“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
This morning’s scripture lesson shows the risk of intertwining political and religious authority in the time of Jesus. As we prepare to celebrate Independence Day, the text may teach us something about our own current realities. American culture has increasingly blurred the distinction between what belongs to the realm of faith and what belongs to the governance of the state.
The religious leaders of his time were trying to entrap Jesus, testing his ultimate loyalty. Jesus had been preaching a gospel of impartiality and inclusivity, showing deference to no one. They were observing that. He was disrupting the hierarchies and prejudices of his time that decreed the elevation of some at the expense of others.
In a quiet, rolling rebellion against the way things were, Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, encouraged children to come to him, welcomed and respected women, loved those considered unlovable, and generally ignored the social, economic, ethnic, national, and even religious ways the world stratified itself in that time.
Jesus was exhibiting what the love of God looks like. He was living out the prayer he taught: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. He was giving the church its mission. He was turning the world upside down.
No wonder those in power were threatened. Jesus did not have a litmus test you had to pass to be deemed worthy. Those outside the circles of acceptability were simply invited in. That approach was compelling. People were listening. People were noticing. People were following.
The Pharisees thought they would put an end to his growing popularity. “Teacher,” they said with mocking, feigned admiration.
“We know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” (Matthew 22:16-17)
Jesus knows what they’re up to. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he says. “Show me the coin used for the tax.” (Matthew 22:19)
He’s asking for a denarius, the silver Roman coin used at the time for payment of taxes to Rome. (You can buy one today on eBay for $555.) On one side of the ancient coin was an image of the Emperor Tiberius with the words, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” Tiberius, the ruler in the time of Jesus, was the offspring of one considered a god. The coin symbolizes the divine right passed on through the royal lineage to each Roman Emperor. To pay the tax with that coin was, in effect, to worship Caesar.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” the Pharisees ask Jesus. The response of Jesus is not only clever; it’s also instructive for us.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” Jesus replies, showing them the image of Tiberius on the coin. “And to God the things that are God’s.”
With that, Jesus deflates the attack of the Pharisees. What more can they say without betraying their own religious insincerity? They’re in a convenient alliance with the occupying foreign regime that allows them to retain their religious authority in exchange for tamping down the claims of their tradition, which would challenge that occupying force.
Jesus and the Pharisees both know it is idolatrous to consider other gods. “Hear O Israel,” they recite in their prayers,
“The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
To suggest the Roman emperor is competing with the one God denies the monotheism of Hebrew tradition. It is blasphemy. On the other hand, to imply that paying taxes to Caesar is politically acceptable runs counter to the proud instincts of Hebrew nationalism. They were trying to implicate Jesus one way or the other.
The Pharisees opposed the Roman tax in principle, but they did not go so far as to resist paying it. They were working both sides, trying to adhere to their religious tradition and avoid arrest by the Romans – all while hoping to rid themselves of the troublesome preacher from Galilee.
Jesus calls them out for confusing their ultimate allegiance with daily political realities. No wonder they slink away. They had trapped themselves.
Some have found in this ancient account a biblical rationale for the separation of religion and state. But that’s not Matthew’s intent here. At this point in the gospel, he wants to highlight the growing efforts to frame Jesus and eliminate his expanding influence. The noose is drawing tighter. The betrayal is coming. Matthew has no interest in proposing an abstract political doctrine about religion and the state. That would come many centuries later in the writings of Thomas Jefferson.
How can we understand today the response of Jesus long ago to the challenge, the testing, of the Pharisees? We can take it at face value, as a clever way for him to wriggle out of their grasp: The coin has the Caesar’s face on it. It belongs to him. Give it back to him. Case closed.
But there’s more.
Jesus could have stopped with the emperor’s image on the coin, but instead he goes on to add the line about giving to God what belongs to God. The Pharisees hadn’t mentioned God, hadn’t asked about what belongs to God. But Jesus brings God into the picture because some religious authorities had begun to confuse living within a particular political system as a way to practice their faith – in the politics of that time.
The emperor’s image is on that coin. That’s a political fact. In contrast, however, comes this unstated counter theological claim of Jesus: God’s image is imprinted on every human being.
Jesus brings God into the picture to make a subtle but decisive point: the emperor is not god. He wants to differentiate between political authority – an earthly reality that comes in many guises – and the power of God, which is something else altogether. God’s sovereignty cannot be equated to worldly authority. It should not be attached to any particular political system. The reign of God is that of Creator over Creation. God is “the Potentate of Time,” to quote the old hymn, the Alpha and Omega of history, the beginning and the end.
In our time, when many are tending to conflate religious and political authority, Jesus reminds us: the emperor is not god.
As we celebrate the 4th of July this year, let us remember that this nation was created by people fleeing religious persecution. They were leaving political systems in Europe that claimed the divine right of royal rulers, where religion was established, and the church was one with the state. The emperor, the royal ruler, was divinely ordained. Those fleeing England and France and the Netherlands wanted to break from that old way and enjoy freedom in the practice of their religion, unencumbered by interference from national political institutions.
Let us also not forget the irony and hypocrisy that those fleeing persecution in one land instituted brutal systems of persecution in another. One person’s freedom and economic enrichment came at the expense of another’s loss of ancestral homelands, or another’s enslavement and generational impoverishment.
The high calling of “liberty and justice for all” was not fulfilled at the start of this nation, and it has yet to be attained in this imperfect union. There is work to be done in our great national experiment, and it is hubris of someone if they think they have it all figured out. We have a lot of listening to do, a lot of learning to do, in this church and in other places wanting to build a better nation.
Some of that work has to do with the place of religion in the landscape of America today.
The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins like this: Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion. The founders of our nation wanted to ensure that no religion could ever be conflated with or commingled with the national political identity. The emperor is not god; god is not the emperor.
But today that view is eroding among some.
“Christian nationalism,” says Paul D. Miller, professor at Georgetown University, “Is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and the government should take active steps to keep it that way…Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a ‘Christian nation’ – not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future.” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/february-web-only/what-is-christian-nationalism.html)
A survey done earlier this year by the Public Religion Research Institute concludes that 10% of Americans, or 33 million people, are adherents of Christian nationalism, and another 19% are sympathetic to its views. Of those 29% of Americans, two-thirds are white evangelical Christians.
Another survey finds that more than half of Americans have never heard of Christian nationalism. It’s time to pay attention. (https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/10/27/45-of-americans-say-u-s-should-be-a-christiannation/#:~:text=In%20addition%20to%20the%20questions,nationalism%2C%20while%2014%25%20say%20they)
The National Council of Churches is concerned enough that it recently issued a warning about Christian nationalism. “Theologically,” the Council says, “Christian nationalism elevates the nation, or a particular concept of the nation, to a role closely aligned with God.” Jesus would not be pleased: the emperor is not god.
“In its more militant forms,” the statement continues, “Christian nationalism encourages its adherents to believe they are battling the forces of darkness on all fronts…This mindset of embattled righteousness is applied to the perceived enemies of the state…and true believers are directed to employ any and all means, even undemocratic and violent ones, in order to win political contests. In this quest for political power, Christian humility is lost, as is the message of God’s love for all humanity.”
As we celebrate the founding of America this week, we are summoned to advocate for our nation’s democracy – which is being challenged not from a foreign foe, but from our own neighbors who have distorted the gospel of Jesus and made it into a political movement that wants “to equate the reign of God with their vision of America.”
I know that sounds harsh, but this is happening in America today.
And we are also called – all of us – to support and tend to a care for the witness of the Christian Church in our time. As the National Council of Churches says,
“To assume that Christianity mandates a particular political agenda is to overstep constitutional bounds and to claim divine sanction for the priorities of a few.” (https://nationalcouncilofchurches.us/common-witness-ncc/the-dangers-of-christian-nationalism-in-the-united-states-a-policy-statement-of-the-national-council-of-churches/)
In spite of these concerns, which can frighten and perhaps overwhelm us, we do have much for which to be grateful in our nation and to acclaim this Fourth of July. We have freedom of religion. We can practice what we believe by worshipping together and joining those of other faith traditions and people of goodwill to work for a better, more just America.
We can follow the Jesus we meet in the gospels by standing with the immigrant and with those pushed aside by the cruelties of our time. Compelled by our faith, we can do our part by listening, and learning, and growing in our understanding of how we might serve God by bringing healing to individuals and communities, and to the earth itself.
This Independence Day we can celebrate that the nation has made progress on many fronts in the struggle to undo historic wrongs and create new opportunities. Yes, we have more work to do. Yes, more listening to do. Yes, we will have to pay closer attention to what our neighbors are saying. Because we have the chance in our time to ensure that every American, no matter their creed or circumstance, has rights equal to every other American.
That would be something truly to celebrate.
In the words of Langston Hughes, the great Black poet,
“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—
the land where everyone is free”
May it be so.
To God be the glory.