A sermon on Mark 12:13-17
My friend Sue grew up with a favorite aunt, Aunt Jenny. Aunt Jenny never told Sue what to think, however by example she taught Sue how to think. Whenever they would discuss an issue Aunt Jenny would leave the conversation open ended by simply asking, “…and what do you think about that?” What a marvelous way to teach critical thinking.
Reflecting on Mark’s gospel this week brought Sue’s stories of Aunt Jenny back to me. Frankly I’ve been relieved by the admission of several colleagues that we do not know what Jesus meant when he said, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” I do offer a thesis about what he didn’t mean.
The first group is the Pharisees, a group resistant to paying the head tax to their Roman overlords, most likely because the emperor considered himself a deity making giving to him the same as idolatry.
The other group, the Herodians, advocated pragmatic collaboration with the Romans. We don’t know much about the Herodians but the name implies sympathy with a line of violent and irreligious kings who ruled in Judea at Rome’s behest and who were generally despised by pious, nationalistic Jews.
That these two opposing factions were in cahoots would have been the ancient version of working across the political aisle.
They were setting Jesus up when they asked if it was lawful to pay the tax to the emperor. Jesus knew if he said, “Yes. We should pay the tax,” the popular base that resonated with his anti-establishment preaching would complain that he was giving in to special interests.
But if he said “No,” he would be accused of sedition or in other words he’s be inciting people to rebel against the government.
And so he brilliantly asks to see a denarius, the Roman coin used in Israel in those days. Whose face is on the coin? The emperor! “Then…give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
Yay, Jesus! That settled it only if you lived in the first century. What about today?
Most biblical scholars agree that our modern separation of church and state is just that, modern. A devout Jew of the first century could never imagine separating their lives into political and religious spheres. To be Jewish is to fully integrate the ethics of your life with and because of your religion. It should be the same for Christians.
Crediting Jesus with laying the foundation for the separation of church and state doesn’t make sense. Remember that the past few weeks Jesus has been telling us that the first should be last, and the last will be first. That the greatest are those who humble themselves and serve. That the rich man should sell all he had and give it to the poor. Jesus regularly inverted social values, teaching the disciples a better and more embodied way.
He was NOT advocating for state sponsored religion but I do believe he was advocating for us to likewise integrate our faith with the way we live out our lives.
Let me be clear here. America was founded by Christians but not exclusively FOR Christians. Our founders escaped the tyranny of state sponsored religion which is why we have separation of church and state in our government.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.”
That said, as individuals I think Jesus invites us–actually demands of us–that we be thinking regularly and relentlessly about how all of our decisions (what we think, what we buy, who we vote for, where we spend our time) should be shaped by the confession that, indeed, the whole world is God’s and everything in it! Including us!
With that in mind our ushers are distributing sharpie markers. I’d like you to take out the debit or credit card you use most often and mark it with a small cross. OK? Now, show me the money!
How does someone who belongs to God allocate their money? How will you make decisions of conscience about what you support and what you do not?
By all means, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. This is more than a cute exercise. This is a way of being daily mindful about your choices, a way of being more integrated. The way we spend our money as individuals and as a nation is a moral confession of who and whose you/we are.
This beautiful nation is made up of people who answered the call inscribed on the statue of liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Yes, it is true that my colleagues don’t always know what Jesus means. Sometimes what is true is that we know what he did not mean. And that is equally important.
My name is Dr. Robyn Provis and I approved this message.
And what do you think about that?