So now here we’ve come – right to the intersection where politics and religion meet. And again, what are the two things you are not supposed to talk about in polite company? Politics and religion. Yet today the very center of our faith, the basis of our whole religion is encountered with a highly charged political question when Jesus is asked: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Well, this certainly is not just any political question, but a question about something that colored the political discourse of our country for years now. It is a question about taxes. Taxes seem to be the one political issue that causes some of the most heated political debate to occur as we have a shared national history that literally began over a question of taxation.
And it continues to this day. One of the things I’ve seen that drives our public policy the most at the moment is the simple question: Will you raise taxes? Much of what drives our lawmakers this day is the pledge “I will not raise taxes.” A pledge that many of our lawmakers have taken in recent years. And what’s funny is that that pledge is a like a sword hanging by a small string over their heads ready to snap and slay anyone who would ever dare to consider raising taxes. The Pharisees and the Herodians in our reading for today are themselves seeking to place a sword on a string above Jesus’ head ready to snap at a moments notice if Jesus says “YES” or “NO.” But a funny thing happens as these people try to embroil Jesus into a debate over political ideals – He decides not to play their little game.
You see, what’s at the heart of much political debate is a process in which people are thrown into a discussion where ideas and the defense of those ideas is paramount to anything else in the discussion. So, rather than have a conversation about how to engage an issue in government and how to come up with a solution; politicians, the media, and protesters engage in fierce defense as to how their ideas are right and other’s ideas are wrong. So in the end, the ideas become what is important and not the problem or the issue which needs to be solved. And is that not where we err the most often in our life? Is that not our biggest sin? Do we not hold to our ideas above everything else to the point where those ideas and our pursuit of those ideas becomes the God we seek and defend through our actions?
That’s why Jesus really doesn’t concern himself with getting enmeshed into the sticky political debate. That’s why isn’t concerned with the question the Pharisees and the Herodians want him to get entangled in. Because, the question that Jesus is concerned with is the question: how are we going to relate to God; and, through that, how are we going to relate to one another? This question goes beyond and breaks us out of our self-absorption and reorients us upon God. For Jesus is not so much concerned with what people give to the Emperor. He is greatly concerned, however, with how people relate to God, because that relationship, and only that relationship has the ability to give us life and show us exactly where our life, everything we have, and our hope comes from. Only God, and not our own powers or own ideas, only God has the power to give us life. And here’s the thing! God gives it to us abundantly!
Moreover, God gives this gift of life to everyone else around us as we are all created in the image of God and given the command to care for all of creation and the things that live upon it as well. You see, our political convictions never abdicate us from the reality that we are all God’s good creation and that we are all given grace upon grace to live and share the love of God with those who are around us. Jesus doesn’t get enmeshed in the political debate, because he points us towards that which we should truly care about in our lives.
You see it is very simple. Our love for God is shown in our love for our neighbor. That is made very clear when Jesus gathers the disciples for that last supper together and tells them “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) These are the things with which we are to consider if we are truly to live out our identity as followers of Christ. Being a follower of Christ does not mean forcing your ideas upon others in society, rather it means having what we say and do come forth from the setting of our eyes upon the Lord who truly does have the power to give us life.
It is very simple, yet as we know, it can be very hard for us because we are not always able to discern what is our own ambition and what has sprung forth from setting our hearts and minds upon the God who alone gives us life. But that is why grace abounds. That is why we are promised the Holy Spirit in our lives to inspire us to faith in the one God who gives us life. My prayer is always that the Holy Spirit may guide us from ourselves and to God and those around us.