October 22th 2017 Pentecost 20A
Several years ago I was serving as the over-night on-call chaplain at the hospital in Columbia, SC and at around 11pm I received a page to go to the psychiatric ward. The gentleman who had me paged was a very interesting man. He was worried that night, mostly about something he had done just before being admitted to the hospital a few days earlier.
We chatted briefly and then, with very little ceremony, he jumped right in. “I sold my soul,” he told me. “I sold my soul to the devil.” He looked like he had just confessed to murder and was facing the death penalty. Completely terrified and desperately in need of help. Well, what do you say in response to that? How do you respond to a man who has just called the chaplain in the middle of the night to confess to having done some kind of economic transaction with The Prince of darkness? “Well, that sounds interesting. How did that come about?” I asked. “What did you sell it for?”
Throughout his life, he told me, whenever he came across something he wanted but was unable to have, he would say something like, ‘I’d sell my soul for that!’ It was just an expression; just something he said. Then one day, he began to realize that all those things he’d been joking about selling his soul for were working out the way he wanted! At least, that was how he perceived it. So, since everything was going so well for him, he started saying that all the time, even trivial things like ‘I’ll sell my soul to the devil if he’ll let my favorite football team win.’
I made a joke about how, since his favorite football team was the Carolina Panthers and they hadn’t won a game all season, it didn’t seem like Old Scratch had kept his end of the bargain. We talked for a long while about this sort of superstitious practice and it was clear that he faced many emotional and mental struggles in his life. This was just one of many. But at that moment he felt lost in an ultimate and permeant kind of way.
More than anything else, right then, he was absolutely desperate to know that God wasn’t going to abandon him. “You know,” I said, “I could sell you the Cooper River Bridge down in Charleston.” He looked at me sideways, as if he were at a car dealership and being offered an unbelievable deal. “No disrespect preacher lady, but I really don’t think you own that bridge. I’m no fool!” “You’re right,” I said, “I don’t. I cannot sell something that doesn’t belong to me. Neither can you. God owns your soul. It is God who has bought and paid for you. In the church we sometimes say God has already paid your ransom from the devil. You could not sell your soul to the devil or anyone else even if you wanted to, any more than I could sell the Cooper River Bridge to anyone. For the very same reason. I don’t own the bridge. God owns your soul.”
The man looked at me wide eyed and said, “Well what do I tell him?” “Who?” I asked. “The devil of course! What do I tell him if he comes to collect tonight?” “Tell him he can take it up with Jesus. Give to the devil whatever he is due, but return to God what belongs to God.”
I do not know whether or not the devil came to Columbia that night to try to collect a soul, but I do know that Jesus was not about to give up that man’s soul to the devil or anyone else.
Give to the emperor of this world what is the emperor’s and give to God that which is God’s.
Today’s gospel text is a very interesting confrontation between Jesus and two other groups: the Pharisees and the Herodians. That last group is one we do not hear about very much. Both Herodians and the Pharisees were political factions within the Jewish religious and political culture during Jesus’ lifetime. There were many different groups like them within Jewish society somewhat like political parties or other political alliances today. The Pharisees were strongly against the Roman occupation of the land and their control of nearly every aspect of governance and public life. The Herodians were supportive of Herod who was the figure-head leader put in place by the Roman Emperor, Caesar, and were therefore supportive, at least to some degree, of the Roman occupation. They were on opposite sides of many arguments and issues, but in today’s text they go together to speak to Jesus about a significant political issue of their day: paying taxes to the emperor.
Well, it is so nice of the Pharisees and Herodians to be so kind to Jesus; consulting him on his opinion of what to do with this sensitive issue. They even put aside their differences to seek the opinion of this great teacher. Just listen to what those who go to Jesus are saying to him: “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.”
It seems only yesterday that they were steadfastly against Jesus. In all likelihood, earlier that same day the only thing that prevented them from mistreating and arresting Jesus was their fear of the crowds who believed him to be a prophet. Roughly a day or so before this meeting, Jesus was in the temple with zeal and anger driving out those who were taking financial advantage of the faithful. The Pharisees and Herodians had reason to be afraid. So, they were trying a different approach. Their flattery is transparent as they try to trick Jesus into saying something that will get him into trouble. It appears that there is no good or safe answer to their question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?
When they ask this question they are not asking Jesus if a law-abiding citizen of Rome should pay taxes to the emperor. Instead, they are questioning whether or not it is faithful to God’s law to give money to the emperor. From their perspective, if Jesus gives them a ‘yes’, then he will, among other things, certainly lose some of his popularity amongst the people, but the Herodians would be pleased since they are supportive of the group who benefits from Rome’s taxes. If Jesus answers with ‘no’ then he will have made what could easily be seen by the supporters of the Roman government and even Rome itself as revolutionary or inciting trouble amongst the Jews. The people in the crowds might have been quite pleased to hear it, as well as potentially the Pharisees, but it could have triggered his immediate arrest by the Roman authorities.
Jesus is trapped.
Or is he? Jesus is many things, of course, but this is one of these times where we see his cleverness in addition to his faithfulness and unwavering proclamation of truth.
Jesus’ situation makes me think of the way the church is often trapped in political tensions, with both sides, all sides, wanting an endorsement from church leaders and, by association, and endorsement from God that their perspective is the right one. It is a difficult place for the church to be because we are called to strive for justice and that makes it tempting to pick a political party, not just a position, on some issues. We really face this today in our dramatically polarized political landscape.
We are called to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. These very words are in our confirmation rite when we affirm our baptism. Striving for justice in all the earth is, in a manner of speaking, a portion of our mission statement as baptized Christians. But justice is not so much a political position than it is a virtue to which we are all called to strive, regardless of political affiliation.
And yet, a call from God to strive for the virtue of justice does require us to hold a variety of positions on many issues and to do so in public and work for just actions for others, especially the vulnerable, suffering, and those who cannot advocate for themselves, and to do so in public. Perhaps the church is not to be under or above the law, political influence or party or opinion, but to be something altogether beyond these things. It is possible that this is the way in which our faith calls all of us to lives that strive for the virtues of justice and peace for all in all the earth.
So back to Jesus. Is he trapped by the Pharisees’ and Herodian’s questions?
As usual, Jesus rises to the occasion and elevates the discussion to the larger picture, moving beyond divisive factions. He does not fall for their flattery and spares no one’s feelings in his response. “Why are you putting me to some sort of test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” They bring him the coin and he asks them, ‘so, whose picture is that? Whose image and title are on this coin?’ Of course, the answer is Caesar, the Roman emperor. Jesus tells them to give to Caesar what belongs to him and give to God what belongs to God.
Those who had questioned him are amazed by his answer and, on the surface, it looks like it is a smooth skirting of the question. A diplomatic answer. But this is more than a strategic evasion of their trap or a non-answer to avoid upsetting anyone. Jesus has given more than a response about paying taxes and any kind of civic responsibility.
Jesus’ answer is designed to move us out of the small, narrow thinking about worldly interactions alone and into a broader conversation about not what we own or owe but about who owns us. Humanly constructed governments are necessary and can be beneficial to everyone, and every nation has some version of a Caesar to which something must be rendered. So, render unto Caesar what he is due; the things that belong to him. That’s reasonable and perhaps ultimately trivial. But do not mess around with what belongs to God.
Who owns you–that is to say, who claims you? To whom do we belong? It may seem that we belong to one Caesar or another. Maybe we are owned by what we own; possessed by our possessions. Or perhaps we feel owned by something else that seems to have power over us. So much of our world is some version of economic exchange and we frequently assess our own value as a person based upon how much we are worth to others. We sell ourselves away a piece at a time to the world. To achieve, to gain, to survive. But at the end of all things, to whom do we belong?
The man I went to visit that night in the hospital believed he had somehow handed over his soul in exchange for trivial things. He believed that he was now owned by something else. He believed that he belonged to someone other than God and that someone was coming to collect on that debt, coming to claim his payment. Yet in truth, that was as likely as any of you trying to claim I sold you Charleston’s Cooper River Bridge.
In my time here we have baptized several people and every single time that has happened, we have witnessed, with our own eyes, God claiming them as God’s own. We experienced God’s presence right here in this sanctuary in a special way, coming down from heaven in the Holy Spirit, acting in the water and the word together and speaking through those waters to say: This Is My Child, This One Belongs To Me, And They Are Marked With The Cross Of Christ Forever.
We belong to God forever. Bought and paid for by the highest price imaginable on the cross. You cannot be owned by any Caesar. You cannot be owned by any group or debt or country or organization or addiction or person or anything else in all creation because God does not give up what has been gotten at such a dear cost. You belong to God forever and need never fear anyone or anything that claims to own you ever again. You are free to strive for justice and peace for all in all the earth and anything else God calls you to do and be, because you belong forever and only to the God of all creation.
So, give to the devil or Caesar or creditors or jobs or the world what they are due, but give to God what is God’s: your very self.