It is difficult for me to speak of this confrontation between Jesus and the Herodians over taxes without getting political. The temptation for the preacher is to get lost in a theological debate about separation of church-state relations or pondering the role of a Christian citizen in a democracy. While these are vital issues, Jesus was not trying to set down principles for church-state relations; he was in a struggle with oppressive and unjust power that would soon cost him his life. With the stakes so high for our Savior, can we be satisfied with even a principled and well-delivered sermon on our views of separation of church and state? I have handled the passage this way in the past, so my intent is not to be judgmental, rather, to move deeper into the heart of Gospel. As Thomas Long wisely advised, “The goal of preaching is not merely to explain what a passage meant in the past, but to recreate the original impact of the passage in today’s setting.”
Brian Stoffregen’s exegetical notes for this lectionary passage gives us some direction on one way of re-creating the impact of the setting of this passage, “The annual payment of this tax to Rome was a painful reminder of being in lands occupied by foreign powers who worshiped false gods. The tax could only be paid with Roman coins which were not just legal tender but also pieces of propaganda. Most of the coins contained an image of the Caesar with inscriptions proclaiming him to be divine or the son of a god. One common phrase on coins during the time of Jesus was: “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” “Graven images” and polytheism were blasphemous to both Jews and Christians. Thus paying taxes with Roman coins raised both political and religious issues.
What if our coins said something like: “George Walker Bush, august son of the divine George Herbert Walker Bush, President of the United States, the most powerful man on the planet”? Those who are sympathetic to the Democratic Party may view such money as evil. Similarly, what if all the money during the previous administration had pictures of William Jefferson Clinton on them and saying about his virtues? I’m certain that many Republicans would refuse to carry or use such money. Every time they pulled out their money, they would be reminded that the enemy was in power. It may be significant that the pictures on all of our money are of dead people.”
Stoffregen’s words remind me that political authority almost always seeks divine authority to bolster itself. The Herodians who questioned Jesus were willing to submit Judaism to Rome. The status quo served them quite well, even if it meant widespread poverty and hardship to the people of Israel, in great part due to heavy tax burdens to support the Roman tribute and Herod’s massive building projects. Their challenge comes in the context of Jesus cleansing the temple of money changers that very week. They are plotting to smoke him out. Remember in Mark’s Gospel (see Mark 3:6) that the Herodians had already decided that Jesus must be destroyed. The challenge to Sabbath laws by picking grain and healing on the Sabbath were considered so radical that it challenged both the political and religious status quo.
Many churches pray weekly for our leaders to act morally and govern righteously. There is a great paradox here, since we want godly leaders, yet we do not want leaders who claim divine right in the naked exercise of power. We must exercise great caution when leaders proclaim their policies to be directly from divine edict. What frustrates me about our current president Bush is not only my disagreement over his policies, which I consider to be unjust, but his excessive confidence in his own righteousness in his public religious proclamations. Let me take a moment to compare George W. Bush with Abraham Lincoln public religiosity.
George W. Bush is certainly a man of conviction and believes God is speaking to him about matters of public policy. What troubles me is his lack of humility and concern for the carnage of war on innocent victims. In a new BBC documentary series, Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, says:
“President Bush said to all of us: ‘I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, “George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did, and then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq
…” And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, “Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East. And by God I’m gonna do it.'”
Elton Trueblood gives great insight into the religious life of Abraham Lincoln in his book “Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish.” In the fourth chapter, Trueblood assesses Lincoln’s prayer life, Lincoln’s recognition of the sincerity of Southern piety was crucial for his own position. He did not want to elevate his cause to the level of divine infallibility. He did not want the South to be damned and rejected as if it were only evil. And so, bowed down by the weight of his cares, he prayed. And the meekness of his prayer breathes in almost everything that he did. In contrast to pronouncements which tend to be judgmental , prayer introduces men to a totally different dimension.
Trueblood goes on to look at Lincoln’s public prayer through evaluating the nine calls to prayer and fasting during the Civil War. It reveals a president who could remain passionately committed to his purposes, yet humble in his hope for God to work through him. The first of the nine calls to prayer was suggested and even requested by a joint committee of both Houses of Congress. Recommended was “a day of public humiliation, prayer and fasting to be observed by the people of the United States.” This first Proclamation had no hint of rejoicing, for there was, in fact, nothing about which the people could reasonably rejoice. What was required, Lincoln concluded, was not boasting but humility. In his eloquent development of this theme we sense one of the first intimations of the newLincoln style which was to emerge from the fire of disappointment.
Lincoln’s own part in the memorable pronouncement began with the recognition that “it is fit and becoming in all people, at all times, to acknowledge and revere the Supreme Government of God; to bow in humble submission to his chastisements; to confess and deplore their sins and transgressions in the full conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and to pray, with all fervency and contrition, for the pardon of their past offences, and for a blessing upon their present and prospective action.” Here is no suggestion of vindictiveness toward the people of the Confederacy and not one judgmental line. In this first “National Fast Day,” the emphasis was upon personal contrition rather than upon blame of others.
It is precisely this sense of contrition that I find lacking in our public religiosity today. Lincoln reminds us that even when fighting a war that is just, we must guard against self-righteousness so that we do not “rendor unto Caesar” what belongs to God. Any time of war must be a time of moral anguish. We must remember that the people dying in battle are not collateral damage or casualty figures, but children of God and that each of this death creates pain in the depths of God’s heart.
Lincoln was no stranger to partisan political infighting and was nearly defeated for a second term by his own General, George McClellan. It would be inaccurate to say that Lincoln stood morally above it all and no true leader could do so. But Lincoln provides a living example of what must be rendered unto God in the midst of political life. Strong purpose and moral anguish must live in dynamic tension in the heart of the prayerful soul.