Sunday, October 06, 2002

Render Unto Caesar

[note from the future: This is the text of the lay sharing I delivered 10-6-02, which ended up getting me in a lot of trouble. Since the trouble I got in has never been resolved, nor have I been apologized to, I guess the words are worth keeping around.]

They say in public speaking that you start off by telling people what you're about to say, in condensed form. So here are my building blocks for today's sharing:

  • Pearls Before Swine
  • Render Unto Caesar
  • Stairway to Heaven
  • What Would Jesus Do?
Some of you know that Schuyler and I have argued, no, "discussed" our differing views about what the Bible verses dealing with "Render Unto Caesar" means to us. We've tailed off on that as of late, realizing that the other guy "just doesn't get it," but next week the Lectionary stops on Matthew 22:15-22. Next week is communion here at the early service, when we typically don't have a lay speaker. Since I wouldn't get a chance to do this again for another 3 years, Schuyler kindly agreed to shift it to this week.

Now, I have a telescope, a pair of binoculars, an astronomy program on my Palm Pilot, and I like to watch Star Trek; but this doesn't make me an astronomer, it barely qualifies me as an amateur astronomer.

So...just because I enjoy talking about the meaning of life, God, eternity, and all that, that doesn't make me a theologian either. If you're looking for an official explanation, talk to a professional. But if you'd like to hear what I think about all this stuff, you're in the right place.

This summer, I shared my views with you about the validity of finding new meanings in words that may never have meant to be interpreted in such a fashion. Recently, I stumbled across Matthew 7:6, which just tends to encourage me further in my quest for novel interpretations:

Matthew 7: 6 Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.
Now, I'd like to see a show of hands. How many of you have pearls? How many of you raise pigs? Hmmm...not many. I think what we're faced with here is a genuine allegory, a parable, not advice for the Future Farmers of America. What this passage says to me is that one has to consider the context of any situation. This dovetails right into the reading for today. So, here it is, of course from the King James version:
Matthew 22
15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk.
16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men.
17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?
18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?
19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.
20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?
21 They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.
22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.
Now, I believe I used the "render unto Caesar" phrase a couple of years ago at a finance meeting. Often at meetings like that, some people don't like to deal with money in a "business-like fashion." "This is a church after all, and we do things different here." Thus began my difference of opinion about these words.

What's so nice about the lay sharing here is that it gives one the opportunity to spend some time reflecting on the meaning of different Bible verses. I've done a little online research, sent some email to Steve Fazenbaker, who always had a problem with lay people telling us what a Bible passage meant, since we didn't have the proper training. Steve's take on this section was that there didn't seem to be a clear opinion about what it meant anyway, but that it certainly showed Jesus' cleverness in getting out of a trap. He also turned me on to the writings of Josephus, which apparently contain a lot of parallels to the Bible. I don't want to get too sidetracked here, but you might want to check it out sometime as background.

Jesus is in the middle of a dispute between a group of Jews who adhered to the Fourth Philosophy of Judas the Galilean, and the Herodians, Jews who supported being submissive to Rome, who were looking for a way to arrest him.

I don't want to get too academic here, and put you all to sleep, but I found some interesting background information about this reading.

"Locally minted copper coins omitted the emperor's portrait due to Jerusalem's sensitivities, but because only the imperial mint could legally produce silver and gold coins, Palestine had many foreign coins in circulation. The silver denarius of Tiberius, including a portrait of his head, minted especially at Lyon, circulated there in this period. The coin related directly to pagan Roman religion and the imperial cult in the East: one side bore Caesar's image and the words "Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus," while the other side referred to the high priest of Roman religion. Like it or not, Jews had to use this coin; it was the one required for the poll tax in all provinces."

"Further, some suggest that Jesus was challenging the idea that his opponents needed to hold on to the coins at all; why not return them to Caesar? Jerusalemites preferred death to allowing Caesar's image to enter Jerusalem on standards, yet they carried it in on coins."

So, the story and context here has some quite literal details. But once again I ask you. Look at a coin in your pocket. Is it The silver denarius of Tiberius? Once again, for these words to have lasting value, they need to grow into our current reality.

What we find here is the core of the separation of church and state, coming directly from the mouth of Jesus. You have heard before that because the radical Jews at the time felt everything belonged to God anyway, that Jesus' statement would seem to be no more than talking whilst keeping your fingers crossed behind your back. That logic only cuts so deep anyway, since if everything belongs to God, you might as well give Caesar his due, since God owns everything anyway, you can't really take anything away from God.

But, like I said earlier, this is just the way I see things, I'm not qualified to actually have a valid point of view! But...I might as well tell you what I think while I'm here.

I realize that part of the problem with interpreting the Bible in new ways, is that we all long for that solid rock, and that if people keep "fooling around" with scripture, we lose that sense of certainty about our spiritual path. I think of this as the "Stairway to Heaven" syndrome. We're going to play "Stairway to Heaven" in a few minutes, and I feel it's not just some rich old lady that believes she can get to heaven by buying her way in. I think we all feel that way a bit. I'm not trying to say getting into heaven should be an impossible task; I believe that via God's Grace, and His Love for all of us, we've already got that pass to the big "after the show party in the sky." But I believe the journey for enlightenment here on Earth can be pretty difficult.

I'm not really sure what kind of Christian I am, sometimes the various denominations just seem like different brand names for the same thing. But I will tell you what I like about Jesus. He always seems to find a new way of looking at things. Over and over again, we see him turning the status quo upside down. In Matthew 22, we can see two different groups of Jews trying to get him to choose one side or the other, and it takes Jesus' insight to see that there is another way to look at things.

There is a recent Christian youth movement called "What Would Jesus Do?" I don't know too much about what they really stand for, perhaps someone is getting rich off of selling WWJD bracelets, or maybe the youth are being told by conservative Christian adults what Jesus would indeed do, but I find the basic premise quite intriguing. I think that if you believe Jesus was divine, it's completely logical that an infinite God would be able to see how words could be interpreted in two millennia, or many more millennia for that matter. I think the major challenge we have as Christians is indeed to try and figure out what Jesus would do. I would like to repeat a fragment of the Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot here that I'm sure I've shared before, but is now perhaps more than ever exactly what I mean to say:

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.
I guess what I'm saying is that I believe "What Jesus Would Do" would continue to surprise and shock us. What I believe he left for me in the phrases "neither cast ye your pearls before swine" and "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." is an admonition to keep my heart tuned to the frequency of God's Love, and an open mind.