By Steven Peay
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”
I am sure we have all heard this expression: “I’m from Missouri, you have to show me.” Our friends there on the Mississippi have said this so often, it’s now their state’s nickname: “The Show Me State.” What the saying implies is that these are not gullible people – you can talk all that you want, but they want results; actions, not talk. It’s actually not a bad approach to life – show me what you are about and who you are. In many ways this is just another approach to talking about authenticity (are you who you say you are?).
It has been a very unsettling time for our country, indeed even for the world. There has been the ongoing circus of claim, counter-claim, innuendo, and assault that we now call a “news cycle,” and then there’s the “social media.” So, we’ve had a lot on our minds, and as I’ve thought about these things and done so in the light of today’s lessons from Scripture, I am convinced that all of us need to be in a “show me state” when it comes to how we live our lives. We need to be especially mindful when it comes to our faith life of being in a “show me state,” and here’s why.
Jesus is engaged with the Pharisees, who appear to have been the masters of spin for their times. They’re concerned that Jesus is not promoting an agenda or approach to life they approve, so they set out to derail him. The easiest way to do this is to use the hated Roman overlords to do their dirty work, so they ask a question. It’s simple enough on the surface, explosive down below: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
Now Jesus is – at least in their minds – caught on the horns of a dilemma. If he answers “no,” he’s guilty of sedition and liable to arrest. If he says “yes,” he’s sold-out to the despised Roman occupiers and loses his following. The Pharisees had set the perfect trap – lose/lose – and, as we used to say in my debating days, “He’s caught on the horns of a dilemma and all he has left is to shoot the bull.”
Well, Jesus DOES shoot the bull – literally. He flips the argument back on them by asking an equally simple – and equally loaded – question: “Show me the coin used for the tax. Whose image is on the coin?” Jesus shows where he’s coming from in this question – he doesn’t even have one of the coins on him. To have the coin, marked with the emperor’s image, meant that one was in violation of the commandment against graven images. Therefore, in response to the duplicitous questions, Jesus exposes the duplicity of the questioners. They portray themselves as righteous and yet they have the coin whose sole purpose for a Jew was to pay the tax. What is it the chef Emeril says? “BAM!”
Jesus lived in a “show me state.” Every moment of his life was lived showing who he was and reaching out to others to show them love. Even his death was an act of “show me” because, as the old saying goes, he showed just how much God loved by stretching out his arms and giving his life. Jesus showed the love of God, the reality of God’s presence and purpose in life, death, and now in resurrection – into which all of us are invited.
The perennial question the rabbis asked after reading scripture was, “How then shall we live?” The point, I believe, is that all of us are called to live life in a “show me state” and, no, I don’t mean we have to move to Missouri and root for Mizzou. What I mean is that we have to live life as Jesus did, and in the manner he taught. We are to render to the emperor what is the emperor’s, but God gets what belongs to God.
This was brought powerfully home to me by someone who did live in a “show me state,” witnessing to his faith over against the teachings of Hitler’s National Socialism. Pastor Martin Niemoller stood in opposition and was imprisoned for his actions, barely escaping the fate of his colleague Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
This is from a sermon Niemoller preached back in the 1940s: “There should be no doubt or uncertainty in our minds about this: ‘Render unto God what is God’s.’ What belongs to God? We ourselves belong to Him, we, totally and wholly! God’s command is still: ‘I am the Lord, the One whom ye shall fear, love and trust above everything else!’ This is still His Gospel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed thee. Thou are mine.’ He is the Lord; we are His property and His alone. Through Christ’s cross and resurrection it has come to pass that we do not belong to ourselves or to the world – that we belong to no one else but Him. That is what holy baptism is for, there we are again told and assured that we belong to Him. The question here too is: ‘Whose is this image and superscription?’ ‘God’s.’ ‘Then render unto God what is God’s! . . . We cannot act as though Caesar has the power on earth and God the power in Heaven. The kingdom of Heaven has come, the kingdom of God is with us, within us. We are God’s children now, here and now we are His children, and as such we hear His call: ‘Render unto God what is God’s!’”
Niemoller’s powerful words remind us, all at once, who we are and whose we are. If we are living in a “show me state,” then we can approach life – even in turbulent and shaky times – with a confidence and a peace that does not come from making smart moves, because we have seen where smart moves can get one.
Life is a gift, what we have is a gift and Jesus reminds his hearers, and us, of what this demands. The lesson from Exodus showed us how God engaged in an act of self-disclosure with Moses, but not fully, “for no one can see me and live.” Yet, you and I are welcomed, invited, encouraged to look upon the face of God, to grow in intimacy with God and live!
As we come to consider stewardship – how we go about managing these gifts of life we have of time, talent and treasure – I think it is important for us to live in a “show me state.” It’s one thing for us to say we love God, to say we value the church and its fellowship, to say we are committed to serve God and neighbor, and it’s quite another thing actually to do it.
Given who we are, where we are, and all that we have – all of it a gift and a trust from God – “making the budget” every year ought not to be an exercise in agony! The worries here – and of every church — should not be about making the budget, but about how we can better serve God and our community, how we can better reach to those in need or distress, and how we can more fully reach to those seeking spiritual comfort and a loving, welcoming church home. If we were living in a truly show me state, none of this would be an issue, would it?
A song from the Lerner and Lowe musical My Fair Lady came to mind. I’m recalling the scene, and the song, where Eliza Doolittle answers Freddy, her would-be suitor with this challenge:
Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Don’t talk of stars burning above;
If you’re in love, Show me! . . .
Tell me no dreams filled with desire.
If you’re on fire, Show me! Don’t say how much, Show me! Show me! . . .
Don’t talk of love lasting through time.
Make me no undying vow. Show me now!
Eliza just about says it all; she obviously wants to live in a “show me state.” I invite us all to look at our individual lives; to look at your life together and tell me, whose image is on it? If it is God’s then give to God what is God’s – not what’s left, as the saying goes, but what’s right – and live in a “show me state.”
The Very Rev. Dr. Steven Peay is associate dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Milwaukee and interim canon to the ordinary of the Diocese of Milwaukee. He was formerly dean and professor of preaching at Nashotah House.