Living in Two Worlds
Living in Two Worlds
As followers of Christ we can often find ourselves navigating living in two worlds. We recognize that we live in a secular society, that not everyone else thinks as we do or believes as we do. As people who celebrate the Good News, how do we circumvent the many pitfalls and traps that might befall us? As is usually the case, we can look to Jesus for guidance.
A special thanks to Diana Carr for vocals on the hymns today.
Scripture: Mathhew 22: 15-22
In my ethics class at seminary we dealt with a classic conundrum. An individual is dying and cannot afford to pay for the medicine that would save them. The company that sells the medicine does so for great profit. Is it right for the individual to steal the medicine in order to live?
Now that is a simplistic take on a complex question and I know that. There are many variables at play, but one of the larger issues it raises is that what is legal is not necessarily moral.
What becomes clear as we examine this encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees, is that God does not trade in Caesars currency.
Prof. Raj Nadella asks, “What mechanisms, or coinage, do we need to put in place in order to transform the current reality and bring about a different reality that would be more acceptable to God?” (Raj Nadella). How do we as followers of Christ navigate the trap that has been set before Jesus? I ask this because it is a trap that is before us everyday as we navigate a world, though 2000 years removed from the time of Jesus, that has many of the same cultural and societal pitfalls.
The Pharisees try to trap Jesus with the question about paying taxes. However, Jesus is having none of it. As Rolf Jacobson writes, “Faced with this trap question, Jesus didn’t do what our politicians do today, which is to answer a different question, the one that he wished his interlocutors had asked. Instead he turned the tables on them and trapped them—the Pharisees at least—in their own question.
“Reach into your pocket an take out a coin” he answered, “and now show it to me. Whose face do you see? And whose inscription?”
They did so. The coin they showed him was a denarius—a coin that had been issued by Emperor Tiberius and that was used for paying taxes.
On the “heads side” of the coin was a portrait of Tiberius along with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.” As in, “King Tiberius, son of God.” On the “tails side” of the coin was the image of a woman depicting peace with the words “high priest”—referring to the emperor as the high priest of the empire.
So right there in their very pockets—in the shadow of God’s Temple in Jerusalem, by the way, where they were to worship only God in truth and in Spirit—they had a coin with a graven image and inscription of an authority claiming to be the son of God and claiming to be the high priest. Right there in their own hands they bore a graven image of a false god with a statement of faith that ran counter to the faith of Israel.
So Jesus simply said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s.” (Rolf Jacobson).
The question of paying tax, of the image on the coin is a trivial one, it is below Jesus. If we as the readers of scripture haven’t realized it there is no point in trying to trap or trick Jesus. There is no point in trying to place Jesus in a box and have Jesus fit our understanding of the world or to fit within our own needs. Jesus, God, is not a consumer product designed to fit within our image. We were created in God’s image, not the other way around.
We often tie ourselves up in knots worrying about things which probably don’t matter too much in the long run, yet it seems to be our preoccupation. Sometimes we fret that the society we live in doesn’t appear to be a Christian one anymore, though if we were to look back at a time we thought society was Christian we would discover some things we’d struggle to call Christian. Segregation, Residential Schools, gender inequality and I’m only going back 50-60 years. What is evident about this passage is that Jesus appears to be comfortable bumping into pagan and secular practices, and they don’t seem to bother him too much. Remember, Jesus wasn’t a Christian, he was a Jewish Rabbi living in a part of the world that was occupied by Roman Imperial power.
As we’ve already seen the coin Jesus asks for is stamped with an image of the Emperor and indicates that the Emperor is divine and the high priest of the empire. People talk about Rome and it’s armies and other accomplishments, but in many ways it was a theocracy, a religious empire that venerated it’s ruler as divine. However, Jesus doesn’t seem overly concerned.
“Jesus calmly deflected questions about it all even as he held the coin in his own hand. He did not fling the coin away as though it were white-hot with paganism. He did not roll his eyes at the unbelievable fact that not everyone worshiped the God Jesus called Father. That alone is curious and just possibly instructive…
“When Jesus takes the Caesar’s coin into his hand and holds it up in front of his bewildered questioners, you can almost see him shrug his shoulders, furrow his brow, and just generally convey the idea, “What are you talking about? THIS is all you have to ask me about? Who cares? This means nothing! Get a life! And remember that God is still ever and only God and that no human power can dislodge him, displace him, or challenge his claims on our hearts and on this world that belongs to him.” (Scott Hoezee).
Some years ago James Dobson and John Woodbridge sparred in the pages of Christianity Today over Dobson’s repeated use of warfare language to describe a Christian stance over against the larger American culture. Woodbridge believed that such language blinds believers to the places where God may be lurking while also doing violence to the gentleness, humility, and love demonstrated by Jesus and listed in the New Testament as spiritual fruits. Dobson replied that there is little if any ambiguity in the wider culture such that not to use fighting words would be the equivalent of remaining silent.
It seems that we have a deep human tendency to want to make the divides between God and the world wide and deep and perilous-looking. And it seems that we in the church also like to gauge other people’s piety by litmus tests to see if their attitudes toward the big bad world out there are properly hostile and negative where they need to be negative and combative. But Jesus’ words about the Roman Empire, the Caesar, and taxes give one pause on all that. Is this the only way to go vis-à-vis the wider world? Or does striking a more confident and faith-informed posture convey the very message of hope and trust and joy in the Lord that we want to convey in the first place? (Center for Excellence in Preaching).
As people of two kingdoms, this world and the one which he are promised through God we can find heart in the words of Jesus. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. Our job is to have the discernment to know the difference and to understand that what God desires most of all is our hearts, living in loving partnership with our neighbour, no matter who they might be. Amen.
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