Archives For Caesar

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It’s an easier question for Muslims to answer than it is for Christians…

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Dear Pastor, 

     We’ve never met. I don’t attend your church (or any other for that matter). I’m not what I guess you’d call a practicing Christian, but I do believe in God. A friend of mine who goes to your church told me you were taking questions for your sermons so I thought I’d write you with my question. 

     My husband and I have been married for fifteen years, and our marriage has been a real struggle for at least a dozen of those years. We’ve tried several different counselors over the years but counseling has never amounted to more than a short-term fix. Now I’m wrestling with whether to give the marriage another chance or to end it. 

     I don’t want to put my kids through a divorce but neither do I want to keep exposing them to a marriage that isn’t what it should be. I think I know what the Church says about divorce, but I also know how far we are from the vows we exchanged. I don’t want to know what you think I should do. I’m not looking for advice exactly, and at this point I certainly don’t need more counseling. What I want to know is: how do I know what God wants me to do? 

     How do I know God’s plan for me?

She ended her note with a PS: Maybe no one else has a question like this, but I’d really appreciate your thoughts.

She was wrong, of course. About her question.

In so many words or sometimes in those exact words, people ask me that question all the time:

Should I give my son another chance, or should I stop bailing him out of trouble?

Should I kick my daughter out if she won’t stop using or should I not?

Should I tell my wife the secret that may prove the last straw or shouldn’t I?

Should I do what my parents what me to do with my life or should I do what I’ve always dreamed?

Should I tell my parents the truth about me or should I stay in the closet?

Should I let my doctors try another procedure, or should I help my family say goodbye?

Should I or shouldn’t I?

What am I supposed to do?

How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know God’s plan?

Should we? Or shouldn’t we? They sink their teeth into Jesus with the question.

Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?

Politics makes for strange bedfellows and in what may be the Gospel’s strangest coalition the anti-Roman Pharisees ally with the Herodians, Roman collaborators, to trap Jesus with a question which was hotly disputed in first century Israel: is it lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the emperor or not?

The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied by Rome on every adult registered in the census. The tax was levied to pay for the Roman occupation of Israel, and it could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.

One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor and on the other side the inscription: ‘Caesar is Lord.’

It’s a dicey question.

For the strictly observant Pharisees, not only did the tax pose the insult of forcing Jews to pay for the army that was occupying them against their will, the tax also violated the Torah.

It broke the commandments: ‘You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself any graven idols.’

And because it broke the commandments, the coin rendered anyone who carried it ritually unclean. It couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped.

So for the Pharisees and other Jews, the tax was theological TNT and had ignited not a few messy rebellions in Jesus’ day.

The Herodians, on the other hand, were civil servants of King Herod- Caesar’s stooge in Israel. Not only did they not have a problem with the tax, they lined their pockets with the cash extorted from it.

For the Herodians at stake wasn’t idolatry but their livelihood.

Therein lies the trap.

If Jesus says ‘pay the tax’ he risks offending his followers while saying ‘don’t pay’ would be tantamount to revolution. The Herodians would then have all they need to march off to the King and out Jesus as a threat.

No matter how he answers, Jesus is guaranteed at least half the crowd will be out for his blood.

Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus? Pick your poison.

By asking for the coin, Jesus makes clear he’s not carrying one and that the Pharisees are- even though carrying it made them the sinners they accused him of being.

Jesus looks the coin over and then pronounces: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.’ 

Which means….?

What exactly?

All who heard Jesus’ answer were ‘amazed,’ Mark says.

Confused is a better translation.

Jesus doesn’t answer their question but raises another question: What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God?

Jesus has already made abundantly clear in his ministry that everything comes from and so belongs to God.

If God is the One from whom all blessings flow, then what really and truly and finally belongs to Caesar?

Nothing, right?

So if everything belongs to God and nothing ultimately belongs to Caesar, then should they pay the tax or not? If everything belongs to God then what does it mean to give everything to God?

Should we or shouldn’t we? Which is it Jesus? How do you know what God wants you to do?

brian-boitano

The first time I can remember anyone asking me that question- I was a college student at UVA. A girl named Rasha was friend of mine. She was from Jordan. She was an English major and a committed Muslim.

It being college, she and I were about the only religious people either of us knew on campus. Probably for that reason, we talked religion a good deal of the time.

We were both at a costume party one Halloween night. She came dressed, ironically, as a Catholic nun. I’d come to the party wearing what I thought was (self-evidently) a pirate costume. I had the black boots, crushed velvet tights, flowing white blouse and earring for the part. It turned out, however, that an eyepatch or sword were essential pirate accessories. Not recognizing me for a pirate, everyone mistook me for the Olympic figure skater, Brian Boitano, thus marking the last time I’ve put on a Halloween costume.

I was busy sulking and listening to a scratched House of Pain CD when Rasha just came up to me and asked: ‘How do you know what God wants you to do?’ She wasn’t looking for advice or counsel. She was curious.

‘I just read the Gospels for a class,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know how you Christians ever know what God wants you to do.’ 

I asked her what she meant, and she said:

‘Jesus never gives a straight answer to people’s questions. I think that’s the biggest difference between the Gospels and the Qu’ran.

Muhammad tells us exactly what God wants on every possible question, sometimes in more detail than I want, but with Jesus…it’s like he wants to leave you searching for the answer.’

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It took a Muslim to bring Jesus into focus for me, to notice how Jesus has this annoying habit of evading a straight answer to our questions.

Instead Jesus almost always responds to our questions by provoking other questions. He insists on answering our questions with unexplained stories. Even when it seems Jesus gives an answer to a question, as soon as you turn it over you realize just how slippery an answer it really is.

‘What’s God like?’ the disciples ask. And Jesus responds with a story of an old lady sweeping her house for loose change that fell behind the sofa. A simple question about divorce, and Jesus answers by talking about committing adultery in the heart. A straight-forward question about the difficulty of forgiveness, and Jesus answers by raising the degree of difficulty and offering no concrete advice on how to accomplish it. A predictable question about what the Kingdom is like and Jesus answers by telling us we have to become children without saying what that means or how we do it.

And ask Jesus about taxes and he answers with:‘Give to Caesar that which bears Caesar’s image; give to God that which bears God’s image.’ 

You bear God’s image. You’re made in the image of God. You’re God’s.

That just begs a whole other question:  What does it mean for you to give yourself to God?

Should they pay the tax or not?

It’s like Jesus knows if he just gives us the answer then you and I would be quite content to have just the answer.

And not have him.

So, to this question and so many others Jesus answers in a way that forces us to pursue him, to follow after him and ask another question and then ask another, to wrestle with who he is and what he means.

As much as we’d like God to give us the answer to our every question, the answer God gives us for everything is Jesus.

God doesn’t give us ten more commandments. God doesn’t give us more law or rules to obey.

He gives us a person to follow.

Where we want to have the right answers from him, he wants us to have a friendship with him.

Should I give my marriage another chance, or not?

Should I kick my daughter out or should I not?

Should I tell my wife? Should I tell my parents?

How do I know what God wants me to do?

How do I know God’s plan?

The fact is most of the questions people ask in my office lack easy answers. And any honest pastor will tell you: few of life’s questions come with neat chapter-and-verse Gospel answers.

But that’s the way it has to be. Listen up: this is the part where I offend all you closet Calvinists and all you fans of the TV show Lost.

As much as each one of us likes to speak of ‘God’s plan for my life’ that’s not something Methodists have ever believed.

For John Wesley, God isn’t just the All-Knowing Maker of the Universe. He’s also Love. More so than Power or Providence or Almightiness, in Jesus Christ God defines himself- binds himself, by Love.

Sure, if God wanted God could be in control and have a step-by-step, micro-plan for your life.

But instead God chooses to love us and God invites us to love him in return and God gives us the freedom to live our lives and struggle with our choices and wrestle with our decisions in a way that honors and reflects that love.

The bad news is that that doesn’t make your life any easier. The Good News is that you don’t have to get everything right. You don’t have to get everything right.

God’s not looking down waiting to see if you get every decision in your life right according to his pre-prescribed, mirco-managed plan. He’s waiting to see if you’ll love him. God doesn’t have a plan for your life; God has promise: if you will be his People he will be your God.

Always.

Every year around this time, many conservatives rail against the “war on Christmas,” using a few dismantled nativities to suggest that America muffles worship.

Hardly. We have God on our dollars, God in our pledge of allegiance, God in our Congress. Last year, the House took the time to vote, 396 to 9, in favor of a resolution affirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto. How utterly needless, unless I missed some insurrectionist initiative to have that motto changed to “Buck Up, Beelzebub”

I’ve no doubt Frank Bruni’s piece from yesterday’s NY Times, the God Glut, will irritate a few. Okay, likely more than a few.

However, I hope folks are able to take off the spectacles of partisanship and read this through a Christian lens because even though the issue is brought by a writer questioning the presumed Christian perspective I think his critique is, unintentionally and ironically perhaps, a thoroughly Christian one.

To me, this has nothing to do with issues of politics and its certainly not a critique of the military. It is a sobering chastisement of the degree to which we Christians often marry our faith to our nation.

And it’s not that Christians can’t love their country. Hell, Christians all over the world love their country. Ever been to a soccer game in Latin America? I mean, geez, it puts our 4th of July parades to shame. But Christians in this country DO have a propensity to see our nation as elect among the nations in a way that is unique and can threaten a coherent reading of our scriptures.

This is especially apropos during Advent as we look towards the birth of our ‘King’ who is born amidst and as an alternative to lords like Herod and Caesar. If there are takeaways from the Christmas story, then one of them is surely that our attitudes to governments and nations are temporal, finite and ambivalent at best.

Christians forget: the reign of Augustus Caesar was GOOD for your average citizen in the Empire. He brought peace (not to mention sanitation, architecture, clean water, poetry, drama, philosophy, democracy etc- see Life of Bryan) to those whom he favored and he was hailed as a savior.

And yet, the angels sent by the God we follow used those very words for a baby wrapped in diapers with peasant parents standing by his manger.

What gets lost in all the ‘In God we trust’ debates is that we follow a God who didn’t have any coins on him when someone else asked him what should be on the currency. And when he answered their question: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (i.e., Nothing) and give to God what is God’s (i.e., Everything).’

Tough. Inconvenient. Answer.

So I encourage you to read the following, pausing to remember that the story we’ve turned in to a harmless Christmas pageant for children was, in its inception, a critique of those who cozied the faith too close to the nation.

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Bob Kerrey’s political career spanned four years as the governor of Nebraska and another 12 as a United States senator from that state, during which he made a serious bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. In all that time, to the best of his memory, he never uttered what has become a routine postscript to political remarks: “God bless America.”

That was deliberate.

“It seems a little presumptuous, when you’ve got the land mass and the talent that we do, to ask for more,” he told me recently.

But there was an additional reason he didn’t mention God, so commonly praised in the halls of government, so prevalent a fixture in public discourse.

“I think you have to be very, very careful about keeping religion and politics separate,” Kerrey said.

We Americans aren’t careful at all. In a country that supposedly draws a line between church and state, we allow the former to intrude flagrantly on the latter. Religious faith shapes policy debates. It fuels claims of American exceptionalism.

And it suffuses arenas in which its place should be carefully measured. A recent example of this prompted my conversation with Kerrey. Last week, a fourth-year cadet at West Point packed his bags and left, less than six months shy of graduation, in protest of what he portrayed as a bullying, discriminatory religiousness at the military academy, which receives public funding.

The cadet, Blake Page, detailed his complaint in an article for The Huffington Post, accusing officers at the academy of “unconstitutional proselytism,” specifically of an evangelical Christian variety.

On the phone on Sunday, he explained to me that a few of them urged attendance at religious events in ways that could make a cadet worry about the social and professional consequences of not going. One such event was a prayer breakfast this year at which a retired lieutenant general, William G. Boykin, was slated to speak. Boykin is a born-again Christian, and his past remarks portraying the war on terror in holy and biblical terms were so extreme that he was rebuked in 2003 by President Bush. In fact his scheduled speech at West Point was so vigorously protested that it ultimately had to be canceled.

Page said that on other occasions, religious events were promoted by superiors with the kind of mass e-mails seldom used for secular gatherings. “It was always Christian, Christian, Christian,” said Page, who is an atheist.

Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate who presides over an advocacy group called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told me that more than 30,000 members of the United States military have been in contact with his organization because of concerns about zealotry in their ranks.

More than 150 of them, he said, work or study at West Point. Several cadets told me in telephone interviews that nonbelievers at the academy can indeed be made to feel uncomfortable, and that benedictions at supposedly nonreligious events refer to “God, Our Father” in a way that certainly doesn’t respect all faiths.

Is the rest of society so different?

Every year around this time, many conservatives rail against the “war on Christmas,” using a few dismantled nativities to suggest that America muffles worship.

Hardly. We have God on our dollars, God in our pledge of allegiance, God in our Congress. Last year, the House took the time to vote, 396 to 9, in favor of a resolution affirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto. How utterly needless, unless I missed some insurrectionist initiative to have that motto changed to “Buck Up, Beelzebub” or “Surrender Dorothy.”

We have God in our public schools, a few of which cling to creationism, and we have major presidential candidates — Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum — who use God in general and Christianity in particular as cornerstones of their campaigns. God’s initial absence from the Democratic Party platform last summer stirred more outrage among Americans than the slaughter in Syria will ever provoke.

God’s wishes are cited in efforts to deny abortions to raped women and civil marriages to same-sex couples. In our country God doesn’t merely have a place at the table. He or She is the host of the prayer-heavy dinner party.

And there’s too little acknowledgment that God isn’t just a potent engine of altruism, mercy and solace, but also, in instances, a divisive, repressive instrument; that godliness isn’t any prerequisite for patriotism; and that someone like Page deserves as much respect as any true believer.

Kerrey labels himself agnostic, but said that an active politician could get away with that only if he or she didn’t “engage in a conversation about the danger of religion” or advertise any spiritual qualms and questions.

“If you talk openly about your doubts,” he said, “you can get in trouble.”

To me that doesn’t sound like religious freedom at all.

 

photo-1As promised, this week I’m going to try to answer the questions that didn’t get pulled in this weekend’s bingo sermon questions, Midrash in the Moment.

Here’s Jeff’s question: Why did Jesus come when he did? As opposed to some other point in history?

That’s a million dollar question. That’s also impossible to answer. I even asked Scot McKnight for a hint and he couldn’t do much better than I’ve got below.

At least from a God’s-eye perspective. Scripture says God sent Jesus ‘in the fullness of time’ which suggests there was something auspicious about when Jesus came.

We can’t really know why from God’s perspective.

What we can do is answer from a human perspective, from scripture’s point of view.

At least as far as the scripture writers’ understood it, God sends Jesus when he does because the oppression and idolatry of Rome had gotten to a point that necessitated or provoked the incarnation.

God heard his people’s cries, in other words.

That’s why Matthew tells his Gospel in a way that makes explicit that Caesar is a new Pharaoh and Rome is the New Egypt.

And Matthew’s Gospel begins with a ‘genesis’ just like the Hebrew story begins. That’s Matthew tells you that Herod kills all the new born sons just like Pharaoh did. That’s why Matthew has Jesus’ life beginning in Egypt just like Moses’ did.

How does Luke begin his Gospel? ‘In the days of ____________________’

All the language in Luke’s Christmas story, that we don’t even think about, is loaded with double-meanings meant to show how Christ is God’s alternative to Caesar.

In the ancient world, Caesar’s rise to the throne was referred to as the Advent of a Golden Age.

He was worshipped as a god.

And the proclamation that was made about Caesar throughout the Empire: ‘Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to those on whom he favors.’ 

What do the angels say to the shepherds when Christ is born? Yep, same thing but this time they’re referring to a baby in diapers and not a Caesar in, well, diapers.

From the Gospels’ perspective, then, Jesus is born to deliver Israel from Rome just as Moses did from Egypt. It’s how Jesus delivers that is unexpected.