October 16, 2011
October 16, 2011
Ms. Terry Edwards, Seminarian
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
“May the words that I speak and the words that you hear be from God” AMEN
Taxes! I imagine no one enjoys paying them.
During the history of mankind -conquered people and colonized people were forced to pay taxes to support the reigning empires and its military might. In this parable found in the gospel of Matthew, we find the competing interests of the Pharisees and the Herodians-forming an unlikely alliance to set a trap for Jesus. The Pharisees and the Herodians approach Jesus with their tongues -dripping with false flattery and insincere compliments that belie their intentions and the complicity of their motives. Their motives were to make Jesus appear a seditionist- plotting treason against Roman authority -or make Jesus appear disloyal to the religious Jews who resented the census and temple taxes imposed on them.
Jesus, -greeting them as “hypocrites” rightly addresses them with a word that affirms the intentions and motives of the Pharisees and the Herodians. Hypocrites - those speaking words they do not believe and those whose behavior does not conform to their beliefs.
Even though the Pharisees and the Herodian’s motives are deceitful, their words correctly mirror the character of Jesus. Jesus is sincere; Jesus does teach the way of God; and Jesus shows deference or partiality to none.
The Pharisees, a prominent religious fraction in Jerusalem, represented a school of thought within Judaism that adhered to strict compliance to Judaic traditions. The apostle Paul, described himself as having been a Pharisee when he persecuted the followers of Jesus. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for rigorously applying many unwritten, unjust rules as laws for everyday living. These traditions were full of legalism but no compassion. The Pharisees’ image was to be more righteous, more moral, and more religiously observant. The Herodians were Jews that closely allied themselves with and supported the occupying Roman government officials. So both- the Pharisees and the Herodians were concerned with their image and their desire for power.
In answering the Pharisees and the Herodians’ question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor”, Jesus draws their attention to an image and the title of the emperor on the denarius engraved the “divine Caesar” and then Jesus draws a unique but common parallel between these competing interests that we all must balance – the interest of government and the interest of religious communities.
It is amazing that the two subjects we are cautioned never to mix, religion and politics, have always throughout history been inextricably intertwined. From the time of Jesus’ birth when Herod the First tried to ascertain from the wise men where Jesus was born in order to kill him; to Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and Christianity becoming the state religion of Rome; to the Crusades-the religiously sanctioned military campaigns supported by the Roman church; to Henry VIII breaking away from the church in Rome; to the conquest, colonization and the work of missions in the new world and in the third world; - religion and the political interest of empires and ruling dynasties and governments have maintained a rocky, sometimes co-conspiratorial, and almost always a tentative relationship.
And that very tentative relationship- the balance between the things owed to God and the things owed to government – is where scriptures bring us today. What should be the response of Christian communities?
Throughout our history there have been Christian leaders who have provided a powerful response to governmental injustice and their lives serve as a witness for future generations to imitate.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant minister, theologian and Christian martyr stood in courageous opposition to Hitler and his policies of annihilation of the Jews. Victoria Barnett writes- that it “became evident to Bonhoeffer that a real chasm had developed between the ideals of the Christian church and the Church’s response to the brutalization by the German government against the Jews”. Bonhoeffer was very explicit about the church’s obligation to fight against political injustice. The church, he wrote, must fight evil in three stages: The first stage -was to question the state’s injustice and call the state to responsibility; the second stage- was to help the victims of injustice, whether they were church members or not. Ultimately, the third stage Bonhoeffer stated, the church might find itself called not only to help the victims who have fallen under the wheel, -but to fall into the spokes of the wheel itself- in order to halt the machinery of injustice.
Martin Luther King, a Baptist minister and also a Christian martyr, well known for his role in the fight against unjust laws and for social justice for all people, whose memorial is being dedicated in Washington today, implored a nation in his eloquent letters, sermons, and essays that “history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people - but the appalling silence of the good people.” King had imitated the example of non-violent civil disobedience espoused by Gandhi who led India to independence against colonial powers. Gandhi and inspired -and continues to inspire -non-violent movements for civil rights and social justice across our nation and the world.
Just last week, the Nobel Prize Committee recognized three women for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and women’s rights to fully participate in peace-building work. Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, and human rights activist Tawakkul Karman from Yemen - work in their respective countries, to bring an end to the suppression of women.
In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he describes what matters: faithful work and labor in God’s kingdom, and being steadfast in the belief of the coming of Jesus Christ, even in the face of persecution. The church in Thessalonia remembering the great witness of Paul and others – continued the teaching of faith and social justice to other cities. The early church learned- that governments do not always act in ways that show justice, governments do not always show their citizenry mercy, governments are not always lawful. But Christian communities empowered by the Holy Spirit can demonstrate social justice and mercy, thus peacefully coercing the governments to act in lawful ways.
In Matthew’s gospel we receive the answer to what we owe God. We are called to live sincerely a life of truth in the will of God; to speak the truth to power, showing deference to no one - and to stand with the victims of unjust laws. Simply- that is what we are called to do.