I think we’ve all had those moments where we know we are either stuck between a rock and a hard place or we know we’ve been had or found out. When my brother, Jon, was in high school, he snuck out of the house while grounded. His girlfriend (who was older than him) had been drinking and needed a way home. Jon knew how to get out of the house without being detected. He went and retrieved his girlfriend, safely delivered her back to her house and got back into bed, all while thinking he had gotten away with it. The next day my father woke my brother by yelling that he knew he had snuck out of the house. Jon, trying to not be in more trouble, over and over again said “no I didn’t!” My dad said “Jon. I know you are lying, I’m not going to tell you how, but I know.” And Jon got grounded for like 2 more weeks and lost driving privileges I think.
For the longest time, Jon had no idea how my dad knew he had snuck out that evening. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so that the truth had come to light. The night that Jon snuck out to go get Mel, his girlfriend, it was raining. It hadn’t rained that day but we had a small rainstorm creep up on us that night. Jon returned home, after taking all the precautions to not be caught, he had forgotten one important detail: when he turned off the car, the windshield wipers were halfway up. Dad took one look at the windshield and knew something was up. Jon had been caught, he had been had. I think in one way or another, we’ve all been there.
Jesus wasn’t trying to sneak out of his house in today’s Gospel. He was doing simple Jesus things: teaching in the temple. And up come two groups who were strange bedfellows: the Pharisees and the Herodians. These groups working together make about as much sense working together as Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer working together. But they had one thing in common: they wanted Jesus dead. They wanted to get enough evidence to get Jesus arrested. They are in the temple (so, in the church) when they approach Jesus and ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not. Jesus, being amazing, knows what is going on and knows that they are trying to trap him. What the question comes down to is essentially this: Jesus do you believe we should be loyal to God or loyal to the government? No matter what way Jesus answers, he gets himself into trouble. Unless, that is, he answers like as only Jesus can, in riddle like responses.
Jesus asked them to show him the coin they used for paying taxes. Now, they were in the temple, which means they should have traded in all of their denarii for scheckles. But, they pull out the coin to show Jesus the head of the emperor on the coin. Jesus responds “give therefor to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus managed to answer the question without getting himself into trouble. Jesus is really good at this. And as much as we would like to think that this was a problem for Jesus’ time only, we find ourselves in this same predicament quite a bit, whether we know it or not.
The government isn’t trying to catch us, so to speak, but we can be found struggling to distinguish between our loyalties to the government and our loyalties to God. And much like Jesus’ time, it isn’t cut and dry. We can’t not pay taxes (as much as we would like). We do have to obey the law. Trust me on this, if you tell the police officer that you only obey God instead of the speed limit, you are still getting a ticket. But in other ways it gets messy. Last week I talked about claiming “Christian” as a verb. Being a Christian isn’t something we do just for one day a week for one hour a week. It should be something that consumes us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In practical ways, what does being torn between our government and God look like? How about this one: kneeling for the National Anthem. (I’m not messing around this week). Now, I am not going to get into the “why” of people kneeling. But, believe me, it has nothing to do with a flag or disrespecting those who served. But, and what I’m about to say may strike you as controversial or it might even make you mad, our allegiance first and foremost is to God, not a flag or a country. This is why Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t stand for the pledge. They refuse to pledge allegiance to anything but God. It might even be said that kneeling for the National Anthem isn’t disrespectful to God, but standing is.
Being a Christian may make it hard to know how to feel when our government participates in capital punishment or war. What about when the taxes we pay to our government go to support issues that we either support or disagree with, such as Planned Parenthood? We want to receive our mail (something our taxes pay for) but we’d rather not see our taxes go to fund sexual offender rehabilitation, because those guys shouldn’t be allowed out of prison in the first place, right?? How do we navigate the waters when our loyalties to God and government disagree? We often get stuck. And we don’t get stuck between God and government necessarily, but we get stuck between God and society. We might decide to yield to what God is calling us to do, but we fear it would cause judgement from our peers, co-workers, or family. And so, we go along with the crowd. Being Christian, standing for what you believe in can cost a lot. It cost Collin Kapernick his job. Remember my beloved, any time we put something, anything, between us and God it is considered sin, no matter how “good” we may think it is.
The good news in all of this is that God and God’s loyalty never wavers. God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy will always and does always surpass and trump even our best intentions. Even when we enter into situations that call us to act boldly and we do anything but, God’s mercy is bigger than that. When our loyalty lies anywhere but with God, God still loves us and gives us multiple chances to get it right. See, because the cross on which Jesus died for you and for me frees us from governmental expectations while simultaneously calling us to have great expectations of our government and ourselves. This means that as Christians if we observe, know, see, etc…our government acting in a way that is counter to Christ and what Christ would have us do, we have an baptismal obligation to do something about it. This means we have to become public theologians and public Christians. When we call our representatives, we declare, “as a Christian I must beseech you to fight for a health care program, or housing, or laws, etc…that are the most beneficial for the least in our society.” Because you know what, that is what Christ would do. Christ wants us to advocate for the least among us, the most vulnerable, the forgotten and downtrodden. And it’s not always easy, and it’s not always popular, and surprise surprise, it’s not always as cut and dry as party lines.
Next time you’re feeling stuck between God and government and you start wondering what is God’s and what is Uncle Sam’s, remember that everything we have and everything we are belongs to God. And it is God, and God alone that can save us. The government, with all of the money, resources, and power on earth, as wonderful as it may be, can never and will never save us. We may live under the rule of law, but we are saved by a king; and not the kind with a crown, the kind with a cross.