Scripture: MATTHEW 22:15-22
Poor Jesus! The gospels are full of stories about how put-upon he was. People challenging him and testing him and trying to trap him at every turn. Religious leaders constantly seeking to undermine him. It must have been exhausting. Or at least it would have been for me.
We like to think—or at least I like to think—that Jesus was a wise and revered teacher whose every word was greeted with a kind of “Aha” reaction in which, for his listeners, everything suddenly seemed clear. I had some teachers in college and seminary who were like that for me. I sat spellbound as they opened up whole new perspectives, entirely new worlds for me. It all just seemed like an unadulterated good.
For Jesus, though, there was near constant turmoil and tension. Everywhere he went, people were trying to trip him up, to demonstrate what a fool he was, to undermine his credibility. What they were really doing, of course, was trying to show how special they were and to buttress their own standing.
Once again this morning, as Jesus moves inexorably to his trial and execution, he is confronted by religious leaders who seek to embarrass him. They first try to butter him up with disingenuous compliments—‘we know how special you are, and what a remarkable teacher you are’—but then they slice in nakedly with their real intent: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22:17). Some of these ecclesiastical sparring partners, devoted to Herod, want Jesus to say, “Yes, you need to be loyal to Caesar and pay all your taxes.” Others of these religious pugilists are sick to death of taxes levied on them by Roman autocrats and want Jesus to encourage the masses to insurrection: ‘Rebel! It’s past time!’ Jesus is in a no-win situation, with forces pushing him from opposite sides.
So Jesus does what he so often does: he doesn’t really answer their question. And he gives them his famously paradoxical answer: “Give . . . to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21).
And we may well think, “I guess I get this. What I think Jesus is saying is: ‘There’s the earthly realm and there’s the spiritual realm. We should keep them separate, and give the appropriate loyalty to each authority. We should obey the law and pay our taxes, on the one hand. And on the other hand, we should defer to God in matters of faith.’” Is that what Jesus means, we wonder—two separate realms, two different loyalties?
U.S. citizens have sometimes turned to this saying of Jesus to justify the church staying out of the state’s business, as though Jesus is clarifying which authority is to be obeyed in which situation. Separation of church and state, a phrase coined in a letter written to Connecticut Baptists by Thomas Jefferson, and not enshrined in any official founding document, is something of a gloss on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And what many people assume is that the First Amendment and the separation of church and state mean that faith should stay out of public policy and government. What many people think they hear in this is the government saying to religion, ‘You stay out of my business,’ and a corresponding sentiment from the religious establishment—a word to the government that says, essentially, ‘You leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone.’
Caesar in one realm, in other words, Jesus in another. The emperor and the Christ inhabiting different spheres. Trump and Biden and Pelosi and McConnell and Roberts in charge of one domain and God in charge of another, and never the twain shall meet.
In hearing Jesus’ retort, you can see why people think that: give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God. Simple. Straightforward. Logical. Right? Each has their own dimension, and we’re to honor both dimensions while keeping them entirely separate.
And it all makes perfect sense. Except for this: what, in the Bible, would lead us to believe that God has sway only over certain aspects of life? What would lead us to think that God cares about some things—prayer and personal morality, for example—but not other things—the way we allot our taxes, say, or the laws and policies we enact to govern ourselves?
Might it be the case, in other words, that what seems logical from one angle—that the sacred and the secular are entirely different entities who never socialize together—might such a conceit be, in truth, a way of relegating God to some sort of periphery where we don’t have to worry about God messing with certain facets of life? Is it possible that the Pharisees and Herodians who challenge Jesus, as well as their offspring in our own day, want to consign Jesus to some banal fringe that will let us do precisely as we want, without any interference from the Holy One?
If the God who created the universe and made each of but a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5)—if that God is uninterested in vast dimensions of human and earthly life, then I’m willing to bet that would be news to Jesus. No, for Jesus and the entire biblical witness, God is the One whose umbrella covers and protects and shapes all. Where does God’s passion lie? Most Christians would agree on certain things. Prayer? Check. Marriage? Check. Parenting? Check. Neighborly relations? Check. Disposition of personal finances? Check. Workplace ethics? Check. Vocation? Check. Fairness in card games and Major League playoffs? Check.
So if God cares about all that, what’s the likelihood that the borders of God’s care would stop suddenly at some sort of imagined wall around the way we organize our common life and govern ourselves? When Jesus tells the Herodians and Pharisees that we should give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, he’s in no way setting up some dualistic world of competing realms that don’t intersect in the slightest. He’s certainly granting that the emperor has a role in a particular domain. But what his puzzling answer points to is that the domain of God subsumes it all. What belongs to God, in other words, is everything. Everything.
Let’s use two brief examples to make this point. Earlier we mentioned the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It bears repeating its relevant and famous beginning here: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” Beautifully framed as it is, all that amendment says is that government shall not establish or interfere with churches. It appropriately says not a single word about whether churches shall involve themselves in the ordering of the ways in which we live together. It says only that government shall not interfere with churches, not, as is sometimes imagined, that churches shall not involve themselves with governing. What is Caesar’s is Caesar’s, but what is God’s is—everything. The church rightly concerns itself with all of life.
Which leads us to the other scenario upon which to reflect in the context of these words of Jesus. And it has to do with the U.S. Senate’s deliberations about the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. We’re going to focus on one limited dimension of the discussion about her nomination, and that is this: should Barrett’s Christian faith shape her decisions, or should she put that faith aside when deciding the law? Or, to put it in terms of today’s reading, are there matters that belong solely to the emperor, meaning the government, and in which Barrett’s faith should play no part at all?
In confirmation hearings in 2017, Barrett herself was remarkably clear on the subject. She said she would “never” impose her “personal convictions, whether they derive from faith or anywhere else, on the law.” From a legal angle, of course, that sounds wise. Justices, after all, don’t make the law; they adjudicate it. It may also sound prudent or comforting from a faith standpoint, especially if we disagree with a ruling or opinion of hers. If a Justice’s religious views lead her to issue rulings on marriage or health care or reproduction, for example, rulings with which we might disagree, then, we think, she should definitely put those religious views aside.
And as much as you and I might disagree with Barrett about any number of rulings she might make, it’s this that I think Jesus might quibble with. One of the bedrock principles of faith is that everything that happens happens under the watchful eye of God. Disagree with Barrett all you want, and disagree vehemently if you will. But as a person of faith, don’t try to force her to divorce her faith from the substance of her work. What belongs to God is everything.
When Jesus tells us, in the words of the King James Version of the Bible, to “render . . . unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (KJV), it’s his way of saying, with a kind of knowing wink, that all things are God’s things. It’s not just some things that fall under the aegis of God. It’s everything.
What this means is that there is no realm of life that lies outside God’s interests and concerns. So when a Justice of the Supreme Court is deliberating, their faith should inform every thought and decision. I’ll say it again: you and I may disagree passionately with every legal conclusion a Justice arrives at. But from Jesus’ angle, we miss the mark badly if we try to divorce a person’s faith from the work they do—in any setting, of course, not just the law.
The point we’re making here is not a political or judicial point. It’s a theological point. To put it simply and directly: everything we do all day long is best done with the wisdom and heart of God shaping it and leading it. From our angle, then, the point is not to try to separate a person’s actions from their faith. Instead, it is to forcefully counter any argument or decision that we believe is contrary to what we sense to be the nature and purposes of God, and to counter that argument from the perspective of an informed and reflective faith of our own.
I realize that almost no one in public life talks the way I’m talking this morning, and that the line of argument I’m laying out here runs counter to the dominant narrative of our culture, which says that faith has a particular cubbyhole in our lives, but it shouldn’t command our whole lives. I think Jesus is countering that perspective here, and reminding us that all of life is to be lived with God at the center. We might agree or disagree with Barrett on any number of subjects and still believe she ought to put God first in her life. That’s what’s at the heart of everything. Agree or disagree vehemently with Barrett’s views, but do not let her, or anyone, get away with trying inappropriately to marginalize or sideline God.
Jesus never actually answers the question that’s put to him about the legitimacy of paying taxes. What he does with his indirection is prod his listeners to reflect on the place of God in all of human life. A person of faith is concerned, certainly, with matters of personal morality: marital fidelity, illicit drug use, child-rearing, end-of-life dilemmas, workplace integrity. But if we assume that that’s the limit of what Jesus cares about, I’m convinced we have badly misread the Messiah’s perspective.
When we deliberate about the world’s great moral dilemmas, isn’t it fair to assume that if God cares whether I lie, God also cares whether a nation goes to war or teaches all its children well or treats its pandemics vigorously? It would be ludicrous, it seems to me, if God cared only for personal one-on-one interaction and didn’t give a fig about the larger ways a society is ordered.
As for me, if the Supreme Court is deciding matters of immigration or gay marriage or voting rights, for example, I want them to do so from the perspective that “whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome.” I want the Justices to know the biblical prophets and their deep belief that a society needs to honor and protect its widows and orphans. I want them to be shaped by the Psalms who know that we are all—all—“fearfully and wonderfully made” (139:14). I want them to be formed by Isaiah’s poetic assurance that God calls each of us by name (43:1). I want their legal opinions to have the sensibility of Jesus’ inaugural sermon, that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to those who are poor, and sent me to proclaim release to those who are captives and recovery of sight to those who are blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). I want those who govern us to guide us with the words of the Beatitudes, in which Jesus offers blessing to “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,” “the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:3-10). I want our leaders to counter the selfishness and egotism and narcissism that too often rule the day, and to be part of leading us in a way instituted by Holy God, a way shaped by “the better angels of our nature” (Abraham Lincoln).
The real point, and the conviction that underlies Jesus’ cryptic answer, is that all of life belongs to God, and that only as we give ourselves into the hands of this compassionate and just God will we know the peace and wholeness that the Bible calls salvation. We get our bearings not from Donald Trump or Joe Biden, but from the one true God. If you and I are going to know a sense of serenity and completeness, it will only be because we have trusted in the One who has given us life and holds us close always. Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell can’t do that. Nor, heaven knows, can any other of the thousand idols to which we so often turn: the Browns and the Buckeyes can’t do it; the high salary and impressive zip code can’t do it; the next drink or sexual fantasy can’t do it. No vacation destination is going to make everything right. No cleaned-out closet or perfect home is going to solve all our problems. None of the people and tasks we so often put our stock in can save us. They all fall short.
The only thing that can make everything right is the God whose peace surpasses all understanding, whose compassion and inclusion are the Way, whose mission of love transforms all of life into a field of gorgeous grace. Give to God what belongs to God. Which is everything. And in doing so, know the sublime love that will never let us go.