Perhaps you have been watching the news of late and have seen the public protests in Hong Kong over democratic elections, in St. Louis over racial profiling, in Turkey over government passivity in the face of ISIL, in Detroit over water cutoffs to poor citizens. Inspired by some injustice or failure of political will, public demonstrations seem to bring out the police or the national guard; they make people nervous while they animate the protesters. Thus, at the beginning of the week devoted to the celebration of Passover – that ancient feast of freedom from Egyptian slavery – Jesus enters Jerusalem, a city conquered and occupied by Roman colonial authorities who, fearful of Jewish demonstrations in the streets, have brought military reinforcements to suppress any protest. Indeed, after his public entrance into the city, Jesus does not retire to a quiet spot for prayer and relaxation but rather enters the holy temple – a large complex that included imperial offices – and makes a highly visible protest, a protest against the violent domination of Rome over Israel and those who collaborated with this domination.
It is within this volatile context that his critics attempt to trap him – and let me tell you, they are sneaky little devils. Did you pick up their false flattery, their sarcasm? “We know you are sincere, that you teach the way of God, and show deference to no one.” And then they pop the loaded question and do so publicly, hoping to shame and discredit him: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If he answers “Yes, pay the tax,” he will find himself on the hit list of those many Israelites who bitterly opposed Roman occupation, its violence, and its iron-fisted control over the economy, a control that benefitted only the emperor and his clients. If he answers No – don’t pay emperor’s tax – he would be charged with treason and quickly encounter Rome’s deadly methods of silencing dissenters. But Jesus is no easy mark, no fool. He sets a trap for his critics by making a seemingly innocent request: “Show me the coin used for the tax.” And, then, guess what happens? His critics pull out an imperial coin that bears the emperor’s image, a coin that a faithful Jew would never keep in his pocket or hold in her hand because the coin proclaimed that the emperor is the divine son of God, the sole ruler of the world. To any Israelite, this would be blasphemy, for, as the psalm we just sang points out, it is the LORD God alone who creates and rules the world, and rules this world with justice, with equity for all people – not just a privileged minority. Or say it this way: the whole earth, its many creatures, people, and abundant gifts, belong to God alone. What is it, then, that belongs to Caesar Augustus? What is owned by the emperor? Why nothing, nothing whatsoever.
Here’s the interesting thing about this brief encounter. For hundreds of years, Christians have heard these words – “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” – and have then concluded that life is divided into two spheres: religion and politics, church and state. Indeed, many American Christians have used these words of Jesus to reject or condemn other Christians who engage in non-violent acts of civil protest when they experience racism, the failure of leaders to care for vulnerable citizens, the degradation of water or land. In political matters, so the argument goes, we are to obey without question the civil authorities and accommodate our religious convictions to the prevailing political, social, or economic order.
And yet it would seem that Jesus is suggesting something else to you and to me. What if you and I begin to see this world, ourselves, and all that we hold in life not as our private possessions but rather belonging to God? What would happen if the words of the psalm found a place in your imagination and mine, those words that declare God is the loving creator and just owner of the earth and its many treasures? On my 40th birthday, my uncle, Arnold, gave me forested land in the hills close to Mount Rainier. On my 50th birthday, I bought house and property in the Tacoma suburb of Lakewood. I hold the deed to the first and the mortgage to the second. The government claims that I am the legal owner of these properties; they bear my image as expressed in my signature. Fine and good, I say. But, then I am mindful of this salient fact: humans have done a fairly miserable job of caring for and sharing equitably what God gives freely to all. What if, what if my vision, your vision, were shaped by the conviction that you and I are only tenants, temporary renters, charged with the care of what is not our own but God’s? I wonder: would the trees of the wood shout for joy, would the earth be glad, would the fields be joyful that we have loosened our grip on the strange fiction that we own and can do anything we darn well please to what God gives so generously to all God’s creatures?
Here’s the trick: you and I live in a world in which we are exhorted to pledge our allegiance to the new empire, the empire of the market, by consuming everything we are asked to consume regardless of the many in our land and abroad who live in dire poverty, regardless of the damage such consumption does to fields, seas, and trees. Here’s trick: the empire of unrestrained consumption and increasing acquisition doesn’t love you and me. Only One, only One loves us with a love we cannot fully fathom and yet needs us – needs you and me – to ensure that the riches of God’s good creation are neither hoarded by the few or squandered by the many but cared for – as if earth were our own garden – and shared equitably with our sisters and brothers who are most in need.
When Jesus tells his critics to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, it’s a clever answer that allows him to escape a potentially humiliating trap. But let’s not miss its implicit message: in the kingdom of God which is all creation, there is to be only gracious and abundant generosity, protection of the vulnerable, and care for the weak. That kingdom, I say, is most worthy of a public demonstration.