By George Sumner
How much would l like to preach a sermon on Church and state during campaign season? About as much as running my hand over a cheese grater. I recognize flashing yellow caution signs on the road. But it is hard to avoid the subject if the Gospel reading is Jesus speaking on rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, so let’s rush in where angels fear to tread. What we need to do is not avoid or neglect the verse, but rather to look harder at what we know more generally about Jesus, and more generally about the biblical story, to get a wider and deeper context.
But first, we need to look at ourselves. We have our own views, passions, commitments, on this subject. In this season more than any in memory, every question seems to come with an assumption of what the right answer would be. Who’s neutral? Well, that is true in our story. The Pharisees and Herodians are trying to trap Jesus. They are not dispassionate seekers after truth.
And, in fairness, the question is the most pressing one in their world — what about the pagans who are occupying our country? Speak, rabbi! Who could be dispassionate here? Of course the history is complicated. The Romans allow the Jews to worship, though this will come to an end a century later. And the Jews harbor a hope that God will bring in his kingdom and end the occupation, though he will do this, and not us. The Zealots want to usher it in themselves. This is what the devil’s temptation about Jesus jumping from the pinnacle of the Temple is about. In other words, the question is loaded even before the pressure tactic of the Pharisees for their rival, Jesus.
And then Jesus gives his answer: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” Leave it to Jesus to say something clear and simple, and realistic, at one level, and something mysterious and confounding at another! Of course we do make just such an accommodation, don’t we? We understand that there has to be some kind of order in this broken world. So, we have to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s — not to mention that he is offers us no choice.
I pay my taxes, though I don’t agree with this or that. I understand that society needs to be pluralistic, in one way — to live in peace with people who are different. The wars of religion in Europe, and the Crusades, were both bad ideas. I don’t want to teach the catechism in public school, even though I think it is all true, and I can give a theological reason for such respect. All that is a kind of rendering to Caesar and to God differently. Jesus is making the point yet more strongly, for it is Caesar who must be respected, who occasionally persecuted the Church, who is compared to idolatrous Babylon, and will be destroyed on the last day. That time is not yet. That is the point!
But render unto God what is God’s. Okay, but what is God’s? and when you think about it, the answer is: everything. So Jesus sets up a demarcation, a wall of separation, and then he knocks it down. What is God’s is all that Caesar thinks is his. Where does that leave us? Jesus says, try to divide it, knowing full well that it is impossible. Do we throw our hands in the air? No, we recognize that we need help to thread our way through the maze of life on the way to the kingdom. And this means being a disciple, listening to Jesus, letting him correct course for us, in repentance. What are the other things Jesus says, the rest of the story, so that we can figure out how to live in the secular, political, diverse, broken, world, and keep God and his lordship in mind throughout? And like the question of Caesar in Jesus’ time, this one is a burning question in our time. Let me offer a few thoughts, a down payment on an answer.
First, “God is no respecter of persons,” by which Peter says in Acts 10 that God doesn’t side with this party or that, this cause or that — all parties and causes are answerable to him. It’s like that old quote that the point is not first of all our critiquing the Bible but its critiquing us. Put another way, King Jesus reigns, in judgment and mercy, over all the nations. To be sure, there are issues that we feel strongly are of God. I have strong opinions on some myself. And we would sometimes like to bring the gospel into service of some cause, just for a moment, till the crisis passes, but this reminds me of Tolkien’s ring. You think you will use it for a good purpose, but it ends up using you. So, first of all, we are patient and long-suffering with Caesar, but God cedes none of his sovereignty. And we affirm that lordship when we show love for our enemies, as Jesus commands. This is more than being kindly. It acknowledges that recompense is God’s to mete out, not ours.
The Lord of whom Jesus speaks, who is his Father, Abba, ought not to be supposed as neutral, however. The idea of a God sleeping far off in the heavens is more a pagan or a deist notion, but not Christian. Ours is a God whose Son came incarnate into our midst and himself suffered the worst that Caesar could bring.
Second, he has a special love for the poor, the refugee, the dispossessed, the vulnerable. He calls them blessed and says that we can serve him as we serve them. Caesar will have to give account of how they are treated.
Third, we can say that the God of Jesus Christ does not respond in anger. To be sure, he was less than pleased with the moneychangers. But he refrains from calling on the angelic legions to save him. The form of the resurrection victory on which Church life is based was patience and prayer. Anger simply doesn’t play into the remit of the Church from Christ. This is a word of rebuke for so very much of our contemporary political life.
Fourth and finally, King Jesus has summoned all the nations together, from Pentecost on, as a dress rehearsal for the kingdom — all races, nations, classes. Now this is very much not what Caesar did. Ancient cities had walled-off sections for each nationality, a little like the Italian South End in Boston, or the French Quarter, or the Arab old city, or Harlem in an earlier era, but Caesar enforced it and built it so. But that is not what the Church is, because its first citizenship is to Christ. And so, though it prays for Caesar, and plants fields in Babylon, the Church stands as a loving challenge to every political order, especially as it resists all of the innumerable ways we try to affix the gospel to this nation, or that ethnicity. The Church blesses, but it shouldn’t ultimately fit in.
If there is only power and advantage, and revenge and self-protection, then sooner or later we will end up worshiping these things. Caesar was worshiped by the Romans, but so were violence and fate and power. And these sparkle at first, but they turn out to be jealous gods who eventually devour their worshipers, as every empire comes to learn.
God asks our whole heart, but in order not to devour us, but to set us free to be our intended selves, in worship of him. Deal with Caesar, yes, be a friend as far as possible, though he should turn out be the king of death, but recall who is life, and whence the kingdom has come and will come. And conduct yourselves first of all as citizens of the commonwealth of heaven, as Paul tells us in Philippians.
Render unto Caesar what is his, and to God what is his. Clear as mud? No, clear as glass, though you have to work out living it with fear and trembling. In this light, we can hear today’s collect, by Thomas Cranmer in a yet more conflicted political moment than our own, with sharper ears:
“Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.”
The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is Bishop of Dallas.