“Give … to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
This is one of Jesus’ better-known sayings. It can be interpreted several different ways. Some people use it to justify separation of church and state. They seem to have a point, but keep in mind that Jesus was answering a trick question with an evasive answer. It’s not meant to be the basis of a political science textbook.
Still, I think Jesus is saying that we have to live with one foot in one world and the other foot in another. One world is the world we have; the other world is the world God wants us to have. One world is governed by threats of coercion and exclusion; the other is governed by promises of love and inclusion. One world is already here; the other world is impinging on what’s already here—not a totally separate world, but a world that refuses to be confined by what already is.
We need to recognize that we live mostly in the former world, the world we have. And there’s much to appreciate about the world we have—trains running on time, for example. But we’re never supposed to be satisfied with that. Instead we’re supposed to view that world in the light of the world God wants us to have, and do what we can to move things in that direction, not by imperial rule, but by Jesus’ way of speaking truth to power.
There’s also a more subversive twist implied in Jesus’ answer. He asks his cross-examiners to tell him whose face is on the coin, along with the inscription. The face is the face of the Emperor Tiberius. And the inscription says that Tiberius is divine. That’s blasphemous to everybody present. What faithful Jew wouldn’t want to get rid of that coin as soon as possible? And the only ethical way to do that would be to give it to somebody who was not a faithful Jew.
The subversive part is that we know, and Matthew knows, that one of the earliest faith affirmations about Jesus was, “Jesus is Lord.” Even at its earliest it implied an exalted status intimately associated with God (1 Corinthians 8:6). But it was also a politically dangerous affirmation. People in the Roman empire were supposed to say, “The Emperor is Lord.” So when people said that about Jesus, they were saying that the Emperor is not Lord. It was a bit treasonous. Jesus is hinting at that here.
Our ultimate loyalty belongs to God, and to the world God wants us to have, not to emperors, not to presidents, not to political parties, not to the United States, and not to our religious institutions either. At best those are flawed approximations of the world God wants us to have. Settling for them would be a kind of idolatry, treating something limited as if it were unlimited. So yes, live in the world we have. Appreciate it for what it is. Give it what belongs to it. But don’t settle for it. A better world always impinges on what we have, governed by promises of love and inclusion, summoning us to truthful speaking.
Here are the words to a hymn that fits today’s reading (technically, the words ARE the hymn; the music is called a hymntune):
What shall we love and honor most of all?
No place, no thing, ambition or idea,
no person, land, or tribe, however dear.
You are the Holy One. You stake your claim;
you give us life and breath; you call our name.
What name is yours? Whom shall we say has called?
“The One, the Breath, the Wellspring, Adonai,
the Light, the Lover, Abba, El Shaddai,
I WILL BE WHO I AM, come trust in me.
I have no name. I AM WHO I WILL BE.”
What needs must we refuse to idolize? –
“Controlling, feeling high, and having more,
submissive hiding, winning, keeping score,
the tribe, the trend, and privacy in walls.
Bow down to none of these. Your Maker calls.”
What shall we be? – “A people of the Book,
who meet to make a freeing, healing space
where all can enter, stay, and grow in grace,
Christ’s story lived, good news, a hopeful song,
an open house, where many can belong.”
Then let us live for you, our God, our Guide,
born of the Spirit, learning how to pray,
alive in Christ, our hope, our living Way.
Come, breathe through all we say and think and do,
that we may have no other gods but you.