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Who And What

October 22, 2017


A Sermon Proclaimed at

Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland, CA

October 22, 2017, 8 AM and 11 AM


Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So 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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They 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.’22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Many people, including those who are not religious, are familiar with this saying from the King James Version of the Bible:  Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.  (Matthew 22:21)    


Jesus made that statement in response to a question from interrogators from the Pharisee and Herodian factions within the Palestinian Jewish community.  Pharisees were the religious sect known for their devotion to Jewish ethnic, religious, and national identity.  Palestine was a colony of the Roman Empire, which had a standing military force in the land.  The image of the Roman Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, was stamped on a coin which the Roman Empire required to be paid as a tax.  Tiberius Caesar was not only head of the Roman Empire; Roman culture claimed that the emperor was divine.  


Pharisees resented being ruled by the Romans.  Pharisees bristled at being occupied people in their own homeland, and having to put up with Roman soldiers.  And the idea of having to pay taxes to that foreign power with a coin bearing the image of Tiberius Caesar violated the commandments about not having any other god beside Jehovah and not making graven images of any deity.  


Herodians were Palestinian Jewish people who had figured out how to get ahead by being complicit in and cooperating with the Roman Empire.  Herod held the title of king by the Romans, but he was merely a figurehead.  Herodians knew out how to advance themselves from Roman occupation.  Work hard.  Pay the taxes.  Don’t make waves.  Don’t abusive and homicidal behavior by the occupation force of Roman soldiers.  Salute the Empire.  


So Jesus knew something was up when a delegation of interrogators approached him that included Pharisees and Herodians.  Those folks were never on the same page before Jesus showed up.  Pharisees and Herodians got together because they each had a problem with Jesus.


Jesus was a problem to the Pharisees because of his radical inclusiveness.  Somehow, Jesus had the notion that God’s love included women (including women whose exercise of sexual freedom violated notions of male patriarchy and supremacy), people whose ethnicity was not Jewish, and even Jewish people who earned their living collecting taxes for the Roman Empire.  


And Jesus posed a problem to the Herodians.  His teaching and preaching about what he called the kingdom of heaven seemed out of step with the notion that the Roman Empire was in charge.  


These opposing factions – Pharisees and Herodians – got together to ask Jesus whether it was morally right for people to pay taxes to the Roman Empire.  If Jesus said that paying the tax was right, the Pharisees would discredit him to the common folk as disloyal to God and to the notion of Palestinian sovereignty.  If Jesus said that paying the tax was not right, the Herodians would discredit him to the Roman authorities that occupied Palestine.  


And to make their interrogation appear innocent, they interrogators resorted to flattery.  “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no none; for you do not regard people with partiality.  Tell us, then, what do you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  


“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?  Show me the coin used for the tax.  Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus knew they didn’t mean well and called them hypocrites, the most damning term he used for anyone.  


Jesus called them hypocrites!  That is a strong lesson for us.  Jesus knew his interrogators were moral and political frauds.  The Pharisees were not concerned about allegiance to the Roman Empire.  The Herodians were not concerned about faithfulness to God.  Jesus was a threat to both factions.  His notion of God’s inclusiveness threatened the idea held by Pharisees that the Jewish ethnic group had a monopoly on God’s love, truth, power, and justice.  His notion of loyalty to God’s will threatened the Roman imperial claim followed by Herodians that human empires deserve unconditional allegiance.  So Jesus called them hypocrites.  


We should certainly give honor where it belongs.  But that also means we should call things by their proper names.  When wolves show up in sheep’s clothing we, following the example of Jesus, should call them out as frauds and hypocrites.   


People who claim that kneeling during the national anthem – a peaceful and solemn demonstration of concern begun by Colin Kapernick and now continued by other athletes in the National Football League about the ongoing state-sanctioned maiming and slaughter of black, brown, and poor people by police – demonstrates disloyalty to the nation, disrespect for the flag, and dishonor toward military personnel should be called by their right names – hypocrites!


President Donald Trump and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones are men who have never served anything higher than their own egos and greed.  Yet they accuse people who kneel –  a universal sign of reverence – during the national anthem disrespectful?  Call them by their right names – hypocrites!   


Politicians refused for decades to agree that drug addiction by black, brown, and poor people was a public health crisis.  Now they claim that opioid addiction among white people who abuse prescription medication is a health crisis.  Call them by their right names – hypocrites!


People said and did nothing when civil rights workers were murdered and terrorized while trying to register black people to vote.  They said and did nothing for years as votes were destroyed.  They said and did nothing for years when polling precincts in black, brown, and poor communities were moved or closed.  They said and did nothing for years as black, brown, poor, senior citizen, and college student voters were intimidated, threatened, and otherwise cheated out of the right to cast votes and have their votes accurately counted.  Now they claim to be concerned about voter fraud and election integrity and are pushing for strict voter ID laws.  Call them by their right name – hypocrites! 


Yet Jesus raised another, and deeper, issue when he told the hypocritical interrogators to give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and give God what belongs to God. Rather than answer the question for them, Jesus responded in a way that forced his interrogators – and everyone else – to deal with the issue of faith and empire, a problem as old as humanity.    


Who is our Emperor [Caesar]?  What does the Empire claim from us?


Who is God?  What does God deserve from us?

What happens when we allow imperial claims on our lives to take precedence over what God expects from us concerning love, justice, truth, and peace? 


The issue for Jesus then and for us now is deeper and wider than whether to pay taxes.  It is about treating claims of empire as if they are divine.  It is about whether we, in the name of allegiance to empire, will turn away from God’s call for love, mercy, truth, justice, and peace for all persons and the creation.  Whenever any human authority – any notion of empire – does so, that empire makes an ungodly demand on us.  


Jesus recognized that the Pharisees and Herodians had joined forces in a ploy to get him to treat their versions of human empire as equal to God.  And in that sense, the Pharisees and the Herodians were equally hypocritical and equally unfaithful.  The Pharisees thought and acted as if God could not be anything besides or other than their notions of national identity and religious ritual.  The Herodians thought and acted as if loyalty and success within the Roman Empire mattered more than anything else.  


Both the Pharisees and Herodians thought and acted as if their notions of empire – religious and cultural for the Pharisees and political and economic for the Herodians – didn’t have to fall in line behind allegiance to God’s commandment to love God totally and love others faithfully.  Jesus forced both groups to wrestle with the ways they had confused allegiance to God and with human empire.  


What about us?  Do we see ourselves in this lesson?  What ties do we have to systems of human power and control that compete with God’s call on us?  


No empire has the moral right to make people slaves.


No empire has the moral right to murder people.


No empire has the right to refuse to show mercy to people who are sick.


No empire has the moral right to turn away immigrants.


No empire has the moral right to treat women, children, senior citizens, and people who are poor as burdens and excess baggage to be discarded to make life more convenient and comfortable for people who are powerful, privileged, and wealthy.  


In the Hebrew Testament, midwives named Shiprah and Puah refused royal commands to commit infanticide and murder newborn Hebrew baby boys because they revered God.  Instead, they let the newborn babies live (Exodus 2:15-18).  


A prostitute in Jericho named Rahab refused to obey a royal command to turn over Hebrew immigrants.  Instead, she hid and protected them (Joshua 2).  


In the New Testament, the magi refused spy for King Herod and report where Jesus lived.  Instead, they returned to their homeland by a different route (Matthew 2:12).  

We read these passages, but do we see how they apply to this word from Jesus about not treating the claims of empire as superior to the will of God?  


Do we think about them when our government is trying to round up immigrants who are undocumented and deport them?  


Are we, like Rahab, defying the empire in the name of God’s love and justice and creating a 21st Century version of the Underground Railroad to protect immigrant families from the empire of white supremacy led by President Trump and Attorney General Sessions?  


Are we refusing to be bullied into mistreating our immigrant sisters and brothers because the white supremacy empire now wants to murder them politically the way the Egyptian pharaoh wanted Shiprah and Puah to physically murder Hebrew baby boys?  


Are we, in the name of God’s love and justice, protecting poor people from being denied access to affordable healthcare?  


Are we, in the name of God’s love, justice, and mercy, refusing to go along with state sanctioned robbery of poor people by law enforcement officers who use unproven suspicions to justify seizing their money, cars, and other property, holding it, and then selling it?


Because she refused to render to Caesar the allegiance that belongs to God, Rosa Parks refused to get up from that bus seat in Montgomery.


Because he refused to render to Caesar the allegiance that belongs to God, Martin King led Montgomery, Alabama bus passengers to boycott the Jim Crow municipal transportation company in that city.  


Because he refused to render to Caesar the allegiance that belonged to God, Muhammad Ali risked his the best years of his boxing career rather than serve in the U.S. military and risk being sent to fight in Vietnam.  


God said that we should love God and love other persons as we love ourselves.  Yet some people who claimed to know and love God created, enforced, and chose to obey Jim Crow laws that denied black and brown people equal treatment in this society.  They chose to be faithful to the empire of white supremacy rather than obey the command of God that we love our neighbors as ourselves.   


Meanwhile, Freedom Riders such as John Lewis refused to render to the empire of white supremacy the allegiance that belongs to God.  Those Freedom Riders risked their lives to violate Jim Crow laws that prohibited black people from using the same public accommodations as white people.


What claims of empire are we refusing to obey because they violate God’s call for love, justice, truth, mercy, and peace? 


We are citizens of this nation, but this nation is not God.  We are loyal to this nation, but that loyalty does not obligate us to disrespect God.  


We belong to God, not any empire!


We are made in God’s image, not the image of the United States or any other nation!


We bear the imprint of God’s love on our lives.  We live in God’s world.  We breathe God’s air.  We bask in the light of God’s sunshine.  


The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it… Psalm 24:1


LORD, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.  Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.  Psalm 100:1-2


We belong to God, first, last, and always, not any manifestation of empire, be it religious, commercial, political, cultural, or anything else.  Jesus shows us, through his response to the Pharisees and Herodians, that religious as well as secular people can deify notions of empire.  Let those who have an ear to hear, hear Jesus.  Give to the empire –whatever the empire may be, what belongs to it.  But we must not confuse the empire with God.  We should not confuse what we get from any empire with what we get from God.  


And in the name of Jesus, let this be our response to every version of empire.  Because God is love, let us love all persons, no matter what empires say or do.  Because God is merciful, let us show mercy to all persons, no matter what empires say or do.  Because God welcomes all, let us welcome all other persons as children of God with us, no matter what empires say or do!  


In the name of Jesus, let this be the way we respond to every form of empire.