“The Government and Us” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on October 22nd, 2017. (Readings for 24A: Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 96:1-13, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22)
33:12 Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’
33:13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”
33:14 He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
33:15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.
33:16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
33:17 The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
33:18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
33:19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
33:20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
33:21 And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock;
33:22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by;
33:23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
96:1 O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.
96:2 Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
96:3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.
96:4 For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods.
96:5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.
96:6 Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
96:7 Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
96:8 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts.
96:9 Worship the LORD in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.
96:10 Say among the nations, “The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.”
96:11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
96:12 let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
96:13 before the LORD; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
1:1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
1:2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly
1:3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1:4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you,
1:5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
1:6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit,
1:7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
1:8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.
1:9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God,
1:10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
22:16 So 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.
22:17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
22:18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?
22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.
22:20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
22:21 They 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.”
22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
I want to begin by saying a quick word about our lesson from Exodus today. The Hebrew scriptures are composed of the writings of many different traditions. One of the earliest is what’s called the Yahwist tradition and it’s often been presented as a primitive tradition because God is often portrayed in very human terms. But I want to suggest that, just as scholars were so often wrong when they told us indigenous peoples really thought different aspects of creation, the sun, the moon, different animals were Gods, rather than different expressions or reflections of God, so too, I think they are wrong to think that just because people used human terms to talk about God that they really thought of God as a kind of human being. The period of the Yahwist movement, much like the period of the Jesus movement or the Irish renaissance, was a period marked by an incredible breakthrough in terms of the vision and understanding of God. It marked a period in which people had a much more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of God and spirituality than most of us have today. So rather then thinking that people then were stupider, or more superstitious, or living in a completely different world than we are, I’d encourage you to be open to the possibility that when they tell stories about the divine in very personal/human terms, like a God who walks in a garden in the cool of the day, I’d encourage you to hear it not literally, but rather as a metaphorical way of speaking about their experience of the divine and what it has taught them.
In terms of the Divine approaching us in a very human way, last week I talked about humor as one way the divine talks to us, so I don’t want you to miss the humor in our lesson from Exodus today. Today we hear that the great leader Moses is apparently not satisfied with God’s presence and the renewal it brings, so he asks to see God’s glory. God response is as follows:
You stand on this rock. I will make all my goodness pass before you, but I will also cover your eyes for you cannot see my face, for no one can see my face and live. After I have passed by you can look and — you can see my back-side.
If this is based on a Yawhist story I’m sure the original used a less polite word for the word “back-side.”
I love that. Here we are created in the image of God, created little less than angels, and yet in case we’re getting too full of our selves, in case, we’re beginning to confuse ourselves with God, the Yahwist says we are only able to handle the equivalent of the back-side of God’s glory. And yet they also say that even if we are only able to handle the back-side of God’s glory, even that experience of the divine presence leaves us –like the trees of the forest–shouting with joy.
Now I think we need to draw on the divine presence and the rest and renewal it give us if we are going to be able to address the questions raised by our gospel today about our relationship to the government, which in our gospel today is represented by the image of Caesar.
Jesus’ enemies are hoping to catch him in a trap by either having him declare his opposition to paying taxes to Caesar, in which case he can be arrested and killed, or have him call for paying taxes to Caesar, in which case the crowds will turn against him. That’s why his enemies come to him praising him as a “sincere” truth teller who “does not show partiality towards people.” ie. whose not afraid of Caesar or the crowds.
Jesus gets out of this trap by asking them to: “show me the coin used for the taxes.” When they do–he asks “”Who head is this, and whose title” to which they have to answer the emperor’s. Now two things about this that all of Jesus’ listens would have understood. First, one of the Ten Commandments is “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” This is why Jewish coins didn’t have images of humans on them for that was considered idolatrous–turning a human being into a God. Secondly, not only did Roman money have the image of Caesar on them, but they were inscribed with the words “Augustus Caesar Son of God.” In other words, they proclaim Caesar to be a God at a time the worship of idols was understood by the Jewish people to be incompatible with the worship of God.
Having revealed Caesar’s idolatrous claims Jesus then says they should “give to Caesar what is due to Caesar and to God what is due to God.” Since, in the Hebrew understanding, “all the earth and all that therein is” is God’s, it means that Cesar has no claims on us, except in so far as they are part of what we owe to the Lord, which clearly does not include honoring Caesar’s idolatrous claim to being a God.
Jesus suggests it’s not a matter of whether it is lawful or not to pay taxes to Cesar, but a much more complicated question of which of Caesar’s claims are legitimate. All that seems very straight forward, and yet, through so much of Christian history these questions have been ignored and instead Christians have acted as if they should obey their governmental leaders. In the process, at the behest of those leaders, Christians have been involved in every kind of evil you can imagine: murder, theft, rape, exploitation, oppression, the desecration of people and the environment.
As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, we are willingly do all kinds of evil in the name of obedience to our government that we would never consider doing as individuals. Evil happens when we disconnect from our hearts and minds and feelings and consciousness and much of the great evil we see happens in our world happens when we disconnect from them in the name of obedience to governmental leaders. We also know from Stanly Milgram’s experiments that most of us feel such a compulsion to obey authority figures that we are willing to harm others even if we don’t want to, even if we believe it is wrong, if we are ordered to do it by authority figures.
How did Christians get to this place? I have more questions than answers. Part of it comes from obedience to Biblical texts like the text we find in Romans chapter thirteen. I want you to listen to it as if you are a Christian living in Nazi Germany, whose been ordered to go into the army to invade other countries, or into the police force to persecute political dissidents, Jews, gay, and handicapped people.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority[a] does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7)
Now at the time Paul wrote those words Nero had apparently recently become the new Roman emperor. Maybe there was still hope he would turn out to be a decent ruler, we now know he turned out to become one of the most monstrous of the Roman emperors.
Let’s also be clear, despite how clear and simple the text sounds, it’s very unclear what Paul is saying. This is the same Paul who in 2 Corinthians 11:24-25 reports that “five times I have received …. the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned.” I don’t know what justice system stoned Paul, but one suspects that the forty lases given by Jewish authorities and the being beaten with rods, which was one of the punishments Roman authorities meted out, didn’t happen because Paul was being obedient to the authorities. Rather one suspects that Paul responded to the authorities the way Peter and the Apostles did when they were ordered to stop preaching about how the authorities killed Jesus and they responded by saying “We must obey God rather than men. ” (Act 5:29)
How do we get from Jesus’ teaching that obedience to God comes before obedience to authorities to this apparent call to be “to be subject to the authorities,” or is the call to be subject to the authorities not, as so many came to believe, the same thing as obeying them? I don’t know, again I have more questions then answers.
What I do know is that though, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says that those who treat the written word like the law are forfeiting salvation, Christians so often do treat the Bible in an idolatrous kind of way such that texts like this, that I suspect for Paul were nothing more than a call to avoid unnecessary trouble with the authorities, have been turned into texts of terror that can turn the Christian faith into something that is monstrous.
Christianity is the only world religion whose founders, including Jesus, Peter, Paul and many of the apostles, were executed by the state. This is not an accident. We also know that somehow, somewhere, along the line, that their holy disobedience that meant, for example, that no Christians were willing to serve in the army in the early church, came to be replaced by an idolatrous obedience such that most Christians in Nazi Germany felt obligated to fight for Hitler citing texts like Roman Thirteen. If Christian teachings seem to tell you to fight for Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, it’s hard to imagine a situation where you wouldn’t obey your governmental leaders. Thus we can see it is not an accident that Christians have fought on almost every side of every war since the early church making a total mockery of the whole concept of the body of Christ. This is why, after World War II, more and more Christians began to realize that we cannot, in the name of obedience to governmental authorities, sacrifice our faith, values, and consciences. We cannot claim to be following in the way of Jesus and be in a simple obedience relationship with Caesar.
But friends, the implications of what we face for our faith go far deeper than simply whether we adhere to, or reject, certain claims the government makes on us. Partly as a result of Christian thought many of us have come to see democracy as the best way to promote God’s commonwealth and protect human rights. Yet we are now in a time, when like the periods leading up to World War I and World War II, where we are witnessing an increasing pessimism about the collective capacity of human being to govern ourselves and work together for the common good. Certainly, there is much evidence of our collective failures, but the despair and cynicism that is sweeping the globe, that promotes distrust of public institutions and leadership, and that is leading people to put their trust in strong men, is not only not going to lead us to a place of greater justice, equality, and compassion, but is instead leading to disaster.
So the challenges facing us today go far beyond the vision of protest movements that focus on how to resist unjust governmental actions, to the question of how, in the midst of this time, we can act to overcome the kind of despair and cynicism about the human capacity to work for the common good, which is fundamentally undermining our ability to respond to the challenges and evils we need to confront.
One of the revolutionary aspects of the early Jesus movement was it’s affirmation of human dignity and it’s belief in the capacity for human beings to be ambassadors for God, agents of God’s commonwealth, here on earth. How do we, in our time, be those ambassadors to help people remember their divine nature, their divine inheritance? This is something I think we really need to be wrestling with and I believe that if we are willing, God is able, and if we are ready, God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.