An Unholy Empire

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

Caesars, emperors, pharaohs, oh my! Claims about earthly dominion and heavenly sovereignty undergird and perfuse the scriptures and the societies that emerged from them, deeply influencing us across time, including here, today.

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

Sounds easy doesn’t it? But does Jesus mean that his ancient hearers should have given all of their money or even just all of the coins with the imperial image to Caesar? And he can’t mean that we, his contemporary hearers, should give all of our money back to the government that minted and printed it, can he? But then again, doesn’t everything belong to God? Does Jesus mean that we should give all of our money to the Church? Or offer it up directly to God without the middlemen (or women) by setting it on fire as an old-fashioned, biblical-style offering? What does he mean, “Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God,” and how are we supposed to do that anyway?

Is Jesus talking about Tiberius Caesar, his Caesar in particular, or is he using Caesar generically to mean emperor? Remember Caesar was a family name of the Julii, whose infamous son Gaius Julius passed it down to his adopted son Octavian Augustus who passed it down to Tiberius, his stepson. Much later emperors like Nero and Hadrian who were not related to the Julii claimed the title for themselves and it ceased to be a family name by the time the gospels were being written down, so both senses could be at play here.

We just celebrated the feast day of Hawaii’s beloved sovereigns, Queen Emma and King Kamehameha IV. Monarchy is a tender subject for Hawaiians and a touchy subject for mainlanders and post-colonial peoples around the world. Yet the language of monarchy, which is human language, is used to describe God, the abode of God and God’s relationship to everyone and everything else in the world, in the bible. And in today’s gospel lesson there is an apparent conflict between a human monarch and God. The monarch in question is no mere king, he is an emperor – empire is monarchy on steroids, I’ll get back to that – and not just any emperor, but a Caesar, taking that whole empire thing to a completely new level.

Monarchy is the practice of recognizing some family lineages as legitimate rulers over other people. Historically monarchy has been tricky because not all of the would-be subjects accept the would-be monarchs as their rightful rulers. Monarchal claims and rejection of those claims have led to thousands of years of warfare on this planet, formation of new nations, republics and at least one last state admitted to the United States of America. It’s really only in the last century that warfare and monarchy have enjoyed some separation.

The question of what makes one family, tribe or lineage royal and entitled to rule others in their extended community is for many a theological question. For many royals and some of their subjects, God, the gods and/or the ancestors bestowed the right to rule on them, making rebellion against a monarch a religious crime, a sin, as well as a criminal, political, treasonous matter. Religion is a powerful motivating force and the intentional intersection between monarchy and religion in virtually every culture deliberately exploits this power.

From the perspective of ancient peoples including the Israelites, monarchy was just how the world works: everybody had kings and queens, on earth and in the heavens. If there were monarchs below there were surely monarchs above. From the Israelite perspective, as soon as there were enough people living together in one place to call a city or town, there were monarchs. Early in Genesis, the biblical writers list groups of kings at war with each other in the lands that Sarah and Abraham are supposed to cross and eventually settle. In the book of Judges a man named Avimelek, Abimelech, became the first monarch in Israel, ruling for three years, about a hundred and fifty years before Saul’s kingship. Later, when the Israelites ask God for a monarchy, it is because all the other nations have one and they want one too.

In one of the funniest passages of scripture, the prophet Samuel is beside himself that the people have asked for a human monarch. God has to calm him down and soothehis hurt feelings. So Israel got their own monarchy for a little while – in their glory days the nation wasn’t any bigger than New Jersey although they did have one of the great wonders of the ancient world, the temple in Jerusalem. And God partnered with the Israelite monarchs– some more than others, yet all of them were anointed by their prophets in the name of God, whether the bible calls them good or bad.

Israel’s little monarchy gave it a good run for as long as they could but they couldn’t compete against the big dogs: Empires, those monarchies on steroids. The difference between monarchies and empires can be summed up in one word: colonization. Monarchs rule their own people in their own land but empires rule peoples in other lands, frequently by destroying their monarchies.

Monarchies can be beloved and an immense source of pride to their own people as is the case here in Hawaii and elsewhere around the world. Monarchies can have complicated relationships with each other – who sits where at a royal weddings.

But empires gobble up monarchies, depose, execute or imprison anointed monarchs and sovereigns. Empires are voracious, devouring lands and peoples and their resources to fuel their engines of war for more and more conquest. Many ancient monarchies held slaves, but empires tended to fund their expansion on the backs of slaves, exporting them to new lands to build up outpost colonies and spread the dominion of the empire to new places over new peoples.

And so the Roman Empire had replaced what was left of Alexander the Great’s empire that was built on the bones of the Persian Empire that toppled the Babylonian Empire which destroyed the Israelite monarchy when it was thinking about becoming an empire like the Egyptian empire from which it had so recently – in global terms – escaped.

And Rabbi Jesus, Rav Yeshua, the son of a people that had not ruled their own land for nearly six hundred years says, Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

Jesus is beating the Pharisees at their own game, outdebating them. And he calls them hypocrites, the term for actors at the time. They are pretending to seek him and study God with him, but of course they have another agenda and he lets them know that he knows exactly what they are doing. Well, two can play that game. He will answer pretending that they are really confused about whether they ought to pay their taxes.

Rabbi, is it permitted to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

However unjust empires may be, and injustice is the bread and butter – or in biblical terms, the bread and salt – of empires, the power of the empire is real and lethal. Jesus’ death warrant was granted on the charge that he claimed to be a monarch, an emperor, a Caesar. Brutality is the stock and trade of empire which brooks no competition. Empires are lethal inventions. Yet empires are comprised of people and people can be redeemed. The work of redemption pitted Jesus against empire and with the people being ground underfoot – the 99% of his time and for the redemption of the purveyors of imperial power.

Jesus and his followers were very practical about government even as they were critical of its injustices; paying taxes was practical advice. And Jesus did not provoke the empire to lethal action until he was ready to die. They would have cut his ministry down in its prime if he had let them. For Jesus there was no competition between the imperial and religious worlds. He didn’t call for people to give all of their money to the temple and boycott the government. He saw a role in the world for both. And to the degree that there were injustices in both he preached against them all. And ultimately an unholy alliance between the empire and their supporters in the religious community took his life, not understanding that he was freely giving it.

We still have taxes in our world and we still ought to pay them. I’d be really concerned about a church or religion that says none of the citizens of a country or state should pay taxes to support that state or country in which they live. We still have empires, but they look quite a bit different from those in the time of Jesus. The Roman Empire that ruled Jesus fell to Germanic tribes in 476 CE. And the sun set on the last of the old-world traditional empires when Great Britain gave back the city of Hong Kong to the Chinese people in 1997. The title emperor no longer means what it once meant; the role of Japan’s Emperor Akihito is vastly different than that of Emperor Hirohito. And he’s not alone, the crowned heads of Europe are regularly trotted out for occasions of state, but they are only titular heads of state.

Earlier this morning, people on the mainland gathered to celebrate the life of another man who gave his life while another empire thought it was taking it from him. The national memorial honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dedicated today. Most know that he opposed the imperial forces of racism and segregation; some know that the night the was assassinated, murdered and martyred he was opposing economic imperial forces in partnership with the working poor. A few will know that he was killed after he began to speak out against the immorality of corporations in terms of racial and economic injustice. He called some banks and corporations by name and recommended that folk stop putting their money in the local segregated banks and stop buying some products. He called for the economic support of black banks and insurance companies. He called for an economic boycott on the 3rd of April 1968 of Coca-Cola, Sealtest Milk, Wonder Bread, Hart’s Bread; those companies are no longer segregated, but the price was blood. On the 4th of April, less than twenty-four hours later, he was dead. Empires are lethal, particularly when their financial interests are challenged.

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

So who’s running this world? Who are our Caesars? The protestors on Wall Street and in cities across the country including in Honolulu might say corporations and/or their boards and officers. Others might say that nations like the United States, China and India are competing to rule economic empires with commercial rather than military might. Sadly, even Jesus doesn’t envisage a world in which there are no more empires. But he does see the image of God stamped on the face and body of every human soul, just as the image of Tiberius Caesar was stamped on every coin he minted.

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

You are the image of God and you belong to God, lock, stock – stocks and bonds – and barrel. Amen. 

The All Saints Episcopal Church

Kapaa HI

16 October 2011