(Matthew 22: 15-22)
In Texas the play-on-words description that we had for politics was: “Polyticks” as in many bloodsucking parasites. And like every joke there was a kernel of truth behind the joke that made it all the funnier or tragically true. And I can tell you that I know this from experience, having found myself on the wrong end of the tick on more than one occasion sucking the life blood out of me. My first foray into the political arena was when I was elected president of the Houston Police Patrolman’s Union which involved me dethroning the founding president with a campaign promise of working with the City of Houston for the betterment of the rank-and-file officers and not the command staff. That lasted less than a year as the opposition party worked quietly behind the scenes to undercut my authority. It was the catalyst I needed to focus on getting my law degree. After relocating to Teresa’s hometown, I became the president of the local little league program promising to balance out all the teams and ensure that every child got to play in every game. Trust me, there is a level of politics in youth sports you cannot imagine when you put a child’s future professional baseball career in jeopardy. I then got on the local school board wanting to make sure my kids got the best education possible. When you advocate books over winning a state championship in football you make some real enemies as your stance is as close to un-American as you can get. But not to be outdone, I then became the elected District Attorney in what could only be described as a real “good-old-boy” system where the local politicians took care of each other as a matter of self-preservation. Needless to say, I was not a good-old-boy and it only took one term for me to galvanize enough of my enemies to where I suffered a resounding defeat at the polls. I eventually came to understand the meaning of the saying: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” I learned that wanting to do the right thing was all well and good but when it upset someone else’s comfortable status quo there would be repercussions and your enemies would temporarily join forces to remove the threat to their self-perpetuating existence.
And that was the lesson Jesus would learn the hard way, what would happen when you jeopardized someone’s status quo by doing what was right and just in God’s eyes, a lesson so impactful it was also told in not only Matthew’s gospel but also in Luke and Mark’s gospel. It’s a story of corruption and the lengths some people will go to maintain their grip on authority, power, and prestige. Jesus is ramping up his rhetoric through parables and the underlying meaning of his stories is not lost on the Pharisees who no longer see Jesus as some sort of small-town rabbi advocating a novel interpretation of God’s law contrary to the way they see things.
To put this dynamic into perspective you have to know who the players were and what was at stake. The Pharisees were a very strong religious group within the Jewish faith, and they were vehemently opposed to the Roman occupation of Palestine. On the other end of the spectrum were the Herodians, a political party that supported the governor Herod Antipas and the policies that had been instituted by Rome. Normally these two groups were bitter enemies, but they were united against Jesus giving credence to the proposition of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Thinking they had a foolproof plan to corner him, together their representatives, they asked Jesus about paying Roman taxes. Matthew tells us that the Pharisees sent their disciples along with supporters of Herod and asked: Teacher, we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. That’s the set up for what is coming next when they ask: So tell us what you think. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? At this point Jesus is thinking to himself: I may have born at night (which he was) but it wasn’t last night. If Jesus agreed that it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisees would say he was opposed to God, the only King they recognized. And, if Jesus said the taxes should not be paid, the Herodians would hand him over to Herod on charges of rebellion against Caesar. In this case the Pharisees were not motivated by love for God’s laws, and the Herodians were not motivated by love for Roman justice. It was all about power and control and Jesus’ answer exposed their evil motives and embarrassed them both when he responded: Why do you test me, you hypocrites? which pointed out that these Pharisees and Herodians were acting in ways publicly that were different from their intentions. Jesus, without playing into their hands asked them to show him the coin they used to pay taxes. When they showed him a denarion he asked whose image was on it. When they replied it was Caesar’s he said: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Matthew tells us that when they heard this, they were astonished and quietly departed. You can just imagine how embarrassed they were to be shown up in public by this simple rabbi. It wasn’t over. It wasn’t over by a long shot. They would be back.
Jesus avoided this trap by showing that we have dual citizenship as illustrated by the Apostle Peter who said in 1 Peter 2: 17: Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Have respectful fear of God. Honor the emperor. Our citizenship in the nation requires that we pay money for the services and benefits we receive and our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven requires that we pledge to God our ultimate obedience and commitment. Seems simple enough, but such is not the case when you are dealing with people who have a self-serving hidden agenda like the Pharisees and Herodians. Our own Methodist denomination was born out of such an implied power sharing agreement between the British Crown and the Anglican Church of England. John Wesley, an Anglican priest, saw how cozy the church was with the crown and that the people both were obligated to care for were suffering because of it. He tried to do something about it and was met with incredible resistance from the church to the point he was denied a charge and was not allowed to preach in any of their churches, so he took to preaching in homes and outdoors where he was often violently attacked by mobs incited to anger by planted agitators. Wesley didn’t leave the church. The church left him, and the birth of Methodism was the result, which rapidly spread into a worldwide movement that continued to battle injustices in its efforts to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And so committed is our United Methodist Church to the gospel of Jesus Christ that we have codified our belief in the separation of Church and State in our Book of Discipline as a part of our Social Principles. Paragraph 164, The Political Community, subsection A) Basic Freedoms and Human Rights says: We hold governments responsible for the protection of the rights of the people to free and fair elections and to the freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, communications media, and petition for redress of grievances without fear of reprisal; to the right to privacy; and to the guarantee of the rights to adequate food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care. Unless you’ve been in a coma for the last three years, you’d have to be deaf and blind to what has been going on in the American political landscape regarding the protections of the aforementioned rights. To say that our elected representatives are not acting responsibly in protecting these rights would be an understatement. The pettiness, the vindictiveness, and the jockeying for political power and prestige is appalling to say the least and, like the disenfranchised people of Jesus’ and Wesley’s time, the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters are suffering the most because of these not-so-hidden agendas. Shame on them.
Subsection B, Political Responsibility states: The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens. The church should continually exert a strong ethical influence upon the state, supporting policies and programs deemed to be just and opposing policies and programs that are unjust. To me, that means that we should not only educate ourselves on who is running for public office, but also cast our ballots for those candidates who most closely reflect the values and teachings of Jesus Christ with an emphasis on bettering the lot of the less fortunate, the unseen, the powerless, and the disenfranchised. We do this by telling our elected representatives and those who seek these positions that, as United Methodists, we expect them to make their legislative decisions based upon the basic freedoms and human rights guaranteed to all people regardless of race, gender, nationality, citizenship, or political party. It’s not about what they can do to fatten my bank account, to increase the returns on my investments, to secure my future at the expense of others, but to ensure that all people get to play on a level playing field.
And finally, subsection C, Church and State Relations states: The United Methodist Church has for many years supported the separation of church and state. In some parts of the world this separation has guaranteed the diversity of religious expressions and the freedom to worship God according to each person’s conscience. Separation of church and state means no organic union of the two, but it does permit interaction. The state should not use its authority to promote particular religious beliefs (including atheism), nor should it require prayer or worship in the public schools, but it should leave students free to practice their own religious convictions. We believe that the state should not attempt to control the church, nor should the church seek to dominate the state. The rightful and vital separation of church and state, which has served the cause of religious liberty, should not be misconstrued as the abolition of all religious expression from public life.
And that’s the crux of the issue as Jesus and John Wesley saw it, the many blood-sucking parasites that wanted to form unholy alliances between the state and the church for their own personal self-aggrandizement and advancement over the basic human rights and welfare of the very people they were obligated to serve whether elected by the people or ordained and called by God to be his disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our job, our duty as United Methodists, as Christians and Followers of the Way of Jesus Christ is to call out the hypocrites not only in our government but in our own churches as we unselfishly work to establish God’s kingdom here on earth as He always intended.
Let us pray.
Gracious and loving God, we know that we have not always been faithful stewards of all that has been committed to us by you, our Creator. We admit that we have been reluctant followers of Jesus Christ in his mission to bring all persons into a community of love. And we know that though we have been called by the Holy Spirit to become new creatures in Christ, we have resisted the further call to become the people of God in our dealings with each other and the earth on which we live. We beseech you to show us the way so that we may do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with you in all that we do in your service. This we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.