Today I offer commentary on the Assigned Lessons and then add comments about our relationship to the nation-state and our politics. This little commentary is not a complete statement of politics for people of faith. It is just an exploration. It is, in keeping with our tradition, nonpartisan, though it does favor “the kingdom of God.”
Psalm 96:1-13 1 O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! 2 Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day today. 3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! 4 For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. 5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols; but the LORD made the heavens. 6 Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. 7 Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength! 8 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts! 9 Worship the LORD in holy array; tremble before him, all the earth! 10 Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns! Yea, the world is established, it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.” 11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 12 let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy 13 before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.
Commentary: In Psalm 96, the nations to which the Psalmist refers are not nation-states but “families of the people,” meaning families, clans, races, and other people groups. The Psalm asserts that the gods of other peoples are idols. Only the LORD God of Israel 1) “made the heavens,”2) posses “strength and beauty,” 3) dispenses “salvation,” 4) “reigns” over the heavens and the earth, and 5) “judges the world in righteousness and the peoples with his truth.”
The Psalm exhorts all people to 1) “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to his name,” 2) “bring an offering,” and 3) “come into his courts” to “Worship the LORD in holy Array.”
When “the families of the people” join in the worship of God, they join not only Israel in the One true God but 1) the heavens, and 2) the sea and all that is in it, 3) the field and everything that is in it, and 4) the trees of the wood.
This psalm is good sophisticated theology. Even today, theologians say that, with a single exception, all creation worships God and obeys his laws. Only human beings stand outside God’s law and have the choice to accept or reject it.
Isaiah 45:1-7 1 Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and ungird the loins of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: 2 “I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut asunder the bars of iron, 3 I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. 4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. 5 I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I gird you, though you do not know me, 6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. 7 I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am the LORD, who do all these things.”
Commentary: In Isaiah 45, the prophet refers to a particular nation-state, Persia, or, more specifically, to its ruler, Cyrus the Great. Isaiah says that, though Cyrus himself does not know it, the LORD God of Israel has grasped his right hand to “subdue nations before him and ungird the loins of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed.” Through his prophet, the LORD promises to go before Cyrus to 1) “level the mountains” and 2) “break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut asunder the bars of iron,” to give Cyrus the treasures of the nations that are kept in “darkness,” meaning “the hoards (which are kept) in secret places.” The LORD does this that Cyrus the King may know that, “It is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.”
Of course, the LORD God of Israel does this not just for the sake of the Foreign King but “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen.” It was under Cyrus the Great of Persia that the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews was ended, and the people of God were allowed to return to their homeland. The LORD did this, says the prophet, and the invites the people of the earth, “from the rising of the sun (the east) and from the west that there is none (no God) besides me.” Through the prophet, the LORD God of Israel declares:
“I am the LORD and there is no other, I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am the LORD, who do all these things.”
Note that it is the LORD God of Israel who makes “weal” (health and blessing) and creates “woe,” not just among individuals and families of people, but among nation-states, too. The LORD does all these things, for the LORD is active in the affairs of the world though people, even kings, and rulers, may not always recognize that fact. The hand of God which moves on behalf of his purposes for the world is often invisible, but still there.
Matthew 22:15-22 15 Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle (Jesus) in his talk. 6 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the money for the tax.” And they brought him a coin. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesars.” Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled, and they left him and went away.
Commentary: The Pharisees were Jews. The Herodians were Jews who followed Herod Antipas, the Jewish King, who had become an ally and pawn of Rome. Jesus had become a famous preacher, the darling of the common people, and the Pharisees and Herodians hoped to “entangle him in his talk.” Jesus talked about “the kingdom of God” and taught his disciples to pray that “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus taught what we might call “the common good,” and he slanted his teaching not just to the rich, nor even to the middle class, but to the poor, the infirm, the weak, the dispossessed. Jesus knew that if a society takes care of its weakest citizens, then it can be assumed that all of its citizens received the attention they deserved. In the agenda of Jesus, the rich, the well to do, and those who had enough and more than enough, should invest at least a portion of their resources into those who did not have enough. Jesus encouraged his disciples “to live more simply, that others might simply live.”
The Pharisees and the Herodians did not get it. They rightly saw that Jesus’s proclamation of “the kingdom of God,” would bring him and his disciples in direct conflict with Rome and Caesar. So, they did what people always do when people want to point out the differences between their “party” and another “party,” they started talking about taxes. They did not start with a discussion of a universal tax, or the tax rate for the rich and middle class, or a tax break, or the advantage or disadvantage of a “trickle-down economy.” Instead, they asked Jesus about whether or not it was “lawful to pay taxes unto Caesar.” By lawful, they clearly meant, “lawful according to the LAW laid down from God by Moses.” Today, we might ask “Okay, Lord, are paying taxes to the nation-state ‘Biblical?’”
Jesus knew what his questioners were about. He knew they wanted to trip him up. He knew that they wanted to bring him into conflict with Caesar before he was ready to be in conflict with Caesar. Make no mistake, Jesus knew the conflict was coming, but it had to come according to his timing. Thus, in Luke 13, when some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you,” Jesus answered them:
“Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’”
Remember, Pilate saw Jesus in conflict with Caesar and Herod. That is why he caused a sign to be placed on the cross of Jesus in Hebrew, and Latin and Greek, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Jesus is not ready to open this conflict with the authorities, so he said to the Pharisees and Herodians, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the money for the tax.”
And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”
They said, “Caesar’s.”
Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s.”
And when they heard what Jesus said, they marveled, and they left him and went away.
This answer by Jesus, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s,” played a major influence in the life of one of America’s greatest heroes, Sgt. Alvin York.
Perhaps you will recall the movie, “Sgt. York,” starring Gary Cooper as the title character. In the movie, Alvin York is drafted despite his application to be considered a conscientious objector. It seems his church, though a pacifist’s church, was too small to be recognized by the U.S. Government. So, Alvin goes into training, where he amazes his instructors with his leadership, and with his ability to handle a rifle. However, he continues to say he does not wish to fight; but his company and battalion commanders are so impressed with him and his sincerity that his Battalion C.O. tells York to go home and search his conscience. He says that if York cannot bring himself to fight, he will see that York can serve as a non-combatant.
Perhaps you remember the scene. Alvin climbed into the Tennessee hills to read his Bible and pray. He is there for a long time, but as the sunsets, a wind blows the pages of his Bible, and his eyes fall upon these very words, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Based on this text, Alvin decides to fight. Ultimately, he becomes a battle hero, killing more than a dozen Germans, and with the help of a large squad of Americans, aking more than 100 German prisoners. When his C.O. asked, “Sgt. York, why did you perform so admirably—why did you kill so many, though a pacifist?” York responded, that he took life in order to save life. He then received the Medal of Honor and the acclaim of America and Tennessee.
What things ought we to render unto Caesar?
Should we vote? Yes, as citizens of the United States we have a duty to do that, according to our conscience.
Should we pay taxes? Yes, taxes are certainly Biblical.
Should we serve in the Military? Yes, according to our convictions and conscience. Among the greatest heroes of World War II were the White Coats, the pacifists’ non-combatants who volunteered to expose themselves to enemy poisons and toxins so as to save those who did fight. It is also interesting that more Navy Corpsmen (who serve Marines as medics) have received the Medal of Honor than any other Military Operational Specialty (MOS) in the Corps. My father, a Staff Sgt. In the Medical Corps of the United States Army received the Bronze Star for his actions on D+1 at Utah Beach.
In the United States, Christians are both Republicans and Democrats. However, Christians should not give in to “party spirit” (Galatians 5:20) and “party politics” (“I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Christ”—the super spiritualists). Paul forbids this for Christians “in the churches,” how much more is it true for Christians in politics?
In these contentious political times, Christians of both parties (and all parties and independents, too) can model behavior for all Americans. At least 1) We can be truthful, speaking our truth in love. 2) We can practice civility. 3) We can show our willingness to “be converted to the truth of another.” Kirster Stendhal, who taught New Testament, said that Christians are not ready to share our faith with others until we are willing to “be converted to the truth of another,” and this must certainly be true in politics as in faith. Listening to the truth of the other is harder today than ever before since most of us only listen to political news that agrees with our preconceived notions, Fox News for some, MSNBC for others. We must be different when speaking with our friends and fellow Christians. 4) I think we must learn again to recognize that both parties have made significant contributions to our nation. Lincoln saved the Union. Franklin Delano Roosevelt saved America from the depression and he helped Winston Churchill save the free world from the Fascists in Germany, Italy, and Japan who sought to rule the world. Certainly, we can credit Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher for the collapse of the Soviet Union? 5) We can also remember that democracy means that we follow “the will of the majority, but with respect for the lives of the minority.”
Jim Wallis the noted Evangelical author and teacher says that in seeking to determine political policy, Christians must always put the kingdom of God ahead of our party, whether Republican or Democrat or anything else. Wallis said that we put the kingdom of God ahead of politics when we pander not to the rich, or even the middle class, but lookout, “for the least of these.” Jesus was so concerned with the poor and dispossessed that, in Matthew 25, in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, he goes so far as to say, “If you do it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.” And, “If you do it not to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do it not to me.” Those who do unto others as unto Jesus are invited into the heavenly kingdom. Those who do not do unto others as unto Jesus are cast into outer darkness.
We must all decide carefully how we vote. Some are “single-issue voters,” whether it is the 2nd Amendment (Gun Rights), or Gay Marriage, or Abortion (For and Against), or Health Care, or Immigration, Climate Change, or protection of our Environment, or dozens or hundreds of other things.
Wallis suggests that Christians who are single-issue voters are much more convincing when they actually do something to achieve the single issue which they support. It makes sense. For instance, those who are against abortion are to be applauded when they adopt, like my daughter and her husband, or when they pay support to or even take into their homes a poor, pregnant girl who has no husband to support her and no other place to go. My friend Pete and his wife were in their late sixties when they took in two teenage girls of another race. It is easy to wag the finger and say, “As a single woman, that young woman should have been having sex in the first place!” This may be true and probably is. However, this knowledge does not help a young woman (or girl) when she is already pregnant.
I am reluctant to force my faith convictions on things like sex on others who do not share them, for I do not believe that we can legislate morality. Jesus made it clear that his own position was not the position of power–at least, not yet, but the position of the powerless. He allowed himself to be driven out of the world and on to a cross! He knew that raw power frequently fails. Thus Prohibition failed in America, and when the Catholic priests who accompanied the post-Constantine Roman legions baptized one Germanic tribe, the priests and soldiers were both surprised to see that the Germanic warriors held their sword-arms out of the water. This was a harbinger of things to come, and the descendants of that tribe were undoubtedly among the barbarians that eventually sacked Rome.
I am not a single-issue voter. I try to weigh the total picture. For instance, I weigh the need for jobs against the protection of the environment and hope we can look for ways to make both of them work in harmony, and not settle for one to the exclusion of the other. And for me, being Pro-Life includes not just protecting the unborn child, but protecting the whole of human life, from the cradle to the grave. Thus I ask, “Which candidate actually prevents the most abortions and respects the most human life?” Both parties have their strengths and weaknesses, and the answer to this question may surprise some people. In the same way, I often vote “person” over “policy,” especially when I am convinced that a candidate’s character or lack of the same is an asset or a threat to his or her office. For me, the highest treason is for a politician “to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” A second thing is like it, “to preach—but not to practice.” I suppose we, like our politicians, are all somewhat guilty of both. I know I am.
At any rate, I am quite sure that Jesus does not save us from sin and death so that we can feel superior and point fingers as judges on the earth. (He did say, “Judge not lest you be judged.”) And Jesus does not save us apart from our churches and our communities. Rather, Jesus saves us into the church and into the community, so that we can look beyond ourselves to others. Perhaps you will recall how Jesus summed up the Law and the Prophets (which is to say all scripture) when he said that the greatest commandment was that we should love God with all the heart, mind, soul, and strength, and the second was like it, that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Thus, Jesus does not ask us to ignore our needs, or the needs of our families and friends, or the needs of our particular communities. He does ask us to care for others even as we care for ourselves. This is a hardship that many are willing to bear. Even a secular person can affirm the simple Golden Rule which Jesus laid down in Matthew 6:31, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
That, I think, is good citizenship, and good discipleship.