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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on October 16, 2005

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A Sermon for October 16, 2005

Sermon preached by

The Right Rev. J. C. Fricker


If you are at all concerned about today's political issues as they impact on our way of life, or more to the point, if you have concerns about the relationship between religion and the state, you will approach today's Gospel reading with considerable eagerness. Probably you will hope to find in it a principle to guide you through the maze of contemporary controversies.

The Gospel is about paying taxes. But if you consider the story carefully, you soon realize that taxing authority is only the tip of the iceberg respecting the power a state exercises over its citizens. More important questions are raised. For example:

  • does the state have the right to invade privacy in matters not directly related to the public safety?
  • can the state legitimately define and enforce ethical standards in the areas of sexuality and reproduction?

Those are just a couple of questions that come to my mind as I consider this encounter between Jesus and a coalition of Pharisees and Herodians. We know very little about the Herodians, but their name suggests they were a secular political party in support of Herod the Great's pro-Roman policies. Whereas the Pharisees resisted the Roman influence but accepted it as a necessary evil. As such, these two diverse groups were brought together by their common opposition to Jesus. They were intent to place Jesus on the horns of a dilemma.

They first said to Jesus, "Now we know you are a sincere man. You have integrity. You teach the way of God, and you are impartial. So, what do you think, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?" Here was the trap. If Jesus was to argue against paying taxes, he could be accused of subversive anti-Roman activity. On the other hand, if he supports taxation, he will lose popular support of the people for whom taxes were a burden. But Jesus doesn't take the bait. He responds "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God's".

I first learned that passage as "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." Now I never use that old Elizabethan word render in everyday conversation, but in the context of this passage, it speaks to my heart , because I hear in the word render more of a response to obligation than in the word give. Render points out the way we might deal with conflicting loyalties.

We all do have conflicting loyalties. They run through our entire society, inviting conflicting commitment at every age. Some examples"

  • Career opportunities and parenthood can pull in two directions.
  • Teen-agers can waver between parental loyalty and peer pressure.
  • The need to put bread on the table can lead one to be silent in the face of questionable business practices.
  • Political pressure can lead a government official to support legalized gambling.

How do we deal with conflicting claims? How do we today decide between two authorities, even when one is the law of the state, and the other is the law of God? Conflicting claims lead to temptations. And temptations often come in subtle fashion. One temptation is to avoid responsibility by letting someone else decide for us, like leaving everything up to government. Another temptation is simply to choose the authority that is the most comfortable at the moment.

Well, choose we must, but not as an escape from obligation. Religious commitment, if it encourages an escape from obligation can turn our religious faith into idolatry. Jesus said, "Render to Caesar the things that belong to him." That makes sense today only as long as we participate in a political process which delineates what are the parameters of the law. But what is even more important than that is the second half of Jesus response, "Render the God that things that are God's". The two halves are by no means of equal significance. That is, Jesus is not saying, "there is a secular realm and there is a religious realm, and equal respect must be paid to each." In the second half of his epigram Jesus demands far more of his followers than in the first half.

Every claim on our commitment is a call to ask how God's will should work its way out in a specific commitment. By our voting, by our engagement with our elected representatives, we share responsibility for the fate of our nation and our world. But does that mean we're simply to pay taxes in silence, and then say our prayers and go to Church? Of course not. I think the values of our civil life must always be examined and judged, even transformed by the values of the kingdom of God, by the values of love made tangible in responsible citizenship.

 

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2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York