I Pledge Allegiance…

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

October 18, 2020

Video of entire service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/261947745213724

Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22

stained glass image of person with sword

In 2017, right before I was appointed here to Hanscom Park church, I was ordained. To get ordained, I had to write lots of papers, fill out a bazillion forms, and interview with three subcommittees of the Board of Ordained Ministry. In one of my interviews, the committee and I got into a fairly lively conversation about my work for and commitment to the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church. I sensed a lot of people in the room agreed with me. I knew some of them already, so I knew where they stood. 

After the interview, a woman from the committee who I didn’t know, pulled me aside in the hallway. She quietly said to me, “I agree with you.” Which was good since she was about to vote on my ordination. Then she went on to say, “I agree with you. Because gay marriage is legal now, and Jesus would have followed the law.” 

And I said, “Mmmmm,” and I got away as quickly as I could before I said out loud what I was thinking, which was, “Oh really? Jesus just obeys whatever the law says? Is that why the Roman Empire killed him?”

Luckily, I do use my filter sometimes.

Today’s scripture is a great example of Jesus being in real conflict with both the religious and political authorities of his day. By asking Jesus about taxes, his enemies were trying to get him killed. This conversation takes place in Jerusalem, during Holy Week, just days before Jesus’ crucifixion. In it, the religious authorities (here called the Pharisees) join up with the political authorities (the Herodians who collaborated with the empire), and they try to entrap Jesus. They ask him: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 

This is a question that he can’t possibly answer without angering someone. If he answers, “yes,” he will anger the people who don’t like the Roman taxes because they are basically funding an occupying army. If he answers, “no,” he will anger the Romans (ho would have considered it treason to be going around telling your followers not to pay taxes. Of course, committing treason in the Roman Empire gets you crucified.

Jesus responds brilliantly. First, he exposes the religious authorities’ collusion with the empire by asking them to look at the money they are carrying and using. They are the ones using coins that declare the emperor to be like God. Then he says to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

One commentator this week pointed out that the people who surrounded Jesus were Jews, and every one of them would have known the opening lines of Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” This begs the question: What, if anything, belongs to the emperor? And so, with this non-answer answer, Jesus declares that allegiance to God is above all…and buys himself some more time to teach before the Romans arrest him. Even his enemies were amazed by him.

Biblical commentators and scholars still try to answer the question that Jesus so brilliantly dodged. We try to read this story and figure out, so do we pay taxes or not? What does it mean to give Caesar what belongs to Caesar? Do we unquestioningly just do whatever the government tells us to do? Do we completely rebel and refuse to engage in the political at all and do NOTHING our government leaders ask of us? Are we to be lockstep loyalists or rebelling anarchists?

The commentators I read this week, all four of them, seemed to affirm a middle way. One, Richard Floyd, says it like this: “This broader duty to God may not exactly annul the duty to the emperor, but it does massively reconfigure it. We are to give the emperor his due, but only insofar as this is consistent with – indeed an expression of – our more expansive duty to God.” [1]. 

In other words, we can pay taxes, pledge allegiance to a flag, even follow a president…but only when those actions are consistent with our commitment to God. In this thinking, there is a bit of an implied warning. We are always dealing with broken systems and broken leaders. We can never put our trust entirely in any party or candidate. We must always put God first, and that means we have some hard work to do. We have to do the hard work of knowing what we believe about God and why – and then apply it to our current political questions. As commentator David Lose put it, “There are times Christians cooperate with civil authority and times we resist, and telling the difference often takes more than a modicum of wisdom.” [2]

One way of gleaning this wisdom is understanding the difference between Jesus’ world and our world. A small group of us gathered this past Wednesday at noon to learn about taxes in Jesus’ time. I learned a lot of things from the historian who is teaching us. I learned that the particular tax in today’s scripture, the imperial tax, would have funded engineering projects like road and bridges and aqueducts that brought water to cities. How many of you think those things are good?

Unfortunately, it also would have funded the Roman army. This army was the very military force that occupied and oppressed the people of Judea. Another thing I learned is that the imperial tax did not fund any social programs. There was no ancient social security or food stamps or Medicare. In that sense, the imperial tax is not the same as our modern taxes which fund some of the same things as the imperial tax (roads, bridges, military) but also lots of other things like social security, food stamps, Medicare, education, veteran’s benefits and on and on. 

Similarly, the imperial tax was wildly unpopular because of how it was collected. Ancient tax collectors, called publicans, were not paid a base wage by the empire. They made their entire living by charging an amount – at their discretion – above the taxes the Roman Empire expected them to collect. So, if the Roman imperial tax was 1%, the tax collectors could take a whole other percent (or more) for themselves. And if a poor person couldn’t pay the amount the tax collector wanted, the tax collector could take their land. With no land, it became impossible for them to feed their families. 

Oh! And I learned that if you were an official citizen of the Roman Empire, you didn’t have to pay the tax at all. The poorer, less-powerful non-citizens covered your share. 

For these reasons, the Judeans hated the imperial tax. Because it funded the army that oppressed them, tax collectors were corrupt and extorted extra out of them, and it overburdened the poorest people while wealthy “citizens” did not have to pay it.

So technically, the reasons the ancient Judeans hated the imperial tax aren’t exactly reasons for us to hate our tax system. We don’t have an occupying army or tax collectors who just add a little extra to our taxes to make themselves wealthy…and technically everyone is supposed to pay taxes, no matter how wealthy and connected you are. However, that doesn’t mean our tax system is perfect. It’s not. It’s complicated and rife with loopholes that might not be categorically corrupt – but at the very least, it is set up to benefit those people with enough education and access to tax professionals who can help them navigate its complexities. The U.S. tax code is almost 3,000 pages long after all. It could use reform in the direction of simplicity, transparency, and fairness for sure.

So should we resist and not pay our taxes? Sometimes Christians actually do that. Some Quaker Christians refuse to pay taxes because their pacifist views do not allow them to support war. From the Quaker perspective, war tax resistance is totally defensible. They would say that their ultimate allegiance to God does not allow them to give money to the government to wage war on their behalf. I really respect that. Yet even among Quakers, only a very small percentage choose to be war tax resistors.

So I’m not saying, and I don’t think Jesus was saying in our scripture, that you should stop paying your taxes. What I am saying is that you can’t just do something because the government says so. You can’t just do something because your preferred political party says so. I’m even saying you can’t just do something because your church or your pastor says so. You have a responsibility to know what it means to YOU to pledge allegiance to God over politicians, over political party, and YES over country.

Obery Hendricks, a professor at Perkins Seminary at Southern Methodist University offers this guidance as a starting point. He writes:

Ultimately, we must transcend the categories of liberal and conservative to reclaim the politics of Jesus. We must reject the aspects of each that contradict Jesus’ politics and embrace those things that are in accord with his Gospel. We must embrace conservatism’s willingness to speak its faith and the transformational power of that witness. And we must lay claim to liberalism’s care for the poor and weak…

We Christians must not let ourselves be deceived into either exclusive allegiance or exclusive opposition to either party. What must be opposed is valorization of the rich as if they have a natural right to rule. What must be opposed is moral laxity masquerading as liberation. What must be opposed is hunger and violence and exploitation and oppression, and mistreatment of anyone for any reason.” [3] 

Or in the words of Richard Floyd: “Give the emperor his due, but LOVE God and neighbor.” [4]

May we always remember who to love and who loves ALL of us. And act accordingly.

May it be so. 

Amen.

[1] Richard Floyd. “Matthew 22:15-22: The Pastoral Perspective.” IN Feasting on the Gospels (Matthew, Volume 2) edited by Cynthia Jarvis and Elizabeth Johnson. Louisville: Westminster John Know, 2015. p. 190.

[2] David Lose. “Matthew 22:15-22: The Homiletical Perspective.” IN Feasting on the Gospels (Matthew, Volume 2) edited by Cynthia Jarvis and Elizabeth Johnson. Louisville: Westminster John Know, 2015. p. 193.

[3]. Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of the Teachings of Jesus and How They Have Been Corrupted. New York: Doubleday, p. 318.

[4] Richard Floyd. “Matthew 22:15-22: The Pastoral Perspective.” IN Feasting on the Gospels (Matthew, Volume 2) edited by Cynthia Jarvis and Elizabeth Johnson. Louisville: Westminster John Know, 2015. p. 192.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1) As Pastor Chris said, scholars still debate what Jesus meant when he said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” What do you think Jesus meant when he said that?

2) Given your understanding of what God is calling us to do, what does your faith tell you about paying taxes?

3) Have you ever disobeyed a rule because you believed disobeying it was the right and loving thing to do? What rule was it? Were there consequences to you disobeying it? [Or if you’ve never done this, is there anyone you admire who has disobeyed an unjust rule?]

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