This is my homily for 22 October 2017, on Isaiah 45:1-7 & Matthew 22:15-22.
Today we’ve got a fun couple of Scripture readings to deal with. The main one we’re going to address is the Gospel reading, containing Jesus’ famous teaching to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s. The political implications of this have been a thorn in the side of many a Christian ever since. The other fun feature of our readings is the beginning of Isaiah 45, where the Persian King, a Gentile and a Pagan, is upheld as God’s servant to deliver his people. Again, the potential political implications can get very messy very easily in the hands of an unprepared teacher.
Let’s begin with Cyrus in Isaiah 45. Some of you may have heard on the news last year, during the presidential election season, the occasional pastor or ‘prophet’ endorsing Donald Trump using this passage. They were looking for a sign from God to reveal His will in that election. They opened their Bibles to Isaiah chapter 45, on the cusp of electing our 45th president, and they saw in Cyrus a picture of Donald Trump. They concluded that Trump was God’s anointed, and used this passage to defend all the non-christian things Trump said; he may not be perfect, but he’s obviously God’s servant to “subdue nations before him” and all that good stuff.
I trust that you all realize this, but all of that was sheer and utter nonsense. Those pastors and prophets are false pastors and prophets. They were not rightly handling the Word of God by any stretch of the imagination. The Persian King, Cyrus, was indeed God’s chosen political leader to restore the Jews to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple in his day, but it had nothing to do with Cyrus’ worthiness. He was still a corrupt and arguably evil and incompetent king. Rather, it was all about God’s promise: he had promised that the Israelite exile would last for 70 years, and then they would go home. Cyrus was simply the king in power in Mesopotamia when that time was up. This in no way justifies Cyrus’ “rough edges” or his paganism, and absolutely has nothing to say about any subsequent political ruler, much less an American election. Those who claimed this passage spoke about Donald Trump need to repent of their horrific abuse of the Sacred Scriptures.
I should also point out that it is these same sorts of charlatans with whom our President surrounds himself as his “spiritual advisors.” So in your prayers for our President, both in the Prayer of the People here in the liturgy, as well as on your own, be sure to pray for the conversion of his soul and for the lies that surround him to be broken, that he might actually get to hear the Gospel.
Anyway, as we look at King Cyrus in the Bible, we are to see that God used him despite his lack of faith, just as God used several wicked Pharaohs of Egypt beforehand, to continue His work with his chosen people in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah, the Christ: Jesus. Even though Cyrus was a godless heathen, the Jews were invited to give thanks for what God was doing through him, and this became an example of the biblical teaching that God’s people are to respect earthly authorities whether they are faithful or faithless.
This sets the context for the question put to Jesus in Matthew 22. The Pharisees send their servants to question Jesus, hoping to get him in trouble by pitting divine authority against earthly authority, using taxes as an example. Jesus answers in accord with what the Old Testament already taught: give to the king what is due the king, and give to God what is due to God. Thus, even though St. Paul would go on to teach us that our true citizenship is in heaven, we are to still to “seek the prosperity of the city” as Jeremiah the Prophet had taught centuries before.
As we strive to live according to this teaching in our own day, this particular lesson alternately becomes popular every 4 or 8 years. When Bush was in office, you’d hear Republican Christians quoting this all the time. When Clinton was in office, this passage went strangely quiet. When Bush II was in office, we heard it a lot more again. When Obama was in office, it disappeared again. Now that Trump is in office, this passage is popular again. Christians more towards the political Left, perhaps, have touted this passage at the opposite times as their right-wing counterparts. The fact is, this passage is true no matter who’s in power. The Caesars of the Roman Empire during Jesus’ lifetime and shortly thereafter were positively terrible men. You might have complaints about Barak Obama or Hilary Clinton, but the Caesars at that point in history had begun to claim, openly and directly, that they were divine, and to be worshiped. Gripe all you like about American politics in the 21st century, but we do not have leaders who literally have God complexes; or at least not yet. We may see the majority of the Ten Commandments violated by our Democrat and Republican leaders alike, but at least none have put forth the ultimate blasphemy of deifying themselves.
And yet Jesus taught his disciples to pay taxes to these monsters. And the Apostles Paul and Peter would go on to write about obedience and reverence and respect to these corrupt emperors, kings, and governors. Thinking about last year’s election season, I heard people say “If Hilary Clinton is elected, I’m not sure I’ll be able to abide her name showing up in the prayers of the people.” And once this year began, I heard other people doing the same with Donald Trump, not being able to bring themselves to speak his name in their church’s prayers. Both of these impulses, while emotionally understandable, are in defiance of biblical teaching.
In the past month or two, especially on the internet, a secular paraphrase of Jesus’ teaching has been “stand for the flag; kneel for the cross.” It sounds good at first, but its popularity died out very quickly. The problem was this: how many people actually kneel for the Cross? In a lot of church traditions, if I were to walk in and tell people to kneel before a Cross in prayer, I’d be accused of idolatry! People are quick to talk about kneeling before God, or mention it in songs, as long as it’s only a metaphor for obedience. But standing for the flag is not a metaphor, we have to stand for the flag? The inconsistency here, I think, got a little too close for comfort, and so the slogan was dropped.
This slogan, of “stand for the flag, kneel for the cross,” you may be aware, originated in opposition to the practice of taking a knee during the national anthem at football games. Lots of people were more interested in enforcing visible conformity in reverencing the flag without wanting to address the racism and other injustices that those kneeling were actually protesting. It was largely ignored that these protests began with folks like Colin Kaepernick sitting on the bench, which he changed to kneeling after talking with a military veteran who told him that kneeling would be a more respectful form of protest than sitting. But of course, there are people more interested in restoring the visual status quo without addressing the root of the problem.
Conflict of Kingdoms
I mention this not to be a pest, but because it leads us to another important and difficult question: how far does Christian obedience to the State go? What room do we have for protest?
First, we understand that Caesar and God are different beings worthy of different things. What we owe to God and what we owe to earthly rulers are not the same. I already mentioned the problem of Emperor-worship in the Roman Empire, which was a perennial issue throughout the ancient world. When earthly rulers demand a respect and an allegiance that overshadows our service to Christ, they are asking too much. Through the first three centuries of Church History, one of the main ways this issue manifested was in the offering of incense to an image of the Emperor. This was a loyalty test, and it was a simple act of patriotism: just wave the incense in front of a picture of the Caesar, a simple token gesture of worship, and the officials will be happy. But as harmless as that may seem, Christians recognized that true worship, latria in Greek, related to the word “liturgy”, is due to God alone, and to reverence the Emperor in this way would be idolatry, which is utterly forbidden to us. Even a token gesture of idolatry was unacceptable. And so, many Christians were executed, martyred for the faith.
Granted, we do not face such obviously idolatrous demands from our earthly rulers – not in this country at this time. But, as in every period of history, we must not go through the motions of socially-accepted patriotism without thinking about what we are doing or saying. We are to give our earthly authorities their due reverence as the Scriptures teach us, but we are not give them what belongs to God alone. Before we open our mouths we should consider what it means to “pledge” our “allegiance” to the national colors, and what claims about the State that pledge makes. We should consider what the symbolism of putting our right hand over our heart is. We should consider the lengths we go to respect our earthly home with our postures and gestures, and compare them with the lengths we go to respect our heavenly home with our postures and gestures. I say these things not to attack all forms of American Civil Religion, but to remind you that idolatry is often a subtle thing, and we must therefore approach patriotism with a sober and attentive mind.
What this all comes down to in the end is knowing the difference between conditional obedience and unconditional obedience.
To all earthly powers, we are taught to offer conditional obedience. The reason for this is twofold: first, earthly powers are fallible. They make mistakes, they are as steeped in sin as the people they rule, often moreso if we believe Churchill’s famous quote, “power corrupts.” We cannot give perfect obedience to an authority that cannot govern perfectly. Secondly, earthly powers are temporary. Eventually the Roman Empire would fall, the Byzantine Empire would fall, the Spanish Empire would fall, the British Empire would fall, the American State would fall. We cannot give eternal obedience to an authority that won’t be there forever. As a result, the due obedience and service that we render according to our earthly citizenship will always be conditional, we have to evaluate the commands and laws put upon us, and when (not if) they conflict with the greater commands upon us, we must respectfully disobey the earthly in deference to the heavenly.
To God alone, then, we offer unconditional obedience. God alone is perfect and eternal. And if you read Psalms 19 or 119 you will be reminded over and over again that God’s law is also perfect and eternal. Thus while it is useful to be versed in the laws of the land, and familiar with the culture’s expectations of good citizenship, we must be all the more versed in the Word of God, and familiar with our Lord’s teaching about true holiness as befits God’s people. While it is good to seek earthly liberty and justice, it is all the more important to seek Christian liberty and justice: that is, freedom from the bondage of sin for ourselves and others.
With that in mind, let us pray together the Collect of the Day.
Set us free, loving Father, from the bondage of our sins, and in your goodness and mercy give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.