Heads or Tails?

[This message, based on Matthew 22:15-22, was delivered at John Calvin Presbyterian Church, Henrietta, NY, on October 18, 2020.]

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.  Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?  Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.  Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”  They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

“Death and Taxes.” The phrase has taken on a life of its own. Ben Franklin wrote it after the Constitution was ratified in 1789. “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” By mentioning taxes, and thereby politics, this morning, I may be hastening my own death. But this passage assigned me by the lectionary leads me to address politics in the form of taxes.

There could hardly have been a more fitting month than this one for this passage dealing with Jesus’ teaching about taxes, hence politics, and about our loyalties.

  • A presidential election is just over two weeks away, and millions of Americans have already voted early.
  • A global pandemic has been especially hard on our country, with over 8,000,000 cases of inflection and over 220,000 deaths due to it. Millions of people are suddenly unemployed or underemployed. Thousands of small businesses, and some large ones, across our nation have been forced to close down because of this pandemic.
  • A nominee for associate justice for the Supreme Court has been in hearings with the Senate judicial committee all last week. When her nomination comes before the Senate, it is sure to be a contentious time with a close party-line vote.
  • It is reported that our president has paid no federal income taxes in most of the last

15 years and just $750 in his first year in office.

Is that enough? Are you tired of it all? I am planning to vote early. I will be in line Saturday morning when early voting begins. I will feel some relief when I cast my ballot, but not much.

We often hear churchgoers say, “We don’t want the preacher talking about politics.” I agree and I don’t agree. I think the better thing to say is, “We don’t want the preacher talking about partisan politics and telling us which candidate to vote for.” I agree with that. Yet I want preachers to talk about politics, but not in a partisan way. Politics is a good word that has been too much abused these days. It comes from the Greek word for city: polis. From polis we get metropolis, Minneapolis, and police. And politics. The word means the governing of the city, or town, or state, or nation. All of social life is political. It has to do with how people relate to each other in society. In a sense, marriage is political, parenting is political, school is political. Life is political. Jesus fields a political question from some Pharisees and Herodians.

This conversation takes place during Holy Week, as Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover and for his passion at week’s end. The Pharisees have regularly been looking to entrap him. Jesus threatens them, for they hold religious power and don’t want to give it up. In the New Testament, the most dangerous occupation is not fishing or tax-collecting: the most dangerous occupation is religious leadership. And the religious leaders are frightened by this young rabbi Jesus, for he won’t fit into their religious categories, their neat boxes, their lists with checkmarks, their circles defining who is in God’s favor and who is outside God’s favor. Now it is worse: they team up with Herodians, effectively a political party. Now we have an alliance of religious leaders and political leaders and that can be toxic, then as well as now. It will be a coalition of religious and political leaders that will sentence Jesus to crucifixion. For good reason did our founders call for a separation of church and state. Our nation is a secular nation, with no state sanctioned or favored religion, but freedom for people to believe and worship as they will.

They start with a classic butter up, then set the snare. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The mousetrap is baited with gooey peanut butter. If Jesus says that taxes are good, he sides with Rome, the capital of an empire that holds people under its heel. If Jesus says that taxes are bad, he is a protester, an insurrectionist, even a criminal against the Roman governmental system—no better than one of those football players kneeling for the national anthem. Knowing exactly what they are doing, he asks for a coin. One is brought to him. He holds it up. “Whose image is on it?” They all know the answer: “The emperor’s.”

I picture a moment of silence. A pregnant silence. What will he say? If this is a movie, the music stops and the camera slowly scans the questioners, then stops with full frame on the face of Jesus. The tension is palpable. What will he say? Will he take the bait? Will the trap snap on him? Unlike so many politicians today, he doesn’t evade the question. He answers, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 

They are amazed, but not in a positive way. They are stunned and silenced. They walk away dejected. The trap misfires. But they don’t forget what he says, even if they will not understand. Do we understand? Jesus acknowledges that paying taxes is good. Even if the receivers of the taxes are not. Taxes serve a good purpose. Romans 13:7 says, “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.” We should not resent paying taxes. If we like paved roads, and well-placed traffic lights, the snow on our roads plowed, and good schools for all children, then we like taxes. If we like having law enforcement, emergency services, clean water, fire departments with the best equipment, and working sewer systems to make life healthy for all, then we like taxes. Paying taxes, when they are fair and honest, is good. I find it troubling that 91 of the largest 500 corporations in our country paid no taxes last year. I find it troubling that the super-wealthy often pay no taxes or small taxes, while middle class and poor people pay a higher percentage of their income, because tax codes are unfair and those that can afford clever lawyers can beat the system.

Jesus endorses paying taxes as does the rest of the Bible, but he has something more to say. If our money bears the image of our political leaders, whose image do we bear? You know the answer. We find it in the first chapter of the Bible. We are created in the image of God. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Every human being, even the ones that disagree with my political convictions, bears the image of God.

When I cast my early ballot next weekend, it will not be with any illusions that my candidate will be able to solve all of our problems. While I believe in the institution of human government, I know that human government is flawed because all humans are flawed. Democrats are flawed and Republicans are flawed, and independents are flawed. My assumption this morning is that some of us are Republicans, some of us Democrats, and some of us independents. Good. I don’t want us all to be exactly the same. Whatever our political leanings, let’s be generous in spirit with one another, for we are all image bearers of God.

President Shirley Mullen of Houghton College wrote a letter last week calling for a courageous middle. There was an incident on campus that was dividing the student body. President Mullen named the matter, an act of good leadership, and then called for being people of a courageous middle, bridging people together rather than erecting walls of separation. That is a good description of how the church should be a time of political division and too much partisanship. Whether Democrats, Republicans, or independents, we can be people of the courageous middle.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was prophetic when he wrote these words a generation ago, during a time of civil unrest in our land: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

The next time a tax bill comes, let’s smile that we are able to pay taxes and pay our fair share.  But let us never forget that we bear the image of God. Our first allegiance is not to any political party or any nation; our first allegiance is to God our creator.

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