Saturday, October 18, 2008

Taxes to Caesar

Well, it's taken this long for the family legacy to bloom. I'm thinking of my Christmas cactus, which waited until April to finally blossom. Now, amidst the communion of saints, a grandfather and four great-uncles watch as I deliver my first sermon, which follows.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emporer, or not?”

Elk Grove Village is not occupied by troops from a distant emperor, and the Archdiocese of Chicago doesn’t make the laws for this state, at least not officially, so permit me to rephrase the question: is it moral to pay taxes to the nation and state, to the administration led by the person Garrison Keillor calls The Current Occupant? Is it moral to pay taxes for the war in Iraq, for imprisoning enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay without due process? We pay income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, and the hidden tax of inflation brought on by deficit spending. How do we, supposedly the source of political power in this country, express our disapproval of spending we find immoral? What can we do—what should we do—to express God’s call to us, to resist our understanding of society’s encroachment on Christian moral values, whatever we interpret them to be? The Mennonites and Quakers have a long history of tax resistance in this country, on theological grounds related to the Gospel we heard today. Should we follow their lead, or some other?

Today’s Gospel “pitch” has a rather long wind-up. Let’s review the run-up to it in the prior week’s Gospel readings.

Four weeks ago, Jesus called Matthew to follow him, which he did! Matthew was a Jew. He collected taxes for the Romans under King Herod. The tax was especially hated because it was a poll tax. It tested how much revenue could be squeezed out of the Jews for the Roman Empire. The Zealots actively opposed it. Matthew, quitting his job and following Jesus, directly affected Herod’s ability to collect those taxes. Encouraging Matthew to quit his job as tax collector could have been regarded as tax resistance, the sort of thing Zealots encouraged.

That was four weeks ago. Three weeks ago in the Gospel, the chief priests challenged Jesus, “By what authority are you [teaching]?” Jesus responded by calling them to justify their rejection of the baptism of John. Effectively, he trapped them between their rejection of John and their fear of the Jewish people. Jesus told the chief priests that the Jewish tax collectors would get to heaven before them, and put tax collectors and prostitutes in the same phrase, twice. That’s putting prostitutes and tax collectors—and, by implication, their managers, the Pharisees—in closer proximity to each other than Alaska is to Russia. That was three weeks ago.

Two weeks ago, we heard the parable of the landowner and the vineyard. In this parable, Jesus accused the chief priests and Pharisees of mistreating, stoning and killing God’s prophets. Layed it on their doorstep. He predicted that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [the mainstream Jewish leaders] and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”.

Last week he did it again, repeating, in the parable of the king and his wedding feast, the same accusation. Jesus predicted that everyone except God’s chosen people would be invited to the heavenly banquet.

So, it should come as no surprise to us that the mainstream religious leaders of the day would mount a counter-attack, a sure-fire, lose-lose proposition for Jesus. It was a political battle for the hearts and minds of the Jews, Jesus speaking truth to power, power fighting back.

Let’s see, how can we catch him up in his own words? Let’s ask him about paying taxes to Caesar. If he’s a tax resister—and remember, that was one of the accusations against Jesus when he was brought before Pontius Pilate—we can arrest him and throw him in the klink. If he says it’s legal, why, then the Zealots and their supporters will abandon him: besides, it makes him a blasphemer, and we can discredit him within the community.

Why would he be labeled a blasphemer? Because the inscription on the coin, the denarius, read “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” Tiberius was the son of God. You can almost hear them say, “Yes! we’ve got him!”

And so, we come to Jesus’ answer that lives for us today: render unto our emperor (or president, or prime minister or whatever), that which is his, and unto God that which is God’s. How perfect, and yet how perfectly incomplete!

God is creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. If this choice is exclusive, what’s left to render to the emperor? Jesus’ response is much more ambiguous than a simple “choose one or the other”. He leaves it up to us, not him, to make the decisions, the moral choices.

We decide what to give to civil authority and what to withhold. We: you and I, as a community. Our actions and our inactions are moral choices, just as they were moral choices for the Pharisees and Herodians back then. Remember, somebody in that crowd of spiritual leaders produced a denarius with that blasphemous inscription engraved on it: they made the decision to trade in that coin. We are called by Jesus to make the same kind of moral choices today. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were left amazed and speechless. Here was an answer to their question that required them to take personal responsibility for their decisions, their moral choices. Throwing up their hands, saying “it’s not my fault, it’s the rules—see, it’s written in Scripture” was not an option, then or now.

On November 4th you will vote for John McCain or Barack Obama, for Dan Seals or Mark Kirk, or you will stay home and not vote. Those are all moral choices. We, collectively, are accountable for them. Our current state of affairs in this country, our foreign policy, our domestic policy, our financial crisis, our environmental state of global warming, can all be traced to our collective decisions or indecisions over the previous decades. As the late Walt Kelly rephrased John Paul Jones so well, “We have met the enemy, and they is us.”

Pray, then, but do not neglect to act, as a community, a state and a nation. Pray that we make the right moral choices on November 4th, and in the days to come, Pray that we avoid the traps and snares that our enemies lay for us, to deny us the kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.

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