roman coin

Who Decides?

18th Sunday after Pentecost
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 45:1-7 OR Exodus 33:12-13
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Our Gospel lesson is the well-known but short debate between Jesus and the Religious Authorities over rendering taxes to Caesar or to God. It is common for us to hear Jesus saying, “Give unto Caesar that which is his and give unto God that which is his,” as a statement on the separation of Church and State. Only in the most indirect way is this a statement on church and state. It sounds like Jesus is saying that we should balance church and state, God and Caesar; sort of 50/50, half and half kind of approach.

Jesus’ interest has little to do with making a statement about the separation of church and state, which has to do with political involvement by the church in the affairs of state and religious involvement by the state in the affairs of the church. Church/State separation is a constitutional issue and only in an indirect way is related to what Jesus is talking about here.

No, Jesus is talking about lordship. Whom do you worship? Who receives our allegiance? I think that Jesus does have room for some kind of allegiance to old Caesar, some kind of loyalty to the state. But what kind? How do we decide? And most important, who decides? Caesar is the one who wants to answer that question for us and when Caesar decides what belongs to whom, we’re in trouble.

A couple of years ago I got into a conversation with a fellow about Christ and Caesar and idolatry. This fellow, a Christian and active member of a church, said, “Well, it says give to Caesar that which belongs to him and to God that which belongs to him.” I said, “That’s right. But you tell me who decides what belongs to whom and I’ll tell you who your Lord is.” He got red in the face with me and said, “Well, all I know is that you give to God what is God’s but when your country calls, you have to go. All of this is fine until your country calls.” I said, “Well you just answered your own question and made my point for me. You just told me whom you worship. Ultimately, you believe your country has final say over what you do and that means, that is who your Lord is.”

I am not saying there is no proper place for patriotism and loyalty to your country. But I am saying that the Lordship of Jesus Christ limits what that loyalty is and how that patriotism is to look. The Lordship of Jesus Christ tells us what is proper and what is improper in our civic duties. If the roles are reversed, if your country tells you how you are to worship God and how you are to live your Christian life, then you are making your country the Lord of your life and that is called idolatry. Read back in Exodus 32 and you will see that idolatry results in destruction, death, and tragedy.

Roman Catholic priest, Father George Zabelka, was an Army chaplain in 1945 in the Pacific, when he blessed the pilot, crew, and plane that flew off to drop the second atomic bomb on Japan. Father Zabelka blessed and served the Eucharist to the Catholic crew of the plane. The plane flew to Nagasaki, which was the largest and first Catholic city in Japan. Their aiming point to drop the bomb was the steeple of the Roman Catholic cathedral and school in the city. The bomb destroyed three orders of Catholic nuns, and wiped out the Catholic cathedral and school and all of the children.

In 1980, looking back Father Zabelka said, “One would have thought that I, as a Catholic priest, would have spoken out against the atomic bombing of nuns. One would have thought that I would have suggested that as a minimal standard of Catholic morality, Catholics shouldn’t bomb Catholic children. I didn’t. . . . I was told it was necessary.” (from an interview in Sojourners, Sept. 1980, pp, 12-15.)

God have mercy on us when we let Caesar tell us what is necessary and what is not. Many people in our congregations think “But it was necessary.” Without getting into the nuances of strategy at the end of World War II Christians should at least be deeply troubled and beset by guilt because this was nothing more than idolatry. We let Caesar set the ground rules and we should have some sense that we have betrayed the God we know in Jesus Christ. Like Moses in the Old Testament reading in Exodus 33, we have seen idolatry and we know what it can do, therefore we desperately need God.

T. S. Eliot wrote these words set in the famous English church, Little Gidding:

. . . You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to
kneel . . .

Here in the worship of the One True God, let us kneel, praying, “God have mercy on us, sinners. Please don’t leave us to ourselves. God stay with us, redeem us. Save us.”

3 Responses to “Who Decides?”

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  1. Ian Guy says:

    Needs a bit more exposition to explore the link between Jesus’s answer and the preacher’s statement that it’s about who is our Lord.

  2. As usual, a careful and nuanced reflection on the text. Significant, I think, that Jesus does not seem to have a coin. He must ask his opponants to provide one. Once they produce the coin with Caesar’s “image,” (violation of the First Commanment) the argument is over. They have revealed, as Capital One would say, “what’s in your wallet?”-and what is in their hearts as well.

  3. Wade Johnson says:

    Pay your taxes like a good citizen of the state. Return your tithe as a good citizen of the Master’s Kingdom.

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