August 18, 2013: Is it OK to Cheat God?

Posted on : Aug 15th, 2013 | By | Category: This Sunday's Service

Everyone has heard the phrase, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  But what exactly does that mean?  As we say in the UCC, “It depends.”

Many people quote these words of Jesus when referring to the separation of church and state.  Some things are “religious.”  Other things are “secular.”  However, as we all know, the separation between things “religious” and “secular” depends on both the issue and your personal political position.

Believe it or not, from the mid-1800’s through about 1950, American conservative evangelical Christians wanted nothing to do with politics.  In that era, “politics” was considered “the work of the devil.”  “True” Christians did not set their minds on the things of this world, but on Christ.  All that changed radically when a young fire-breathing preacher founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, and decided conservative evangelical Christians needed to organize to stop liberals from taking over America.  That preacher was none other than the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who in 1979 formed the political action committee, “The Moral Majority.”   Today you can barely distinguish the religious right from the political right.

At the same time, liberals got so angry with conservative/evangelical Christians that they “fled” Christianity en mass.  In spite of the fact that in the 20th century almost all of the great civil rights leaders throughout the world came from religious traditions, including The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, and the great Hindu pacifist and liberationist, Mahatma Gandhi – in spite of this fact, American politicos fled from religion.

This “changing of positions” regarding the separation of “church and state” (religion and politics) is a never-ending process, and, it’s not new.  This Sunday’s faith story focuses on this same question.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”  Now, that was not asked as an academic question, it was asked as a political question.  We may think the IRS is aggressive today, but in the Roman Empire anyone who even insinuated that they would not pay taxes to the Roman Emperor would be put to death for treason.  The Romans had a mighty sophisticated “tax collection” system in place and it was rife with extortion.  But, no matter how corrupt it was, you paid.

Knowing that one would be put to death if s/he suggested it was wrong to pay taxes to Caesar, we quickly discover in this week’s scripture, that the religious authorities were out to trap Jesus.  But Jesus brilliantly out-smarted them!

When they asked Jesus “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Jesus simply replied, “Whose image is on a Roman coin?” “Caesar’s” [the emperor’s], they replied.  So Jesus wryly answered, “Fine.  Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

Most people interpret that to mean, we pay our taxes to the government as citizens and keep our spiritual life separate from the control of the government.  Spoiler alert:  That is NOT at all what Jesus’ answer means.

I’ve heard sermon after sermon preached on this passage, and I’ve yet to hear anyone ever get the clever trick and/or actual meaning of Jesus’ words in his answer.  The early Christians got it!  That’s why this story is included in all three gospels:  Matthew, Mark and Luke and also other gospels that didn’t make it into the Christian Bible, such as the Gospel of Thomas.  Matthew’s gospel which is written primarily for Christians who had been Jews, tells the story almost the same as Mark.  Luke had to “tone it down” a bit because he was writing to Gentile Christians who were also Roman citizens.  If the Roman authorizes had ever figured out what Jesus meant, they’d all have been slaughtered for treason and tyranny.

The wit and wisdom of Jesus will be revealed this Sunday.  The amazing thing is that every Jew living in the first century knew what Jesus meant, but somehow, we’ve really missed the meaning on this one!  What Jesus meant has something to do with this question:  “Is if OK to cheat God?”




~ This Sunday’s Scriptures ~

Mark 11: 27-33

Jesus’ Authority Is Questioned

27 As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him 28and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?’ 29Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.’ 31They argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say, “Why then did you not believe him?” 32But shall we say, “Of human origin”?’—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. 33So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’

Mark 12: 13-17

The Question about Paying Taxes

13 Then the chief priests and the scribes and Pharisees sent to Jesus some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? 15Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius [a Roman coin] and let me see it.’ 16And they brought one. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘Caesar’s.’ 17Jesus said to them, ‘Give to Caesar the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.

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