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October 18, 2020
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
It used to be that we never talked about money, politics, or religion in public because people have strong personal feelings on those subjects and they tend to be divisive. Things have kind of changed, though, haven’t they?
These three issues were at the heart of the conversation between Jesus and the leaders in today’s Gospel reading. And people’s opinions were just as strong then as they are now.
In terms of politics, about the only thing the Pharisees and the Herodians had in common is that they didn’t like Jesus. The Herodians supported King Herod’s agenda, which meant they supported the Roman government.
And the Pharisees were the Jewish leaders, and for all their faults, they identified more closely with the plight of the Jewish people. But the Herodians and the Pharisees came together against Jesus because both groups had a lot to lose if he wasn’t dealt with.
The tax that they’re talking about is one that the Jewish people had to pay annually to support the Roman Empire’s occupation of Israel. It had to be paid with Roman coins, which had an image of the emperor on them, along with an inscription proclaiming him to be the divine ruler. So they were pieces of propaganda in addition to being units of currency.
And the practice of proclaiming the emperor as a god, along with putting his picture on something, broke two of the ten commandments. So for Jewish people, paying taxes with Roman coins was both a political and a religious issue.
Taking all of that together, this was a tense conversation. It happened on Tuesday of Holy Week – which is the context for the last few readings we’ve had, so we know Jesus had already been stirring things up for a couple of days.
But this conversation was about more than separation of church and state or the place of money in people’s lives. Jewish people living in the first century knew what those Roman coins meant. So, for them, the struggle was that they knew the emperor wasn’t a god because there is only one God.
And they knew that everything, without question, belonged to God and that nothing belonged to the emperor. Even the Pharisees, the keepers of Jewish law, should have felt conflicted using those coins. But their question about whether it’s lawful to pay taxes to the emperor revealed that they really weren’t conflicted.
And in his answer, Jesus revealed their allegiance. And he showed that when our hearts are bound to the wrong thing, fear and greed and other things like that take over and drive our decisions and our loyalty becomes divided. And it becomes easy to forget what belongs to whom.
As human beings, each one of us is made in the image of God. And in our creation, God claims us in love as God’s own. God’s claim doesn’t give us power over anything or anyone, it’s an act of stewardship that gives abundant life to all. That’s where our allegiance lies.
When our hearts are bound to the assurance of God’s claim and God’s love for us, we end up standing against anything that is against God. Even when everyone else seems to be doing the opposite of that.
We know that political views and opinions in general have become more polarized. It’s happening in places all over the world, and we’re most aware of it here in the U.S. – especially as the election season begins. Within that polarization, we’re being asked to declare allegiance to ideas and ways of thinking.
Many of those are even being declared as “what God wants” in terms of expectations for how we’re supposed to live. But, ideally, when we’re faced with that statement, we ought to be asking – in a manner of speaking, “Does this belong to God? Or does it belong to the emperor?”
To whom belongs the flag? The national anthem? Our weapons of destruction? Give those things to the emperor.
But the bigger questions are:
To whom belongs your body? Your soul? Your work? Your devotion? Give those things to God.
To whom belongs the kingdom? The power? The glory? Give those things to God.
As people who follow Jesus, when we’re faced with the declaration that “this is what God wants,” whatever it is, sometimes we do stop and ask whether that’s true. And it exposes any conflict with our allegiance to God.
But sometimes it’s easier to make a snap decision and not think it through. And if we do that often enough, we get caught up in a power struggle – sometimes without even realizing it. Eventually, we stop thinking about what God really does want and our allegiance becomes divided.
We forget to whom we truly belong and how that shapes who we are and the way we live and interact with each other. And we move further and further apart as we struggle to claim the upper hand.
God’s claim on us doesn’t give us power over anything or anyone. It’s a claim that God loves us as God’s own, and it’s an act of stewardship that gives life to all. And when our hearts are bound to the assurance of God’s claim, we end up standing against anything that is against God. Even when people pressure us not to do it.
So sometimes it means kneeling for the national anthem when the general public demands that you stand. And taking a deeper look at movements like Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police in order to understand what they’re truly about. And it means remembering that, regardless of the election results in a few weeks, there is still work to be done loving and serving people in the name of Christ.
Standing against things that are against God, and God’s desire for life, isn’t always easy to do. Especially when people push back against us to try and keep us from doing it. It divides families, and destroys friendships, and sometimes even results in physical harm.
But whenever we’re faced with things that challenge God’s claim on us, no matter how big the challenge is, we have to ask ourselves the bigger questions: to whom belongs your life? Your heart? Your faith? Give those things to God. Always.
When our hearts are bound to God’s claim on us, God’s love for us, it doesn’t mean we all agree on everything. It means we recognize God’s love for each person and in each person.
Every life is marked with the image of the one who created us and loves us and sustains us. And God claims us in love so that we might all have the abundant life God wants for us. Thanks be to God! Amen.
 Genesis 1:26-27