“Just One of the Crowd,” Matthew 23:1-12

My son is an excellent athlete—a very good golfer, played on a high school state final four basketball team, skis well.  The irony is that I am the one who got him started in all those sports.  I taught him his first basic lessons.  So why is it that he is head and shoulders better than I in all things athletic and has been for many years?  When I asked him once why that was so, he just smiled and told me, “Dad, I just watched you and saw how not to do things.”  Fortunately, he also learned from my bad example how to be a more confident and relaxed father, husband, and overall good human being.  Apparently teaching by negative example can be a very effective educational methodology.  “Do as I say and not as I do”  becomes “Just do the opposite of what I  do and benefit from my boneheaded mistakes.”

In Matthew 23, Jesus uses the Scribes and Pharisees as examples of how not to be a faithful follower of God.  Jesus is teaching “the crowds” and his disciples, and he begins by saying, “The Scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it.”  So far that sounds like a pretty good recommendation, right?  Then comes the ‘but.’  “But do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (vs. 1-3).  Jesus then goes on to itemize a variety of prideful, egotistic behaviors these religious leaders engage in to support his argument that they don’t practice what they preach:  expecting others to live up to a higher standard than they do, showing off how religious they are by wearing prominently displayed religious symbols, doing good deeds not to help others but to earn brownie points with God, expecting the best seats of honor at church potlucks and luxury boxes at football games, I mean in the synagogues, always being greeted and treated with proper titles of honor.

It seems the Pharisees needed a shift to the educational philosophy that encourages teachers to move from being “the Sage on the stage to the guide on the side.”  Jesus says in verses 7 and 8, “they want to have people call them rabbi (teacher).  But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.”  In other words, no matter what our income tax bracket or net worth or educational pedigree, we are all part of the crowd learning together from the one true Rabbi, Jesus.

That does not mean the Pharisees are evil personified.  Their daily religious rituals and the reminders of God’s law they wear are good spiritual disciplines, as far as they go.  The world would be a better place if all of us were more conscious all the time of God’s commandments instead of treating them as mere suggestions.  Christians can learn a valuable lesson from our Muslim friends who take time to pray five times every day wherever they happen to be.  As Jesus reminds us, the Pharisees, the teachers of God’s laws “sit on Moses’ seat,” i.e. we should listen to those who specialize in studying God’s word and learn from them.  But the lesson ends when their actions are inconsistent with their words.  Do as they say and not as they do.  Jesus delivers a not so gentle reminder that those who are privileged to be messengers of God’s word bear huge responsibility.  The Pharisees sometimes forgot that they, like Moses himself, were recipients of God’s law, not the giver or creator of that law.  Because the Scribes and Pharisees let their position of authority go to their heads, this text reminds us all again that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

As always, the scriptures teach us more if we move from history lesson to current events, from pointing fingers at “them” to holding up a mirror in front of ourselves,.  Jesus makes it very clear that the Pharisees and Scribes don’t practice what they preach, but by verses 8-12 he does what some congregations describe as going “from preaching to meddling.”  He turns his teaching to the crowd and the disciples, and those with ears that work can hardly miss the point.  We are all students with one teacher and only one unfailing authority figure in our lives.  We are all called to be servants, not teachers or masters, and the take away line in verse 12 is, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This text is not a teacher evaluation for the Pharisees.  Its relevant question is to you and me: Do we practice what we preach?

  • We teach the Golden Rule and the love of neighbors as ourselves, but we pay our farmers not to grow wheat while thousands starve in Somalia.
  • We teach “thou shall not kill” but violence is epidemic in our society and we continue to develop more sophisticated and impersonal drones and other ways to eliminate our enemies.
  • We read over and over again in our Bibles that God wants us to care for the widows and orphans and strangers in our midst, but when it comes to welfare or health care reform or taxation, our first thoughts are often not “what is best for the weakest and most vulnerable members of our human family?”  Instead we ask, “What will this mean to my bottom line?”

I know because I say it too.  “I’ve paid my dues, worked my way through school, taken my job and my family responsibilities seriously.”  We’ve made it on our own, why can’t everybody else?  But have we “made it on our own?”  What do we take for granted that our parents and grandparents bequeathed to us – land, money, values and self-respect, a solid work ethic, a good education, a spiritual foundation.  Those are all things that many of the least fortunate people in our society and world have never had.  Competition can be good and build character and strength, but only in a fair game with a level playing field.  The danger with succeeding in any competitive venture is that we might begin to believe our own press clippings and think we deserve the seats of honor and special treatment for what we have achieved.  That’s why we only get 15 minutes of fame.  After that it starts to go to one’s head.

I learned a lot of valuable life lessons from my years as a Boy Scout—lessons that I only came to appreciate years later.  One of the most important is humility.  One of my best friends, Blaine Brunner, and I had a very serious but friendly competition to see which one of us could achieve our Eagle Scout badge first.  Eagle Scout is the highest rank in scouting and one that takes several years and a great deal of support and encouragement from family, community and scout leaders along the way.  Blaine and I ran a very close race through all of scouting’s ranks from Tenderfoot to 2nd Class, 1st Class, Star, and Life awards, always with our eye on the prize that took 21 merit badges in skills as diverse as cooking, swimming, hiking, and camping.  Fortunately, it turned out that we both completed our requirements at about the same time, and we were proud to receive our Eagle badges together during a Sunday morning worship service in our church.

The Eagle badge is a red, white and blue ribbon in the shape of a shield that has an eagle hanging below it.  The badge is worn by pinning it on the scout uniform over the left breast pocket.  Blaine and I wore those badges with great pride as long as we were in the scouting program.  When it came time to move on from scouting and our youth to the pursuits of young adulthood, my Eagle badge went into a shoe box along with other mementos of that part of my life.  I found that box while packing for a move several years later, and to my dismay discovered that the ribbon on my cherished Eagle Scout badge had been shredded by a mouse who needed material for her nest.  “All who exalt themselves will be humbled.”

This text fits well for Reformation Sunday, a time to reflect on the principles that inspired the Protestant Reformation nearly 500 years ago.  Humility is foundational to the Protestant Principle which reminds us that there is always room for improvement in the church and in us as individuals.  Protestantism began in large part as a protest against the Roman Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope and the abuse of that power.  That doctrine reminds me of the hilarious country song that says, “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.  I can’t wait to look in the mirror, ‘cuz I get better lookin’ each day.”  The song gets better from there (you can Google it if you dare), but you get the point.  One of my favorite biblical summaries of what faithful living looks like is Micah’s response to the question, “What does the Lord require of you?”  He says it is “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)  Humility is one the top 3 qualities of the Godly life.  Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Mt. 5: 5), is another familiar affirmation of the importance the Judeo-Christian tradition place on humility.

Most of us enjoy being around humble people much more than those insecure souls who feel the need to toot their own horns incessantly.  And yet, when Jesus says “the greatest among you will be your servant” we cringe a bit, don’t we?  When asked as a child what you wanted to be when you grow up, did anyone say, “Oh, I want to be a servant?”  Service sector jobs pay minimum wage because the ways of the world are not God’s ways.   The truth is that human beings and organizations like the church can never be satisfied with where we are or who we are.  We are either growing as life-long learners or we are falling behind the times.  We all have had teachers who have grown complacent and are recycling old knowledge and lesson plans instead of staying current with new ideas.

Clergy for nearly 400 years have been asked a question designed to remind us to stay humble during the United Methodist ordination service.  It is a question from one of our founders, John Wesley, which simply asks, “Are you going on to perfection?”   Not that we believe we achieve that state in this life; that would not be very humble.  The question is a clever reminder that life is a journey, not a destination; and so is faith and ministry.  Baptism, confirmation, ordination, graduation, marriage, a big promotion; none of the milestones in life’s journey mean we have arrived.  Those with the mind of a humble servant know that and live accordingly.

Another key doctrine of Protestantism is “The Priesthood of All Believers.”  Simply put, it means we are all one of the crowd.  No one is to be called holy or rabbi.  Lay persons have as much access to God as clergy and vice versa.  That’s the good news.  I don’t have to go through any fallible human intermediary to communicate with God.  The power of Being itself is ready and willing to listen to my joys and concerns 24/7, our fears and confessions, our hopes and dreams.  No busy signal, no maddening telephone answering system where the menu has recently changed, no elevator music or commercials to listen to while we’re on hold, no power outages or servers that are too busy, no “please try again later.”  Everyone in the crowd who wants it has instant access to God, and the only prerequisite is enough humility to admit we need God’s help.

The terminology from the Hebrew Scriptures that comes to my mind here is that of being “God’s Chosen People.”  We all like to be chosen, don’t we?  One of childhood’s most painful memories for most of us is not being popular or being chosen dead last when teams are picked for a game of soccer or baseball.  Perhaps no words are tougher to hear than, “go play right field.”   The scriptures tell us in both testaments that we are indeed “God’s chosen people.”  I Peter says, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, God’s own people” (2:9).  Does that not contradict the need to walk humbly with God or Jesus’ call to servanthood?  Not if we understand what it means to be one of God’s priests.  Being chosen by God is not a call to privilege but to service of God and humanity; to take up a cross and follow Christ.  The rest of I Peter 2:9 says we are “a people belonging to God (God’s very own possession) that we may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into God’s wonderful light.”  We are clearly chosen to toot God’s horn, not our own.

Yes, we are God’s Chosen ones, but we are chosen not to be served but to humbly and gladly serve.  We are all one of the crowd, listening to Jesus, the master teacher, learning together as fellow students to faithfully follow both his word and example.  Because Jesus is the only teacher who can honestly say, “Do as I say AND do as I do!”

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“The Holy Hokey Pokey,” Deuteronomy 34:1-12

“Talk is cheap.”  “Walk the walk.”  “Play full out.”  These are modern vernacular for the words from Paul to the church at Thessalonica when he says, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (I Thess. 2:8).  One of my favorite proverbs along those lines is, “What you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you say.”  In a similar vein, James 1:22 tells us to “be doers of the word and not hearers only.”  All of these words of wisdom point toward the qualities of integrity and intimacy necessary for faithful and fulfilled living.  Are our actions congruent with our words and the values we profess?  I love the impertinent question often quoted by former President Jimmy Carter, which is now the basis for a contemporary Christian song, “If you were arrested for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  When I’m brave enough, I ask that while looking in the mirror.

The Hebrew text for October 23 (Deut. 34:1-12) contains the last words of Deuteronomy and is therefore the conclusion of the entire Pentateuch.  We are at the end of the Exodus journey and the transition of leadership from Moses to his successor, Joshua.  The story relates Moses’ death on Mt. Nebo.  From that vantage point Moses was at long last able to check a big item off his Bucket List and see with his own eyes the land God has promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

There are lots of interesting facets to this story, and I’ve chosen three to reflect on:

  1.  God says to Moses (vs. 4-5), “’I have let you see it [the Promised Land], but you shall not cross over there.’  Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.”
  2.  “Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated” (v. 7)
  3. “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (v. 10).

 

1)  Why is Moses forbidden to enter the Promised Land?  If he is the greatest prophet ever in the history of Israel, why not let him achieve the ultimate goal for which he’s given his life?  To draw on another cliché, we might say, “There’s no I in Team.”  Sports teams and nations, communities, families – all win as a team and lose as a team.  It’s not just Moses; none of the Hebrews who left Egypt were permitted to enter the Promised Land because of their unfaithfulness.  (For more on that see the reflections on the Golden Calf, complaining, greed over the Manna from heaven, etc. that I posted on Exodus texts on Sept. 7 & 13).  It wasn’t because Moses refused to stop and ask for directions that it took the Hebrews forty years to make the 200-300 mile trip from Egypt to Jericho.  They had a heavenly GPS (aka a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night) to guide their journey.  It took four decades because God was waiting for the original crowd to expire so God could get a fresh start with Caleb and Joshua and a new generation.  (See Numbers 13:20-21 for Yahweh’s decree that none of those who “have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors.”)

I find it helpful to note here that big dreams and goals often take longer than a lifetime and more persistence and leadership than one person or generation can provide.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made that point powerfully on the night before he was assassinated.  In the final great speech he gave on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Dr. King used this Biblical imagery to say he was blessed to have seen the Promised Land.  Even though he personally might not get there he was sure others would.

Even Jesus needed faithful followers to carry on the work of establishing the reign of God.  He commissioned his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).  He also promised the disciples, “You will do even greater things than I have done” (John 14:12).

Do we have dreams and visions today that are bigger than ourselves that stretch far beyond the horizons of our finite mortality?  A friend posted this simple but profound truth on Facebook the other day in the form of two circles side by side but separate from each other, one larger than the other.  In the larger circle are the words, “Where the Magic Happens.”  In the smaller one, “Your comfort zone.”

A recent New York Times op/ed piece by David Brooks, reflecting on the tremendous innovative talents of the late Steve Jobs, made the same point about dreamers and visionaries.  Brooks said we made fantastic innovative leaps in multiple areas of society in the first 70 years of the 20th century, but very few in the last 40 years.  In my grandparents’ lifetimes America went from horse and buggy to landing on the moon; from outhouses to air conditioned homes and cars.  Life expectancy increased from 47 to 77 years; communication technology moved from telegraph to telephone to television.

But in the last forty years, other than the explosion in information technology, there have been very few dramatic, life-changing advances.  Brooks quotes several authors, including Peter Thiel, who says, “we travel at the same speeds we did a half-century ago.  We rely on the same basic energy sources [which are still poisoning us and our planet, I might add].  Warren Buffett made a $49 billion investment in 2009.  It was in a railroad that carries coal.”  We have not cured or even seriously researched ways to prevent cancer.  Many of us are in denial about the environmental crisis.  Our cities and schools and, most embarrassingly, our churches are as segregated as ever.   The wars on poverty and drugs have been dismal failures.  The great American Dream of home ownership has turned into a foreclosure nightmare.  When it comes to for the least of our sisters and brothers, our health care system is among the worst in the industrialized world.  Any wonder we are seeing protestors taking to the streets of every American city?

 

2)  We desperately need dreamers and visionaries who are willing to commit their whole being to causes that transcend themselves and their mortality.  That brings us to verse 7 and Moses’ vitality.  For those who think their retirement years are an excuse to ignore the responsibilities of Christian discipleship, reread Deuteronomy 34:7. “Moses was 120 years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.”  That last phrase is the fun part of that verse.  The Hebrew for “vigor not abating” means Moses did not need Viagra.  He was fertile, productive, and able to create new life?  Are we?  Or have we pawned our dreams for self-interest and survival?  And don’t get hung up on the numbers game in that verse.  No one really knows what these triple digit age numbers in the Hebrew texts mean.  Did Medicare really pay the maternity bills for Abraham and Sarah?  Was Methuselah really over 900 years old?  Probably not according to our calendar calculations.  The point is not Guinness World Records for aging.  The point is that these people lived productive lives until they died, and the challenge is for us to do the same.  What shall we do with those extra 30 years of life expectancy we now have to help create a better world for those that our Joshuas and Janets will lead into the future?

 

3)  Moses’ vigor and vitality leads to the claim in verse 10 that “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.”  This may be one of those hyperbolic claims one often hears at funeral homes.  The ones that make me look in the casket to see if we’re talking about the same fallible human being I knew the deceased to be.  A good case can be made for Moses being the number 1 prophet.  Without Moses’ leadership, the Exodus, the formative event of Israel’s history might never have happened.  Moses is the George Washington of Israel, the Father of his country.  Without him the Judeo-Christian saga would have been a very short documentary instead of the on-going epic that shaped the course of human history.

I would argue that Moses’ influence and his vitality to the end of his life came from the passion and total commitment he put into his role in God’s drama of salvation history.  He gave his people and us not just God’s word but his own self.  Does that mean he was infallible or perfect?  Of course not.  Remember he once murdered an Egyptian when he allowed his passion to consume his better judgment (Exodus 2).  Moses was a fugitive from Egyptian justice when God recruited him via a burning bush (Ex. 3).  So don’t think we can use our own fallibility as an excuse for not responding to God’s call.  It won’t wash.

Then we have this strange phrase that the Lord knew Moses “face to face.”  Back in Exodus 33 Moses is told specifically that he cannot see God’s face because no mortal can do so and live.  How do we resolve such a seeming contradiction?   Most biblical problems, including this one, are created by interpreting the texts too literally.  Because we often return the favor of Genesis and create God in our own image, we picture God like us, in anthropomorphic terms.  But according to Jesus, “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and “No one has seen God” (John 1:18).

This text in Deuteronomy does not mean Moses saw God up close and personal and had an opportunity to snap a picture of Yahweh on his iPhone.  It does mean he had face time with God, intimacy, closeness.  That’s the spiritual connection that inspired and empowered Moses to faithfully lead an unruly band of stiff-necked, rebellious pilgrims from slavery and death to new life in the Promised Land.

We can have that same intimate, vigorous, passionate relationship with God too if we are willing to do the Holy Hokey Pokey and put our whole selves in.

The Universe is made of stories

“The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”  Muriel Rukeyser (15 December 1913 – 12 February 1980) was an American poet and political activist, best known for her poems about equality, feminism, social justice, and Judaism.  Just found that great quote in my Franklin Covey calendar on October 8 and had to share.

“To Pay Taxes or Not, That is the Question,” Matthew 22:15-22

There’s an old joke where you ask someone, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”  There is no good way to answer that question.  In this Gospel text from Matthew 22 the Pharisees try to trap Jesus by asking him a trick question like that one.   They ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  The question is loaded because paying taxes to Rome was a hot political topic that provoked a revolt some 30 years later in 66 CE.  For Jesus to say “yes” would anger Jewish nationalists chaffing under Roman oppression.  To say “no” would be illegal and treasonous.  They have Jesus between a rock and hard place, or so they think.

I had not noticed that word “lawful” before in this text.  How many things can we think of that are perfectly lawful or legal but highly questionable ethically?  Owning human beings was lawful and quite profitable in this country and most of the world for centuries—including Biblical times—and human trafficking is an increasing problem to this day.  Denying women equal rights is still legal in much of the world and was in the U.S. for most of our history.  And if you or any women you know have bumped into any glass ceilings lately you know it still is in practice.  Those who benefited from sub-prime mortgages that helped create the economic mess we are in were well within the law because those with money and power make the rules we play by.

I like Mark’s version of this text better than Matthew’s.  Mark (12:15) adds a second question to the dialogue that raises the bar.  In Mark, after asking if it’s lawful to pay taxes the Pharisees also say, “Should we pay them, or should we not?”  That question pushes the stakes from a purely legal level to an ethical one.  Human laws, because they are created by fallible human beings, change with the swings of the political pendulum.  Think about prohibition or Blue Laws, for example.  Back in the 1972 when I was even more naïve than I am today I remember celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the existing capital punishment law was unconstitutional.  I thought, “Good, we can finally check that cause off the liberal agenda.”   But it only took 9 years for the political winds to shift again.  According to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections website, “After drafting a new law to reflect the strict criteria for the imposition of the death sentence, Ohio lawmakers enacted the current capital punishment statute, which took effect October 19, 1981.”  Human laws come and go, but God’s laws, the true standard of what we should and should not do, regardless of what the empire’s laws du jour say, is as constant as the rising and setting of the sun.

Jesus is not taken in by the Pharisee’s trickery.  The three synoptic gospels agree on this point, but they use different words to describe the situation, at least according to the NSRV translations.  Where Matthew says Jesus was “aware of their malice,” Mark uses “hypocrisy,” and Luke a bit milder term, “craftiness.”  Whatever the adjective, Jesus sees through the scam and trumps their cleverness with some of his own.  He asks to see a Roman coin.  He apparently doesn’t have one, but the Pharisees do; which makes a very subtle point we should not miss.  The inscription on the coin would have read, “Tiberius Caesar, the Majestic Son of God, the High Priest,” or “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus, the High Priest.”  Modest fellows, those emperors.  (For a similar dramatic encounter between divine and human authority, read Daniel 4 and the account of Daniel not so subtly reminding King Nebuchadnezzar of his rightful place in the divine pecking order.)

The point is that it would have been blasphemous for a good Jew to have these Roman coins in their possession.  The Romans provided a generic coin for the pious Jews who objected to these coins on religious principles.  So for these Pharisees to have one of these Roman coins in their possession immediately shows they have compromised their faith.   But, before we are too quick to cast stones at the Pharisees, let’s ask ourselves how we compromise our own values and faith?

  • What kind of deals do we make with our culture and popular society because it’s just easier to go along with the crowd than to stand up for what we believe?
  • Anyone have any stock in companies that are helping to destroy our environment or compound the epidemic of home foreclosures?  Do we even know where our pension money or mutual funds are invested?  Do we care as long as they are (or were) making money for us?
  • Do we pay taxes to support wars or other causes we don’t believe in?  Are we using our political power to try and change those practices?
  • Do we support companies that exploit women by using sex to sell everything from Audis to  Zest soap?  Do we watch violent TV programs or buy brutal video games for our children?  Are we addicted to watching overpaid athletes?
  • Do we buy lottery tickets when we know gambling preys on those who can least afford it?
  • Do we feed junk food to our kids because it’s easier than cooking a healthy meal?
  • Are we intimidated by friends or powerful lobbies to ignore the mayhem on our streets by not speaking out against the insane proliferation of hand guns in our society?
  • Do we turn a blind eye to unethical business practices for fear of losing a much-needed job?

The bottom line in the Gospel lesson and in all of those questions is, “Who really has ultimate authority over our lives?”  Is it the most high priests of wealth and power, or is it Almighty God, our creator and final judge of how we live our lives?

There’s a very short answer to this dilemma.  Jesus says, “Give the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21).  The trick of course is to figure out which is which, and the simple answer is nothing really belongs to Caesar or Uncle Sam or any earthly authority.  The Biblical position on that is crystal clear.  Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”  That pretty well covers it all.  Even Paul, a Roman citizen who is frequently cited (Romans 13:1) by advocates of total obedience to government authority, quotes that verse from the Psalms in I Corinthians 10:26.  Numerous other New Testament texts argue strongly for ultimate obedience to God when there is a conflict between divine and human authority (I Peter 1:1, Phil. 3:20).  Perhaps none is clearer than Acts 5:29 where Peter and other apostles are under arrest for teaching the Gospel and their defense is simply, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

Jesus is painfully clear on multiple occasions that God’s authority trumps any other competing allegiance life tempts us with–wealth, comfort, family, even honoring the dead:

  • “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of me; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10:37)
  • “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60)
  • “One thing you lack,” he said (to a rich young ruler who kept all the commandments). “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  (Mark 10:21)
  • “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  (Matt. 19:24)

The Pharisees would have been all too familiar with these radical teachings of Jesus.  In fact, some of them got the point when he said “Give the emperor what is the emperor’s and God what is God’s.”  At Jesus’ trial before Pilate one of the charges leveled at Jesus is that “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor” (Luke 23:2).

No, Jesus didn’t say that exactly. But he does lay the burden of choosing between competing commitments squarely upon each of us.  Paying taxes as part of a democratic society is a necessary cost of doing business and creating an orderly civilization where together we can provide services for everyone better than individuals or families can do so themselves.  How would it look if we all had to build our own roads and other infrastructure or provide for education, law enforcement, emergency services, or defense?  As idealistic as it may sound, families and churches and other charitable organizations caring for all the poor and elderly and sick without a society-wide network of support is simply not practical in the complex world we live in where extended families are scattered and badly over-extended.  We all know very well that not all taxes are just or equitable or necessary – but most are, and our job as citizens and people of faith is to work within the political system, broken and imperfect as it is, to make human authority as much like God’s plan for humanity as we possibly can.

We pray it all the time, “Thy Kingdom Come on earth as it is in heaven.”  Jesus challenges us to put our allegiance where our mouths are and make choices in every area of our lives so we “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and to God what is God’s.”