I've not been putting much on the blog these past few days. Time has been taken up with Executive Council meetings in Helena, Montana. On Tuesday I gave the homily at the mid-day Eucharist. Here it is.
Homily, given at the Executive Council Eucharist, October 20, 2008, Helena, Montana. Propers "For the Nation."
Come, Lord Jesus, the Bright Morning Star, and may this age pass away. Amen.
The Gospel read just now has driven good preachers to distraction. This Gospel Passage is often titled, “Paying Taxes to Caesar.” It is a distraction, I believe, and not what is at the core of Jesus' teaching.
Jesus responds in a way that opens out rich soil for opinion by everyone from Quakers to Presbyterians. Standing alone by itself, Jesus’ answer can become a distraction, suitable for bible verse memorization, massive arguments, occasional burnings at the stake, but not much else.
But way down at the center of this account is what I believe is Jesus’ primary response: “Why are you trying to entrap me?” And that response tells us a lot.
The immediate finesse of the trap is of course to get Jesus to make a judgment, either way. If he came down on one side he is a sympathizer of the occupation Romans, if he comes down on the other he is a radical likely to put the Jews in their uneasy truce with Rome in jeopardy. The trap could be deadly and take several forms. If he did a really good job of interpreting the law he could hang out his shingle and set up a law practice. Death by practice. If not they would throw him out on his ear, or kill him. Death by rejection. Either way there would be no surprises, and no Messiah.
The response Jesus makes, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” turns out not to be about that tax business, but about death and life.
Or more succinctly, about the powers and principalities of death on the one hand and life in God on the other. The Gospel according to Mark reminds us of the cost of this argument, in a comment just before this account, that the Parsees were out to “lay hands upon him” not in blessing of course, but in order to kill him.
The question is a trap, and trapping people, tricking them into compromising statements, playing games with them, messing with their minds, is standard fare in the death dealing and the fallen condition of all people. Think of the sordid tricks of political campaigns, or the fine points of torture, or even unkind cuts in an unkind relationship. We entrap and bind people all the time.
The coin with the emperor’s image and name on it, the taxes that might or might not be paid, the whole matter of what precisely does indeed belong to the emperor, are all questions about death’s dominion. This becomes apparent when we recognize that among the “things that are the emperor’s” are all those things pledged by the signers of the Declaration of Independence – “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” At one time or another the state calls on us to forfeit our lives, turn over our fortunes, and betray our sacred honor.
The emperor, the nation, the state, all participate in what William Stringfellow calls the principalities and powers. The churches, by the way, are no slouches in the principalities and powers game. All are fallen. And in the fallen estate into which we all are to be counted, the principalities and powers exercise their control primarily by the power of death. Even the angelic forces are touched by the fallen state.
Paul states it this way, in Ephesians 6:12 “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
It is a quirk of the strange compromise made between the Church and State, first under Constantine, and ever after, that this passage has been used in an easy justification of how church and state might get along: The Emperor gets everything he wants, God gets everyone’s eternal soul.
That however leads to madness. The separation of everything material (which the emperor gets if he wants) and our soul (which God is stuck with) is informed by neither Jewish sensibilities nor the Christian understanding of the Resurrection. The settlement false to Jesus and his witness and jars our Christian conviction in every concrete “family, language, people and nation.” It generates the modern nation, whose peculiar form is the Kingdom of Fear.
It is hard to live in the Kingdom of Life, when all around are the instrumentalities of death, particularly as known in the Kingdom of Fear. This nation, the one most of us here in this room belong to, lives with fear all the time. It is an element of control in the fallen state. It is participation in death. But you know that.
This is kind of edgy to say. It doesn’t seem much like “good news.” Well these are difficult times, and maybe something like this should be said of the nations and to ourselves. I believe that if we don’t say it we participate in a kind of madness, the kind that proceeds from denial, and issues in a sort of collective, national, nervous breakdown.
We are put to the test, and unlike our Savior, we give in and being participants in the Kingdom of Fear we break ourselves down into spirit and body. Of course we deny our own fallen estate and somehow think that we can work our way out of death and taxes both.
We make the Constantinian compromise all the time. But, dear friends, the only solution for our participation in the fallenness of all creation is repentance and conversion.
Paul in Romans 13:1-10 – the epistle appointed for today – gives a rouser of a defense for paying taxes, being subject to authorities, recognizing them as God’s agents. Near the end he writes (13:7-8) “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Paul reflects Jesus here: The answer to the test question is to give the state and everyone else their due. Don’t own any one anything – back taxes, back mortgage payments, back whatever, your life, etc. Pay our debts, and be converted out of debt to death, become indebted to Life: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”
Don’t get distracted: Turn from death and love one another. It’s the only debt we owe God. It is the one thing Death in all its forms cannot stand – the fact that love endures, in Jesus Christ.
There it is: this word is ended.