Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Things Do Rightfully Belong To God?

Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 24)
Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Sunday, October 19, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and [give] to God the things that are God’s.”

In this statement, Jesus gives a carefully and masterfully crafted response to the thorny question as to whether it is lawful to pay taxes. If he responded that it was not lawful to pay taxes, he would anger the Roman officials. If he said that it was lawful under Jewish law, the Torah, to pay taxes, he would offend the Pharisees and the other devout nationalists who hated Rome. But, in actuality, the question has nothing to do with taxes. Nor is the story about the competing jurisdictions of church and state, about separation of church and state. Yet, for us 21st century Christians, it does naturally raise questions about how we adequately, thoughtfully, and prayerfully respond to the inevitable competition between the demands of church and the demands of empire.

So, inevitably, for us Christians, the questions arise:
What things belong to the emperor, are rightfully the emperor’s?
What things belong to God, are rightfully God’s?

They say if you want the truth, follow the money. Jesus uses the danrius to illustrate his point. Maybe that’s where we should start. Our modern-day denarius, the coin of the realm, and the paper equivalent, all bear the words “In God we trust.” Other than the dollar bill, which is the most basic unit of currency, probably the most common piece of currency many of us handle is the twenty dollar bill – dispensed by ATMs throughout the land. On the back of the twenty dollar bill, the words “In God we trust” hover over the image of the White House – one of the most recognized symbols of our empire. Not only that, but the phrase is bisected by a flagpole, with “In God” on one side, and “we trust” on the other. If the Pharisees had handed Jesus a twenty dollar bill, how would they have answered the questions “whose image and whose title are on this bill?” This basic unit of our commerce bears both the image of empire and the title of God. It’s no wonder we have a hard time determining what belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God. Our currency blurs that line.

Even our own government has blurred the line to some extent. Writer, commentator, and former political strategist Kevin Phillips notes that over the last two to three decades, there has been too much church-state collaboration, too much of a crusader mentality, leading to fervent, almost zealous religiosity feeding into national politics, both in terms of domestic and foreign policy. As a result, we see a decay, which Phillips describes as having “two faces: the one displaying economic and social polarization and injustice, which always stirs complaint among progressives, and the second representing moral and cultural decadence-cum-sophistication, which invariably stirs conservative and fundamentalist outrage” (Phillips, 229). At the same time, we see the overextending of international commitment, and in costly foreign military involvement, on the part of the part of leading powers (i.e., the United States). All of this has resulted in hubris and triumphalism, a sense of exceptionalism, that we are a chosen nation, that we are God’s chosen people.

Historically, we are not alone in this attitude about of our own empire. These and other similar characteristics have plagued all the great empires – the British Empire before us, the Dutch Empire before them, the Spanish-centered Hapsburg empire before them. And right before the onset of the Dark Ages, the Roman Empire.

The interconnecting factor that has woven its way through all of these characteristics, which has beset all the great empires (to have ultimately fallen in the wake of such hubris) is religion. In all cases, the state religion became so intertwined with political and economic concerns that the government structures virtually became puppets of the Church, pushing its agenda in the name of God and country, or rather, under the delusion that country and emperor served as instruments of God, that the emperor proclaimed the definitive word of God, and that the country was obliged to act in accordance with such prophetic utterances.

Some would claim the United States has fallen into the same trap as these previous empires. Some would claim that our government has taken upon itself the mantle of prophet, speaking for God, declaring to the world the way things should be, and using it’s might, both military and economic to enforce God’s will. We have seen this in the linking of White House policy statements to Scripture and prophecy. Some would claim that the ruling party has become so intertwined with conservative, fundamentalist Christianity, that the Republican Party has become, according to John Danforth, an Episcopal priest and former Republican senator from Missouri, the political arm of conservative Christians. This warning has been echoed to one degree or another by a number of the GOP leadership, including John McCain during the 2000 presidential primaries.

Lest Republicans feel I am picking on them, I would hasten to add that the Democratic Party is not without fault or complicity. While the party continues to be secularist in its outward appearance, some Democrats we have elected, both those who are currently serving, as well as such notable officials as Bill Clinton, through their rhetoric, policies, and actions, have bought into the notion that the United States and its government are God’s instruments.

Theologically, our major political parties are pulling in opposite directions. One is becoming increasingly theocratic. The other is maintaining a staunch secularist position, if not edging toward universalism. One party is focused on morality. The other is focused on doing “the right thing.” But despite the different directions ideologically, at the same time, both are pushing toward the same goals – toward staunch nationalism, toward the empire of money.

That’s why we have such a hard time untangling the questions “What things rightfully belong to the emperor?” and “What things rightfully belong to God?” Our sense of empire, at least in this country, has become so intertwined with church, or at least a part of it, that it is virtually impossible to see where church, representing God, stops and government, representing empire, begins. But when we really stop and look beyond our own borders, when we look at the global scene, we discover that a major reason we have a difficult time determining what things rightfully belong to the emperor and that things rightfully belong to God is because while our empire was busy exercising the role of God’s prophet to the world, a new empire slipped in and took its place as the true ruler of our secular lives.

Just look at the news. The new empire exercising its authority over the world is not the United States. It’s the global economy. Yes, the current global economic crisis was precipitated, at least in part, by the United States economy, or more specifically, by our economic policies, or in some cases, lack there of – by our deregulation of banking and financial institutions, by our failing to adequately police our own domestic practices, particularly regarding mortgage and credit markets. Obviously, these failures on the part of our government and our financial institutions has had a ripple effect around the world.

Looking at the last month or so indicates the insanity of the resulting world economic condition and, more importantly, reveals that the global economy has taken on a life of its own, becoming empire in its own right. But this new empire is not behaving in any rational manner. Congress fails to pass the $700 trillion bail-out package and the world’s stock markets take a nosedive. A few days later, Congress does pass the bail-out package, and the world’s stock markets plummet yet again – counter to what one would logically expect. Last week, following the partial nationalization of banks, the world’s stock market’s rally one day, and plummet the next. The world’s financial system is out of control and is not responding in any seemingly logical manner. It is a new empire that has taken over and is controlling the world, and no one, not even the US government, can rein it in.

As a result, in these difficult times, it seems as if everything we have belongs to the empire – an empire created out of greed and operating out of fear. The new empire is taking money from our IRAs and 401(k)s. People are losing their homes. Companies face bankruptcy and even closure because of the inability to obtain credit. And as a result, people are facing the loss of jobs. In short, what to give to the empire and what to give to God are moot questions, because everything we have is being involuntarily given to the new empire run amok.

So, in light of this pessimistic assessment, I ask again, “What things rightfully belong to the emperor?” and “What things rightfully belong to God?”

As people of faith, we believe that God created all things, that all things continue to belong to God, that he is Lord and ruler of all. As hard as it may be to fathom, God is, therefore, even the Lord and ruler of the stock market – that’s not to say that God controls the outcome, the daily ups and downs. But the stock market is a human invention, a device that we have created, rightly or wrongly, in an attempt to be stewards of the resources God has given us. Despite the rueful way we may view it right now, the stock market and the complex global financial system can, and has, done a lot of good – a means of providing financial resources to people who may not have had access to such resources otherwise. And in time, it will probably fill that need again.

I believe that in light of this crisis that has affected us all in one way or another, that we have an opportunity. The old ways way of doing business has not worked. The new empire bears that out. We have an opportunity to show the country and the world a new way of doing business, a new way of being. That way is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As Jesuit scholar John Kavanaugh notes, “Jesus knew what ought to be rendered to God: not lip-service, but heart and mind” (Kavanaugh). I see this response of heart and mind in two ways, one individual and one communal.

As to the individual response, the Gospel story implies that we are to give to the emperor that which bears the image and title of the empire, and that we are to give to God that which bears the image and title of God. The only thing that we have that bears the image of God is ourselves. Just as a coin, the denarius, is stamped with the image of the emperor, we are stamped with the image of God, made in God’s image and likeness. And we bear the title of God, not in our being, but we have the imprimatur, the approval, the imprint of God placed upon us at the time of our baptism. Following baptism with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we are chrismated, marked with holy oil using the words “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” We have the seal of God placed on us, making us God’s in image and in name. If we are to give that which has the image and name of God to God, then we have only ourselves to give. We give ourselves to God’s service. We give ourselves to live according to God’s Word, using that Word, the word of Scripture and the living Word of Jesus Christ as the guide for how we live in the world. We give ourselves as an example to the world – an example of what it means to be a Christian by our very thoughts, words, and deeds. In other words, we are called, by virtue of our baptism and our signing as Christ’s own forever, to not live according to the ways of the empire, but according to the ways of God and to thereby show the world that there is a better way of conducting business, both in God’s realm and in empire’s realm.

And that leads to the communal response. In the new global economic empire, it is all about investment in the financial markets. In the Kingdom of God, it’s all about investment in community, in relationship. It is only in community that we can live out our baptismal vow to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” It is only in community that we can demonstrate a new way of being, one that is not based on the ways of empire, the ways of greed at the expense of whoever happens to get in the way, no matter how innocent that person may be; or the ways of fear that have gripped so many, causing empire to run amok. It is a way of being that values the other, is concerned for what happens to the other, is concerned with how our actions impact our fellow human beings. It is only through community, through relationship, that we can demonstrate that significant returns are not only achieved through financial prowess and greed, but through caring for others. By showing genuine care and concern for others, particularly when they are in need, we will be rewarded, particularly when we find ourselves in need. That’s not the type of return you get on an investment in empire, only by investing in the community that is the Kingdom of God.

What things rightfully belong to the emperor? To be honest, that’s a tough one, and can only really be determined by each of us in light of and in response to the second question, “what things rightfully belong to God?”

So, what things do rightfully belong to God? Take a look in a mirror. Take a look at the person sitting next to you. There you will find the answer. There you will find that which is stamped with the image and name of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Kavenaugh, John, SJ. “The Word Embodied.” The Center for Liturgy Sunday Website. University of St. Louis. (15 October 2008).

Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. New York: Viking, 2006.

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