With two weeks until the election, a lot of people are asking “whose side are you on?” But what does it mean to be on God’s side?
19th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A) – Sunday, October 19, 2014 – Isaiah 45:1-9, Matthew 22:15-22
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“On God’s Side”1 – Pastor Evan Davis
In two weeks and two days, America heads to the ballot box. Whose side are you on? In this corner, we have the Democrats, the progressives standing for social equality and economic opportunity for all. In the other corner, we have the Republicans, the conservatives standing for personal responsibility, free markets, and traditional social values. Whose side are you on? Have the ads convinced you?
I’m pretty concerned about the state and direction of our country, but it’s not because of who’s in power or who’s out of power. It’s not because of any issue. I believe our nation can overcome just about anything, actually. I’m concerned because we’re not listening to each other. The cable news pundits take one soundbite at a time and intentionally misrepresent it to stir up righteous indignation from the side that listens to them. Are we actually hearing what anyone from the other side really has to say? These days, we can choose our news channel, we can choose our news website, to hear only commentators that agree with us and make us more angry and, frankly, afraid, of the other side. When we believe the whole country will come to ruin if the other side comes to power, “whose side are you on?” becomes a life or death question. Listening stops and politicians give speeches in empty rooms, just for the cameras. Compromise equals treason, so nothing happens.
The two groups who come together to question Jesus were just as divided. In this corner we have the Pharisees, who are the holy rollers of first century Judea. They try to live as righteously as possible, keeping all the Torah, so as to keep God’s favor. They’d be mortified to ever be caught in a public sin. And in that corner are the Herodians, that is, the supporters of Herod, the puppet king of Judea who takes his marching orders directly from Rome. The Herodians, you might say they are collaborators with the Roman occupation. They benefit from the Roman system, and they’re plenty happy to say nice things about the Emperor. It’s important to know that by this time the Roman emperor was beginning to be worshiped as a god. In normal public ceremonies, people pledged allegiance to the emperor as divine. Roman coins carried the image of Caesar with divine titles. The Herodians were ok with this, but for the Pharisees, this was idolatry and a blatant transgression of the first commandment. They wanted to know from Jesus, whose side was he on?
Of course, their question was insincere. These mortal enemies were coming together to intentionally present Jesus with a lose-lose situation in which at least one of the two sides could pounce on him immediately. So they try to butter him up with false flattery, and they ask, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Whose side are you on?
Like a panel of political pundits waiting for material for their next show, like a pack of dogs waiting for a piece of meat, these strange bedfellows wait for Jesus’ surely incriminating answer. Jesus isn’t afraid of the question, but he doesn’t accept the malicious terms of the discussion. Instead he takes control and moves from questioned to questioner, from the witness stand to the judge’s bench. Show me the coin used for the tax, he says. In this case, it’s the denarius, and what do you know? They can pull one right out of their pocket! Remember, this is happening in the Temple…the Pharisees are carrying a coin with the image of the divine emperor in their pocket right into the Temple! Jesus catches them for the hypocrites they are! He asks, whose head is this, and whose title? The emperor’s. Give then to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
Checkmate! But not because Jesus is proposing some total division of our lives and possessions between the worldly and the spiritual. It’s not as if some of our money and possessions, or only some of us, is God’s and the rest doesn’t have anything to do with God. Jesus could have quoted Psalm 24: “the earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it.”2 Everyone there knew that everything belongs to God. That wasn’t even a question, and it shouldn’t be today either. Jesus is exposing them as the ones who have plenty of coins in their pockets while the people suffer. He’s exposing them as the leaders who wear long robes and pray long prayers while they go around carrying the equivalent of the golden calf right into the Temple.
And in his answer that leaves them speechless, Jesus is effectively posing two hard questions to his opponents and to us. The first is, Just what belongs to Caesar, anyways? Notice Jesus doesn’t outlaw paying the tax. It’s not that we don’t need good government to keep order in this complex society. There’s one big reason why we’ll always need good government on this side of the kingdom: sin. We need government. And some good news is that God can and does use all kinds of government and all kinds of leaders to keep order among God’s people. Did you notice in the Isaiah reading how God uses the Persian emperor Cyrus to send Israel out of exile and back to Judea? Yeah, the Persian emperor. Isaiah even calls him, “anointed,” (or, “Messiah”). God uses all kinds of leaders! So go ahead and pay your taxes. But don’t pretend that Caesar or any government has any true claim to the bounty of God’s creation. Nor to any of you who are God’s beloved children. Don’t pretend that any one candidate or party is always right. Don’t give them your permanent or ultimate allegiance. Be willing to listen, and talk back, to any of them, but worship none of them. For the God who subdues nations and strips kings of their robes says, “I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.”
Which brings us to Jesus’ second implied question, which is, “whose image do you bear? The GOP wants to put the mark of the elephant on you. The Democrats want to stamp you with the donkey. It’s so tempting even to define ourselves ultimately as Americans. But we are all children of the God who created us, all things, and all people. We are made in the image of that God. We do not bear Caesar’s head, but on our heads we bear the cross of Christ which was marked upon us in our baptisms. What matters in the end is whose cross is on your forehead, not what party you voted for in the last election. Not even what country it says on your passport, not ultimately. We are not Republicans and Democrats, not citizens and illegals, not Americans and Liberians and Iraqis and Russians…we are all children of God. That is our ultimate identity. We have many other identities, sure, and it’s not as if it’s bad to have them, but none of them cuts as deep as the cross of Christ, as the image of the Creator.
“Abraham Lincoln famously said, ‘My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.’”3
Jesus doesn’t pick one side or the other…Jesus stays on God’s side. So marked by the cross of Christ, our concern can be to make sure we’re on God’s side. On God’s side, we can see that those on “the other side” are also children of God. Imagine the politician you dislike the most, whom you can’t stand to hear for more than 20 seconds. Now imagine that person not with a D or an R next to his or her name, but with the cross of Christ. Does that change how you listen? By no means does it mean you have to agree with that person, but it does mean you can have a real conversation. On God’s side, we can go to the ballot box and exercise our right to vote, with a real understanding of the candidates, without malice toward the one with whom we disagree today. Because tomorrow, that person may be get elected. On God’s side, we can know that what unites us across parties and across nations is far stronger than what divides us. On God’s side, we can be active in the political conversation, standing up for biblical values of justice, equal rights, freedom and enough to live for all, but with ears open to hear all viewpoints, eyes open to see when we need correcting, a heart open to work with any leaders even if they have a D or an R after their name. And on God’s side, let us ascribe honor and power only where it is due, let us worship only the LORD who is great and greatly to be praised. Amen.
1This wording was lifted up to me by Jim Wallis in his book, On God’s Side, (Brazos Press, 2013).
2Reference suggested by Jeannine K. Brown, Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=165 (accessed October 17, 2014).
3As quoted by Jim Wallis, “What Does It Mean to Be on God’s Side?”, http://sojo.net/magazine/2013/04/what-does-it-mean-be-gods-side (accessed October 18, 2014). Also in his 2013 book, On God’s Side.