Sunday, May 25, 2008

I Pledge Allegiane; Jesus and the Question of Taxation

Luke 20:20-29
This is pretty much how I remember this sunday's sermon. I didn't have a script or an outline, I find them prohibitive.

In the days and weeks after the United States entered WWII, California passed legislation that send Japanese-American's to internment camps. One woman found this policy to violate her allegiance to the Kingdom of God and its value of love for neighbor and the foreigner in our midst. She wrote to various government officials and even the President to no avail.
What do we do when there is a clash between our allegiances? When the nation that we pledge allegiance to creates and upholds policies and actions that violate our allegiance to the Kingdom of God?

When the 'spies' representatives of the Temple Priesthood and scribes, ask Jesus, 'Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, they are asking him where his allegiance lies, with Rome or with Israel? There is no good way for Jesus to answer this question. If he replies 'No, it is not lawful' he is upholding Torah, for the coin violates the first two commandments. The people who follow him would expect this and be pleased. the Zealots and similar elements present in the political landscape, who urged armed insurrection against Rome, would have thought Jesus to be one of them. And Pilate would not have been pleased. But, if he answered 'Yes, pay the taxes,' He would have lost all credibility with the people and been exposed by the Priests and Scribes, as unfit to teach the law. Say, No and pledge your allegiance to a violent element within Israel. Say Yes and pledge your allegiance to Rome.

Jesus replies to the question with a question of his own. 'Whose image is on the coin?' I believe that Jesus is responding not only to the temple tax, but to Roman taxation in general. In this system a tax was paid simply for living. A person paid a tax to Rome just for existing, which was Rome's way of reminding Israel that they belonged to Rome, they lived or died at the whim of their Roman lords. Whose image is on the coin reminds us and I think reminded those listening, of Genesis, where we are said to be created in the image of God. Rome may claim ownership of us, Jesus is subtly suggesting, but we know whose we are. We are God's people and not Caesars. Jesus cannot opening speak of such things. Herzog has explained clearly that Jesus is using one of the weapons of the oppressed, which is a veiled or hidden subversion. its sounds innocent, but communicates to those who know how to listen a message that subverts the oppressor.

On the denarius, were we to look at one, we would see the image of Caesar with laurel leaf crown, a symbol of divinity. Along with the laurel crown, and I am paraphrasing an exact translation, were the words 'Son of the Divine Caesar.' It was a claim to be god, one of the gods... An image of a man claiming to be god. a violation of the first two commandments.

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's. This phrase is a part of popular culture and you will still hear people make reference to it. But when they do it often in defeat. 'Time to render unto Caesar' is to do something that one does not want to do but must. And in the church that I was raised, Jesus was simply saying, ' pay taxes to Caesar, but give God your heart, as if Jesus were responding to a political and ethical questions, with personal piety.

What is not God's. Ps 24 says; 'the earth is the Lord's and all that dwells in it,' and I wonder if those listening did not pick up on that cue. Jesus is in effect trumping the claim of Caesar with the claim of God, but in such a way as to not raise the ire of Pilate and the Legions.

In short, Jesus does not answer the political question of this day with any of the prescribed and assumed political philosophies or schools available. he will not pledge allegiance to ROme, nor will he pledge allegiance to a nationalism that is willing to use violence. His politics is of the Kingdom and will not fit into any other categories.

Which is the challenge of Jesus, today. When Jesus teaches about power, economics, health care, poverty, it will not fit into Democrat or Republican speak or Liberal or Conservative language. Jesus speaks a different language from a different perspective, that of the Kingdom.
And Jesus taught that this would be our ultimate allegiance. 'Who is my mother and my brother? He who does the will of my Father.' Ultimate allegiance to the Kingdom of God. If we seek to learn the ethics and politics of Jesus, we will going into new territory that does not fit into the paradigms that we now hear on CNN or Fox News.

The other night I turned on Carriers, a documentary on PBS about life aboard an air-craft carrier. In the opening one of the military women serving explained the reason for her service. 'For God and Country' she said. 'Which surprises people who don't think I'm very religious.'
My friends, 'For God and Country,' is never a tennable ethical guide for a Christian. It too simply equates the will of the state, the will of a President or a People, with the will of God. If 'for God and Country is our allegiance,' it assumes that those two things, God and the US, are always in harmony. God then becomes a tool for condoning every action, every policy, that we undertake as a nation. God and Nation become one, and our ultimate authority then is... Nation.

But we have pledged our Allegiance to the Kingdom of God. We do that every Sunday when we pray 'Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done.' That is what Jesus expected of his disciples, 'Seek first the kingdom and its righteousness...' he said.

so what did the woman do when presented with a clash of allegiances? She created the Kingdom and held her allegiance as best she could. She bought her japanese neighbors properties for a dollar each. She kept them and held them until her neighbors could return , so that they would be able to return to their homes. Thy Kingdom Come, that was her pledge of allegiance, and she not only prayed it, but participated in creating its reality, for a moment, a frightening moment in time. May we all have that same courage

God Bless you all

(that is pretty much what I said. I will soon have the source of the story that opened and closed the sermon. Much of the exegetical information came from William Herzog and John Howard Yoder, as well as Hauerwas on Matthews version of this story, and some NT Wright thrown in for good measure.)


VanceH said...

Hi Darin, I liked your sermon. I've followed your other posts-- how you were feeling a little conflicted with the Memorial day coming up. Jesus dodged the issue, so I think it's fair game that we can dodge it too. I've been thinking a lot about what God asks us to believe in community. Someone's comment on an Amazon book review brought the issue into focus/turmoil for me: "Let us assume God did use evolution to create the world. Why does he allow so many Christians to think he didn't?." I've started about 8 different posts on the subject. I'll get there eventually, but one thing is clear to me. The same as the punch line on your sermon--what God calls us to do as individuals will be clear.

-- Vance

darin said...

I am not so sure Jesus dodged the issue. He did couch his opinion in speech that would not be recognized easily (according to Herzog and others) What I liked about the story I used to illustrate is that the woman was able to hold her allegiance to the kingdom without violence or the angry rhetoric of say a Jeremiah Wright.
I hadn't thought about this in your terms before; 'what God asks us to believe in community.' For Baptists, as you well know, every pastoral sermon tends to be a suggestion. Since we believe that all people have been created by God with 'soul freedom' they can decide for themselves how to understand and interpret the scripture. Which puts us in an interesting bind. In a sense this baptist focus on the individual's right to choose beliefs dovetails with the individualistice consumer culture that we live in. churches become like cell-phones, easily replaiced and interchanged. And even doctrine becomes a commodity that can be 'bought' by the individual consumer. Sometimes I wish we were a bit more catholic... 'This is what the church says...' But one early Baptist once said wisely, salvation which is coerced is no salvation at all.
thanks vance for your thoughts
I have been looking at your back log and eagerly await a new post.