October 18, 2020
20th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Psalm 96:1-13; Matthew 22:15-22
Have you seen that bumper sticker that says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”? New Testament scholar Dale Martin—one of my seminary professors—finds it maddening when he hears people say, “But the Bible says…” For one thing, the Bible doesn’t talk. The Bible doesn’t say anything until it is read and interpreted, and the way I interpret the Bible as a gay white man in America might be different from the way you read the Bible from your own social location. But despite that reality, Dale Martin has observed that we regularly hear “a certain tone in debates about Christian ethics, a tone by which one or both parties in the debate seem to say, ‘Don’t blame me! I’m not opposed to gay people (or the ordination of women, or name your issue). The Bible is.” “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Professor Martin goes on to say that “people throughout history… have committed grave ethical offenses—supporting slavery, oppressing women, fighting unjust wars, killing, torturing, and harming their fellow human beings—under the cover of ‘the Bible says.’” He concludes that “immoral interpretations can be—and have been—blamed on the text rather than the interpreter.”
There is a solution to this problem. Martin says that God should be at the center of everything. God should be at the center of our reading of scripture. And God is love. When we read the Bible, we should expect to find love—which means that “any interpretation of Scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or… respectable.” Putting God at the center of everything means anytime we are faced with a decision—whether it’s how to interpret the Bible, how to spend our money, how to think about hot-button issues, or yes, even how to vote in an election—we have to ask the question, “What is the loving thing to do.”
God should be at the center of everything, and that means filtering out all the noise and distractions and everything else that tries to pull our attention away, and remaining deeply rooted in love. Putting God at the center means love should be the lens through which we view the world.
This Gospel lesson is a story most of us remember well. Jesus has brought his radical message from the backwaters of Galilee to the halls of power in Jerusalem, where he has met with intense opposition. After arriving in Jerusalem, the various factions of the religious establishment unite in their efforts to undermine and discredit him. A couple Sundays ago it was the chief priests and elders who confronted Jesus; today it’s the Pharisees and the Herodians—two groups that are on polar opposite ends of the religio-political spectrum. Only Jesus, who threatened to topple the status quo and establish a new order, could make allies of these two groups that were natural enemies.
These Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus with a question. “OK, Jesus,” they say. “You’re so smart and everyone says you know the truth. So tell us: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Here’s what you need to know. In Jesus’ day, Jews were forced to pay a tax to the Roman government. The Jewish homeland was, at that point, a colony of the Roman Empire. And the tax the Jews were forced to pay funded the Roman army and the government that occupied their country. So, of course, this tax wasn’t very popular among the people. Worse yet, the tax had to be paid using Roman coins, and those coins bore the image of the emperor with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus.” In other words, the coins claimed the emperor was God—and that offended the Jews who had been commanded to worship their God alone.
The question, “Is it lawful to pay the tax?” was a trap. If Jesus said, “No, it is not lawful to pay the tax,” the Roman occupiers would see Jesus as a political agitator threatening insurrection, and he would likely find himself arrested and imprisoned. On the other hand, if Jesus said, “Yes, it is lawful,” he would lose credibility with his fellow Jews, who resented the fact that they had to pay this repulsive Roman tax with these offensive Roman coins.
Jesus defuses the question with a clever—and ambiguous—answer. He says, “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and give to God what is God’s.” That verse is often used as a shorthand summary of how Christians should engage with government, as though Jesus is saying, “OK, yes, pay the tax—that belongs to Caesar—but your life belongs to God. Pay the tax but give your whole life to God.” That’s probably the safer interpretation. It doesn’t get anyone in trouble. It doesn’t rock the boat too much. Caesar can have his tax but God still comes out ahead in the end. It allows for a happy coexistence of church and state.
But what if Jesus really believes that everything belongs to God, and so when he says, “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and give to God what is God’s,” what he actually means is, “Give to the emperor nothing, because everything belongs to God”? That’s a more radical—and more dangerous—idea. That would be Jesus demolishing the status quo and establishing a new order.
I think this is Jesus bringing a message about putting God at the center of everything. Everything belongs to God. But there are so many forces that compete for our loyalty and devotion—the forces of fame and adoration, money and power, ideology, vengeance. Maybe “the emperor” is a metaphor for anything that seeks our utmost devotion. The emperor tries to lay ultimate claim to our lives. The emperor wants our time, our money, our attention, our lives. The emperor wants to be, as the inscription says on the coin, our god. The emperor wants to be the center of everything and to ensure that nothing threatens his rule. And if we don’t resist it—if we give the emperor the power he demands—the emperor’s values end up supplanting our own and dominating our world. We lose our compass and find ourselves lost at sea with the waves crashing around. Jesus says today: Everything belongs to God, so we give everything to God. Giving everything to God means putting God at the center, making God’s ways our ways. And God’s way is love. Love should be at the center.
Making God’s ways our ways and putting love at the center seems more important than ever in the heat of this election, at a time when the news reports outrage after outrage designed to command our attention, wear us down, and sever us from our core values, so that love is supplanted by hatred, fear, and division. I know I’m not the only one who feels as though my sense of humanity has been eroded, my capacity for empathy has been diminished, and I have been lured down the path of anxiety, mistrust, and hostility. That is what happens when something other than God makes a claim on us and we are drawn into its unholy orbit. Giving to God what belongs to God means giving ourselves, our whole selves, all of ourselves, to God, with love as the lens through which we view the world.
I’m convinced that the church has an important role to play in healing our society, and it will require us constantly to reorient ourselves, putting God back in the center, rooting ourselves in love, resisting every effort by competing forces to divert our attention and knock us off course. It’s probably going to take a lot of practice and the encouragement you find here in worship Sunday after Sunday. But with God at the center and love as our guide, I believe a new world is possible. Thanks be to God.
Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster, 2006).