The Cost of Citizenship

screen-shot-2015-09-24-at-2-31-17-pm“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” These are, really, the clearest words we have from Jesus about how to be a faithful citizen. They came as his clever response to those who were trying to trap him. The Pharisees and supporters of Herod thought they had asked him the perfect question: does the Law of Moses allow observant Jews to pay tax to the Romans? A simple “yes” would render him a traitor in the eyes of his own people, and a simple “no” would make him a threat to the Roman authority. Jesus manages to dodge all of this complexity by saying, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

Unfortunately for us, Jesus did not leave us with a handy little Christian voter guide to know the “correct” stance on political issues so that we would know to vote for the candidate that lines up most closely with Christian values. And as we are already fully aware, there are plenty of politicians who would use the label “Christian” to their own political advantage with no regard to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” We are told, in the lesson, that Jesus’ reply leaves his questioners speechless. Boy, what a gift that must be! It would be wonderful to know how we might be able to do that with our current crop of candidates: leave them speechless. A boy can dream…

Here’s the one thing I want to leave with you today: no matter which candidate you vote for, no matter whom you think will be the best person for the job, know this: no matter who wins, God will still be God. Nothing we do can change that. And no matter which party triumphs come November, this nation will still fall far short of the glory of God. No vote will ever correct that outcome.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

Our world couldn’t be more different from the world of Jesus. Ancient Israel had long been subjugated to other nations. The Romans were simply the latest manifestation of foreign control of local land. Beyond that, Caesar wasn’t just a ruler. He claimed to be divine, a god, demanding worship from his subjects. When it came to the coin, it belonged to Caesar, because it bore his image and likeness. But everything else in all of creation bears the likeness of God – and, therefore, belongs to God.

Give these differences, what is it that the church could learn from Jesus’ simple saying? Or is it, rather, that we should look back to the parable he told just before this challenge?

Jesus speaks of a landlord who builds a beautiful vineyard. All it needs are caretakers. The tenant farmers come in and till the land. But when the landlord wants the fruit of his harvest, they brutalize his messengers – even killing some of them. The landlord goes so far as to send his own son, whom the tenants seize and murder – because, they reason, if they kill the heir, the inheritance will be theirs.

What are they thinking? If we kill the heir, then we get the inheritance? I know that the laws governing property were probably different back then, but would it really have been possible to kill the son and inherit the property? I doubt it seriously. Instead, the lesson shows how warped their thinking has become in the absence of the landlord. They have forgotten whose vineyard it is, assuming that it is all theirs because they are the ones who have been working it, forgetting that the landlord set it up to be a functioning vineyard in the first place.

The implications of Jesus’ parable would have been crystal clear to those who would have heard it at the time: God set up Israel for God’s people. And when God sent prophets and messengers, the people either ignored or killed them. It is, in a few words, a hearty condemnation of the Pharisees and rulers who would claim to be the current tenant farmers and, therefore, the rightful heirs to the vineyard.

And as much fun as it would be to point our fingers at the Pharisees and laugh at their hypocrisy, the truth is that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree in our case, either. When we look at the work of our hands, how quick are we to take credit for it – or demand recognition for it? Have we already forgotten who it is that gave us the gifts in the first place? Whether it be the mind or the talents or simply just a leg up in society, nothing we achieve is the fruit of our own labors alone. We could never accomplish what we have done if it weren’t for God at work in our lives.

Our response ought to be to live as though this were the case.

The same is true within the church. It would be one thing to take God’s free gift of grace and claim ownership of it, to treat the church more like a “club” where membership has its privileges to be shared, but only if and when we feel like it. But to do so would stray far from where Jesus desires us to be, sharing the grace we have received as freely as it has been given.

What would that look like? What would it look like to live as though everything in all of creation bore God’s imprint and likeness? What would it mean if we were to see this in everything, even when it comes to the citizenship we have been granted? What would it mean to hold it, yes, but loosely enough to trust it to God, the author of all that is good and kind and just?

I don’t know about you, but every four years during presidential election season, I begin to feel as though the whole world is at stake. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of politics and its sway in our lives and in the lives of others. That said, there is nothing that can happen during this election season that will prevent God’s desires from bearing fruit. Caesar is Caesar, and God is still God. Thanks be to God!

I’m reminded of the movie Men in Black, in which Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones play government agents who are responsible for protecting planet earth from alien invasion. On Smith’s first assignment, he causes havoc in a New York City block trying to prevent an alien from escaping. Jones reprimands him for it, which stuns Smith. After all, the world is at stake! Jones’ rebuffs him, saying, “There's always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet!”

Maybe that quote doesn’t exactly make the point I wanted it to; but I hope you catch my intention. The point is that, no matter how up in the air life might feel, God is still God and that God is still in control of God’s desires and the world that bears God’s imprint. That is the hope in which we live – today and tomorrow and election day and every day beyond that.

At our very best, our calling is to reflect God’s character to the world we encounter in all that we do. And as we do, we know we will not get it perfect, but will still trust what we do to God’s perfecting mercy and grace.

When we look at the parable: do you notice how patient the landlord is? He sends messenger after messenger to get what is rightly his from the tenant farmers. And each time, they beat, kill, taunt, abuse them, one by one. The landlord is tested at every step of the way, but does not give in to rage until much further along in the story. The landlord, of course, is the story’s stand-in for God. And because of that, we learn of God’s long-suffering patience.

God is willing to put up with all kinds of betrayal, and to show mercy in return – again and again and again and again. And God’s willingness to show that mercy extends even to incarnation – that is, the sending of the Son for the sake of the world, even knowing that this gift, too, is likely to be betrayed. And let’s be clear: judgment is not lost in the parable; and yet, it is made abundantly clear to whom this judgment belongs: God, and God alone.

Amen.