Sunday, October 16, 2005

What's left for Caesar?

Today’s gospel reading is about drawing lines. Where do we draw the line between Caesar and God? Between the state and the church?

The Anglican tradition has generally had a close relationship with the state. We came out of a great conflict between church and state when England’s Henry VIII defied the church and insisted that the king should have authority over the church in his realm. There was a great deal of justification for Henry’s position, but it should make us a little uneasy. The church often has to say things to kings that they do not want to hear, and it can be difficult to rebuke a king who pays your salary.

The American revolution changed the relationship between church and state, and the Episcopal church became independent of the state. That, I think, makes for a healthier relationship between church and state.

A vivid symbol of the relationship between church and state is the presence of the American flag in most Episcopal churches. I have no objection to the presence of the flag in the church, but I would strenuously object to having a flag flying ABOVE a church. Having a flag flying above a church indicates that the church is under the authority of the state, but a flag inside a church says that the state is beneath the sacred canopy, that we owe our ultimate loyalty to God and not to Caesar.

The New Testament gives us conflicting messages about church and state. On the one hand, Paul acknowledges that God has appointed earthly rulers to maintain order. So far, so good. Caesar provides a police force to enforce the laws and restrain criminals. The state maintains roads and delivers the mail. But the New Testament also warns us against the creeping sacralization of the state. What I mean by that is that every state in human history from ancient Rome to the United States in our own day has a tendency to seek divine honors, and we often find ourselves giving honor to the state that belongs to God.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus asks his opponents for a coin. The coin they gave him had an image on it, probably the image of Tiberius, the Roman ruler who assumed power after the death of Augustus in 14 AD. “Whose image is this and what is the inscription?” Jesus asked the Pharisees and Herodians, and they replied, “The emperor’s.” But notice that they did not answer the second part of Jesus’ question, “What is the inscription?” To have quoted the inscription would have been to commit the sin of blasphemy, because the inscription read, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, great high priest”.

Jesus’ question put his opponents on the defensive because it not only made them confront the fact that they were dealing with a state that claimed divine honors but it also reminded them of another image – the divine image that is stamped on every human life.

So where does that leave us? What are the things that we are to give back to Caesar and what are the things that belong to God? Where do we draw the line between church and state? Caesar’s image, then and now, is on our coins, but God’s image is on our lives. Caesar has a claim to at least some of our coins, but he does not have a claim on our lives.

Christians have to live with the uneasy knowledge that God and Caesar may at any moment come into conflict. We are right to pray our president and other political leaders but we also pray “thy kingdom come”. We pray that all of earth’s kingdoms, including the United States, may one day yield to God’s kingdom. We acknowledge that no earthly kingdom perfectly reflects the divine justice, that all stand under God’s judgment.

Jesus’ devastating non-answer to the Pharisees’ trick question – “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” – throws the burden back on us. What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? I think we can get some help in solving the puzzle if we look at the context in which Matthew has set today’s gospel reading.

The question about taxes and tribute was the first of three controversy stories in the 22nd chapter of Matthew. In the third story, the Pharisees ask Jesus which of the laws is the greatest, and he replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” I think that solves the dilemma posed in the first story, the one we heard today. What do we owe Caesar and what do we owe God? We owe God all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. Caesar can have everything else.