Note: This coming Sunday our preacher will be Rev. Dr. Carol Bechtel, the president of General Synod. So I am posting the sermon from three years ago on the texts for Proper 24, Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22.
Last June the Supreme Court made a controversial ruling on the issue of Eminent Domain. The ruling allows government to take your private property, against your will, and sell it to some other private owner the government prefers. Bruce Ratner was happy. I wasn’t. I read the arguments. They’ve cancelled one of the main points of the American experiment since 1776.
You know I lived in Canada for a while, and I got used to seeing a picture of Queen Elizabeth displayed in every public building. Even in the hockey arenas, there on the wall of the Blue Line Club where you drink your beer between the periods, her face looks out, the very image of serenity and sovereignty. It’s not the same in the US. The face of the president is not the image of sovereignty.
Who has sovereignty over you? What has sovereignty over your life? What in your life has eminent domain? How much of your life is in whose domain? And whose domain is eminent?
Well, who takes the first cut of your paycheck? You may have noticed that the IRS does not have pledge-drives and fund-raisers. The government has no need for Consecration Sunday. It’s not just that your taxes come out before your tithes and offerings, it’s that your taxes come out before anything, even yourself.
The proportion of where your money goes is not only a measure of what you value, it is also an indicator of what has power over you. You can judge by what happens to your money not only how much freedom you really have, but also how eminent in your life is the domain of Caesar and how eminent is the domain of God. We may highly value God, but how much functional power does God’s sovereignty really have in our lives? Does God mind coming across so weak?
The taxes to Caesar were especially hateful to the Jews. Their taxes supported a government they considered illegitimate. Worse, Roman money in itself was sinful, because the coins bore the image of Caesar, and broke the second commandment. Worse yet, the Caesars were claiming divinity, and their taxes supported a violation of the first commandment.
So if Jesus is really the Messiah, that is, the candidate for the true King of the Jews, then the question they ask him is legitimate, it’s a matter of public policy, like you would ask Fernando Ferrer. Jesus' answer might strike you as a politician’s dodge. He doesn’t answer directly. He doesn’t say it’s right or wrong. He leaves that up to his listeners. He turns it back on them.
He asks them to produce a coin.
He asks them to produce a coin.
And notice they are able to. Right there is the indicator that they participate in the Roman economy. It means they accept the benefits of Roman rule, no matter how much they rail against it. That’s why he calls them hypocrites. He’s saying, "Oh cut it out." Get real, stop being so self-righteous. Like Caesar is really the problem here.
He turns it back on them. He calls them to self-examination. That’s the impact of his response. Examine yourselves: How much in your life belongs to God, and how much in your life belongs to Caesar? Then act accordingly.
But how about if both claim everything? How about if God claims everything? How about if God says that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it? Last month I was talking to the president of the synagogue in Bay Ridge, and he repeated what I’ve often heard, that Judaism is not just a religion, it’s a way of life. It’s a total way of life, because God claims everything.
So if it’s to his fellow Jews that Jesus says, "Give to God what is God’s," then that means everything. You can separate church and state, but you can’t divide religion from everything else in life. So what’s left for Caesar?
But how about if Caesar claims everything? I mean Caesar had power over them of life and death, he had eminent domain. The Jews were not even citizens, they had no civil rights, even in their own land, and a Roman soldier could kill any Jew with impunity. They still had the temple only because the Romans tolerated it for political expediency, and when just a few decades later it was no longer expedient Caesar destroyed it.
In our own day it’s not so much that Caesar claims everything, it’s that Caesar gets to determine how much God gets. In the separation of church and state, who sets the boundary -- the church or the state? The IRS demands to know how much you give in tithes and offerings, but the church never asks how much your taxes are.
We need to separate church and state. But we cannot divide the claims of God. The kingdom of God claims eminent domain. The Jews are right, this religion is meant to be a way of life, and the whole of our lives belong to God.
What Jesus calls us to is dynamic interaction. How much of the world belongs to God? The taxes I pay to Caesar, I pay as a servant of God. How much of your world belongs to God? Every day you can ask yourself, how much of my day belongs to God? How much of my life belongs to God? Do you see that as life-giving? Can you intuit that it’s actually liberating, because it makes every other claim on you just expedient?
That’s the payoff, that’s the benefit if everything in your life belongs to God, it means that your life is not compartmentalized, it means there is a wholeness to your life, it means you don’t have different sets of rules for different relationships. The world outside of you won’t like this, but inside you are whole and complete, you are in unity with yourself, and no matter what claims they make on you, your nation or family or boss or whatever, most deeply you are free. If you belong to God, then you are more free, that is, depending on what this God is like.
So what is this God like? This God really does claim everything, but not in a way that some Christians seem to think -- that our response requires fundamentalism or the religious right or Christian America. This God is a god who does not push his eminent domain or force her claims of sovereignty. Of course we would sometimes prefer it if God would act a little more powerful, especially if God could help us out with our churches and our institutions, maybe a little more cash, for example, but that is not the way of God. The face on this God’s coinage is the face of Jesus Christ. And that makes all the difference in God’s approach to power.
There is a novel you might read called Silence, by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo. The story takes place in 17th Century Japan, when the Christian church there was exterminated by the Shogun’s government. A Portuguese priest is captured and put in prison with a whole village of Christian peasants. The soldiers offer him a deal: they will not torture the villagers if he will recant his faith. He can do that by stepping on a picture of Jesus’ face. In oriental terms the face is everything. But he’s a priest, he’s taken vows, how can he deny his Lord, precisely in the hour of trial, like Judas Iscariot, like Peter? The soldiers lead him out before the other prisoners, and put the picture of Jesus on the ground before his feet. Suddenly the face of Jesus says to him, "Step on me. Go ahead. Step on me. I accept it."
The face of Jesus represents a God who does claim everything, but who claims it in the way of servanthood and sacrificial love. That’s not so thrilling, not so heroic, not so exciting. Not unless you’re thrilled to offer hospitality, and heroic in reconciliation, and excited by love and understanding, even to sit down with the Romans, and pray for Caesar, as awful as he is. That seems to be the way that Jesus establishes his eminent domain, by preparing a table in the presence of his enemies, and inviting them to eat with him.
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.