Render unto God

Noting that Jesus’ interlocutors in today’s gospel reading were truly
amazed at his answer, Stanley Hauerwas comments that it’s too bad
Christians have not been equally amazed. Rather than being amazed that
Jesus has come to usher in God’s reign, we are preoccupied with the
politics and rulers of the world. Rarely do we think and behave as
though we are full citizens of God’s kingdom. We use a passage like
today’s to justify living in a kingdom that divides faith and
citizenship, and rendering unto each whatever “due” we decide fits at
the moment. This is a losing proposition.

Why? The Pharisees’
question was a bad question from the start. Rooted in a plot to entrap
Jesus, it was motivated by malice and posed by hypocrites. That hardly
seems like a good beginning to a political ethic. Yet many Christians
continue to spout
“render unto Caesar”—out of context and undigested—as a complete political ethic.

We
asked a couple of New Testament colleagues for input. “Do we owe
anything to Caesar?” replied the first. Instead of immediately
answering “of course,” and quoting Romans 13
on subjection to governmental authorities, we suggest letting the
question sink in. “If God be God, do we owe anything to Caesar?” Or “If
Jesus be raised from the dead, what’s left to owe the government?”

The
Old Testament lesson is also about politics, since it asks, “Is Israel
really the people of God, and if so, will God go with them to the
promised land?” In Exodus 33:1-11,
God more or less said, “I’m not going there with you.” A preacher
shouldn’t shift focus to Moses’ character, as if the whole thing turns
on whether Moses is the master negotiator, whether he has the diplomacy
needed to bring God around to an equitable settlement for Israel. The
character that matters in this scenario, the one that truly shapes this
politics, is God. It turns out that God’s character is rooted in mercy
and forgiveness (33:19, and 34:6-7), so that when Moses has the courage
to ask God to forgive Israel (34:8-9), God delivers.

All this
means two things: First, if you preach this lesson, preach both the
verses that precede it and the story that follows; the lesson as given
just doesn’t make much sense. Second, preach that God’s politics is a
politics of forgiveness, compassion and mercy. If we start with that as
bedrock, then at least we’ll know who we, the church, are called to be
as citizens of God’s kingdom.

Jesus is God’s politics incarnate.
He lives the answer to the Herodians’ pernicious question: he renders
to God all that is God’s, offering even his own life in obedience. That
doesn’t leave much for Caesar, does it? So Caesar takes by violent
crucifixion what is God’s by right, as if Jesus’ life were a tax due
for homeland security. But not even Caesar’s violence can destroy
Jesus’ politics of the new world on the way. He welcomes us into this
politics of the reign of God—whose kingdom is justice, righteousness,
mercy and forgiveness. Let us pray and live, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.