So last week, the rector and I were discussing the parable in Matthew he was going to preach on. It was that tricky one about the king throwing a party that no one comes to, so he burns down a city in retribution, and kidnaps a whole second city into coming to his party.
It is tricky for some (hopefully) obvious reasons.
I suppose it was those discussions that led the rector to announce, in the course of HIS sermon, that I would be unpacking the ensuing pericope in Matthew, so everyone should show up next week to see how I did it. At the time, I had not planned on doing that, but I am loathe to disappoint an entire church-ful of people, or to so publicly flout a reasonable request from my rector. So I duly took on the famous “Render unto Caesar” passage.
I really dislike this passage–not for what it actually says, but for the ways in which it has been applied over the years. The neat division between secular and sacred by people who claim the Incarnation has troubled me for years–ever since my professor in college went on a tangent one day and exegeted this passage.
We were supposed to be discussing the history and development of human rights in Islamic law that day, but one of the articles we had read cited the oft-made argument that Western Christianity alone was responsible for the development of freedom of religion, because of this ‘render unto Caesar’ passage. Prof Sonn could not even with this historical and exegetical blunder, and took a time out to explain how that was NOT AT ALL what Jesus was doing, and NO ONE thought about distinct religious and political spheres until modernism, and also, the concept of dhimmi was ample evidence of an Islamic concern for the religious rights of minorities, and it’s not like medieval Europe did so great in that regard either, because what was that Hundred Years’ War about again? She had some strong feelings on this, as she did on most things.
But it was the first time that I had heard an alternate interpretation to the traditional Two Kingdoms line, and it stuck with me. (Also, the proclivity to fly into tangents about academic ridiculousness complete with handwaving and sarcasm.)
Here’s what I said, with a hat-tip to Prof Sonn.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
October 22, 2017
Ordinary Time, Proper 24
- Here is my long awaited sermon on the puzzling Caesar vs God parable in Matthew, that Fr. Stan so generously previewed last week. As was promised, I will preach on the Gospel. I had thought about preaching on Isaiah, because Cyrus the Persian is the DREAMIEST OF ALL BIBLICAL CHARACTERS, but alas, no.
- As Fr. Stan said, this is indeed a tricky passage. We know this in part from the Pharisees and Herodians saying to each other, “we’re going to be tricky”. It’s a bit of a giveaway. But also from the way this passage has been treated over time.
- Because part of the challenge of the Bible is that we read–not just the words on the page–but also the history of how those words have been interpreted and used. How these passages have been understood by people before us through time. For better and for worse.
- So this passage, for example, from the time of Martin Luther, helped give rise to something called the Two Kingdoms doctrine.
- The idea was that God ruled over history in two distinct ways: God ruled over secular affairs through secular or civil authority, and over spiritual affairs through religious authority.
- It was a variation on Luther’s ideas about law and gospel–the law being the civil authority, and the gospel being religious. Which was helpful, because it would be tough to run a kingdom if the king cheerfully forgave all murderers and let them run freely around as an act of grace.
- But Luther was clear that civil leaders got to govern in their own way, and should have NOTHING TO DO WITH RELIGION. Religious leaders, on the other hand, shouldn’t meddle in the affairs of the state, because their ‘kingdom’ was separate.
- The reason being, Luther reasoned, was that Civil authority existed to curb the worst impulses of non-believers. Religion, on the other hand, was effective for believers.
- This gave rise to some really GOOD effects on the government side–John Locke cited Luther when he wrote the philosophy which led to our First Amendment. Governments realised that their role was not to dictate religion. Good idea. Solid.
- On the flip side, however, churches started to pick up the idea that their job was not to meddle in the affairs of governments, or even, in extreme cases, to have opinions about them. Instead, their job was to keep rendering unto Caesar. That’s….not as great.
- The Roman Catholic church sort of picked up this theory too, eventually, but called it the two swords theory, where one was temporal, and was much lower than the spiritual sword. But still! Separate things!
- So when we read this, that’s frequently the background music we hear playing. Give to Caesar what is Caesar; give to God what is God’s. Of course! We think! They’re two separate realms!
- And yet, if that were true? This would not be a trap.
- This is a hard question for Jesus precisely because THERE IS NO SEPARATION.
- This is a trap because there is no clear answer–least of all a clear division.
- This conversation is happening as the Leaders are standing in the Temple–an edifice built by a Roman-Jewish Client king, in order to curry favor with the locals, first of all.
- That also meant that the Roman coin couldn’t even come inside the gates. Caesar’s image was breaking the 1st commandment against graven images.
- The crowd is not a fan of Rome, so signing off on Roman taxes will make Jesus unpopular.
- HOWEVER, saying people should NOT pay taxes makes him a traitor to Rome. It’s a trap.
- But either way you go–you see how religion and the secular world are intertwined.
- To be Jewish is to take a certain position with regards to Rome. To be Roman is to have another position with regards to Judaism. The entire question posed by the leaders here rests on the idea that THERE IS NO SEPARATION between these ‘two kingdoms’–rather, there’s one kingdom.
- And Jesus has to pick one.
- He goes with “Give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s–i.e. The coin” and “give to God’s what is God’s.”
- Here’s the catch:
- To an observant Jew, or even a non-observant one, ALL THE WORLD was the Lord’s. There’s no part that isn’t God’s, where Caesar would reign. That’s axiomatic. Part of the reason people didn’t want to pay taxes to Caesar was that taxes were a symbolic acknowledgement of Caesar’s rule over them.
- What Jesus is doing is carefully threading a needle here. He’s caught between empire and the demands of faith. And while the empire has daily demands that ask for compliance, God has larger commands that call upon our lives. How we negotiate that is a test of faith.
- Ultimately, when the Empire demands coins, that’s not a big deal; coins are essentially worthless. When the Empire demands supreme allegiance, loyalty, to the exclusion of what God asks of you–that’s a problem.
- So the task for us is not to divide the world up into neat spheres of influence.
- The earth is the Lord’s and all that is therein, after all.
- God actually gets a say in all that we do–we have to carry Christ’s call to us to be unconditionally loving, generous and merciful into ALL aspects of our lives.
- But we do have to decide what in our lives belongs to the Empire, so that we can give it back.
- What rightly belongs to God? What rightly belongs to the Empire?
- There will always be the claims of Empire in our lives–whether we are on the victorious, Roman side or not.
- The risk for us is to confuse our loyalties.
- God still controls the world, not the Empire. And while we still need to contend with the earthly reality of these powers which rise and fall, we cannot escape that our primary responsibility is to God. Period.
- Whether we are subjects of Rome, of the United States, of Capitalism, or the most sacred of Empires, that of Major League Baseball–that doesn’t let us avoid the call of God. God still asks us to live our faith. Even as Uncle Sam asks us to pony it up.
- We get to decide what that negotiation looks like. I’m sure those disciples argued about it–chances are good they disagreed strenously.
- But the two kingdoms still pull us. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. Complying with their every whim doesn’t make them go away.
- We have to carry our discipleship into the midst of Rome, in order to change them. We have to transform the empire from within, by staying true to the primary call of Christ to us.
- Only then will the world be transformed into the reign of God we wish to see.