"Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, 'Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?' But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, 'Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.' And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, 'Whose likeness and inscription is this?' They said, 'Caesar's.' Then he said to them, 'Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.' When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away." (Matthew 22:15-22, ESV)
As I've served the church in different settings, I've slowly come to realize that the words I think are obvious and point to commonly shared values are only obvious to me. This has become increasingly clear to me over the last few years as I've spoken with Christians who have very different views of what it means when God calls for "justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (Amos 5:24) What I thought was obvious about God's desire for a people to live in such a way that the widow, the orphan, and the stranger are cared for turns out not to be clear at all.
Thinking about this lectionary passage, I realized that Jesus stumps the Pharisees in part because they do not agree on the same starting place. When Jesus tells them to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God's, Jesus poses them a conundrum: do they agree on what those things are in the first place?
I used to think this was obvious, when I thought that love of Jesus clearly meant one particular way of living. Everything belongs to God. End of discussion.
Except it's evidently not that clear. What does it mean to say "everything belongs to God?" What does that mean as people who live in particular countries and particular communities in this world, with responsibilities for our neighbors carried out through civic government? What does that mean when allegiance to God and allegiance to a country (or a flag) come into conflict with one another? If I say that everything belongs to God, does that excuse me from navigating the difficult realities caused by the gaps between what faith communities can do and what social programs can't do?
Jesus clearly meddled in the politics of his day, as did the prophets before him. After all, appearing before a king and telling him that he's about to be overthrown is pretty political. In this passage, the desire was to trap Jesus, to trip him up, by getting him to speak out against Caesar (a crime) or weaken his standing in the Jewish community by telling people to pay taxes (just think of how the tax collectors were viewed).
Instead, Jesus turned the tables and turned the question back on the schemers. What does belong to God? What does belong to Caesar? How do those things co-exist in a broken and sinful world? I'm sure Jesus' answer provided hours of debate and discussion for anyone who took his words seriously.
What do you say? What belongs to God? What belongs to America? Where is the line drawn in your life? And what does it mean for you to render to your country the things that are your country's and render to God the things that are God's?
One thing I'm sure of; this is part of the larger question dividing us today.