Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity 2021

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

My Brethren in Christ Jesus, blessings, as we celebrate the Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity. In today’s Gospel reading, we hear one of the most famous passages in all of Holy Scripture. Christ Jesus is teaching, when a mix of Pharisees and Herodians send out disciples to try to trap Him in a comment that they can use against Him with the Roman authorities. Pharisees and Herodians do not see eye to eye on everything, but they share similar cultural biases. Both groups, for the most part, are professional, well educated, either upper middle class or ambitious to move into the upper middle class in a Roman world that is increasingly mobile and cosmopolitan. They do not want to upset the status quo so much as to figure out how to succeed in it. Though rigorous in applying the Mosaic Law to the everyday Jew, the Pharisees have made their peace generally with the idea of a God-fearing Kingdom under Roman occupation. This is even more so the case with the Herodians who benefit disproportionately from the patronage of the King, who in turn is a willing puppet of the Roman Caesars. Neither party wants to upset the applecart, and so the Pharisees and the Herodians both are inclined to be knee-jerkingly hostile against any perceived troublemakers or proponents of novel ideas. Even if they know little of what Christ Jesus really is saying, let alone His intentions, they know that He is attracting large crowds and that some of His followers are referring to Him as a Prophet or even a Messiah. This kind of movement surely is not going to sit well with Caesar, and so the Pharisees and the Herodians have decided that it is not going to sit well with them. They are the same people who, when tested by Pontius Pilate in the public square, will insist that they have no King but Caesar; and, indeed, on that point the Pharisees and the Herodians are honest. They may claim fidelity to the God of Moses and to the Law of the Covenant, but when push comes to shove their King is not God in Heaven but Caesar in Rome. Their preferred Kingdom is not what God has ordained for them, but rather the scraps that Caesar and his local Governor are willing to let them keep for themselves. For all their mad posturing, what the Pharisees and the Herodians really desire in the end is small: A professional advancement here, or a bit of patronage over there, and a “God” who does not get in the way.

Christ Jesus responds to a question about paying tribute to Caesar. The question is intended as a trap, a bit of rhetoric that will get Him in trouble, and yet the Pharisees and the Herodians are showing more of themselves than they realize. For, indeed, there is no greater tribute to Caesar than to preserve the status quo political and cultural norms that keep the Romans on top of the pecking order. Christ Jesus responds with that famous passage: “Render, therefore, unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” To the modern Western ear, this sounds like Biblical support to the oft misunderstood “Separation of Church and State.” The Church serves God, the State serves Caesar, and the two should stay as removed from each other as possible. This is not what Christ Jesus is saying, though, for the Roman world simply did not envision a firm dividing line between Church and State or Faith and Reason. Far from being separated, for the Romans, the Church and the State were intertwined with the Church serving the subordinate role of upholding the State. Though they would not couch it in this way, for the most part Pharisees and Herodians believed the same – namely, that religious belief and norms in practice either should support the State or at the very least not ruffle the feathers of those in charge of the State. What Christ Jesus is saying here is that if you want to pay tribute to Caesar, not just in offering a coin to his cult, now and then, but in orienting your whole life to the status quo he represents and to the earthly kingdom he allots you, then do so with the understanding that that is not God’s ways. Notwithstanding all the showy pretense of religious devotion, if you are living for this world, then you are a citizen of this world, and not a citizen of God’s Kingdom. If Caesar is your King, then God is not your King, no matter how scrupulously you avoid unclean food or keep the Sabbath. What matters is what you live for. Paying tribute to Caesar is beside the point, for Caesar and all the tribute rendered him will be gone when his short time on earth is done. Whatever advancement or patronage is secured will not matter to anyone a century or a millennium later, and yet a hundred thousand millennia is not even a blink of God’s eye. For a man to render unto Caesar is the same as for a man to cast his lot with what is small, transitory, and ultimately irrelevant. For a man to render unto God is the same as for a man to cast his lot with what is strong, eternal, and indeed the grounds of everything else. In essence, Christ Jesus is saying: Go and stand with Caesar, if you want, but do not pretend that you can drag God into that life with you. We all reap what we sow, and Caesar’s patronage is not going to count for all that much in the end. We may have to accommodate the Caesar of our times, but pray that we always keep our hearts and our minds directed toward God. Pray that whatever the image may be on our coins, the inscription on our souls will remain unto the end of time the Word of God.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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