got together to try to trap Jesus. Normally, they did not get along, but on this occasion, they were united in their desire to trap Jesus. Jesus had just entered Jerusalem - the people loved him. Now, Jesus was preaching in the Temple and stirring up all kinds of trouble for these status-quo folks. So, together, the Herodians and Pharisees decided to try to trap Jesus. With their question about the Imperial Tax, Jesus' foes thought they had Jesus trapped - if Jesus answered one way, if he advocated paying this tax, he would disappoint his followers. If Jesus answered another way, if he advocated not paying this tax, he would be in trouble with the Roman rulers. They thought they had him!

But, as we know, Jesus not only evaded their trap, he trapped them in their own question. "Whose face is on the coin?" Jesus asked. Perhaps over-eager to advance their own plot, Jesus' opponents forgot that by showing a coin with the Emperor's image on it, they betrayed their own complicity with the Roman system. Then Jesus asked whose image and proclamation adorned the coin. "The Emperor's," they answered. Everyone in attendance knew the commandments and they knew that Jesus had just trapped the trappers in their own blasphemy according to Jewish law!

And that makes Jesus' response even more biting - "Give, therefore, to Caesar, the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." Jesus turned the tables, so to speak, on his questioners. With just a few words, Jesus revealed the truth about his would-be accusers and simultaneously called them to a higher accountability and fidelity than they had imagined possible.

That's where Bob Dylan's song comes in - you gotta serve somebody. Jesus made it absolutely clear who he served.

Lose suggests that Jesus might also be talking to us? He is not trapping us, of course, but Jesus is inviting us to declare our 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 is inviting us to declare our allegiance to God. Often, this text is interpreted to present the dichotomy in our lives, that we have duties to both God and country. And, while that is so, I believe Jesus is talking here primarily about our duty to God. Many of us 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.

Lose concludes that 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.

And this means 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 beloved children.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed, You're gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

You're gonna have to serve somebody. And, with Bob Dylan, we know who we serve.

All of life is God's. This text tells us that we are to "Render unto God the things that are God's." And, since all of life is God's and since you gotta serve somebody, we - you and I - we serve and love and live in the love and rule of Jesus Christ. We belong to God. We are God's children. Our task is to believe that and live it.

You're gonna have to serve somebody.


Note: The Bible work in this sermon comes from the Rev. Dr. David Lose,