We belong to God; our government and society belong to us. Now that the order is clear, so is our task.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 29 A
Texts: Matthew 22:15-22 (with reference to vv. 34-40, appointed for next week, if Reformation Sunday texts were not used)
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The religious leaders in Jerusalem during that week we now call Holy decide to go on the offensive, after Jesus told a bunch of parables they felt threatened by. They try to get Jesus to say something publicly they can use to accuse him of inciting rebellion, get him on record saying he opposed taxes to Caesar. Then they’d have him.
“Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor,” Jesus says. “Give to God what belongs to God.” The leaders walk away amazed, because he answered in a way they couldn’t use or understand.
Jesus’ answer has multiple possible interpretations, ground for all sorts of claims and actions. And it’s not just an enigma to them. Jesus says to us: you need to know what belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God, and therefore what is owed. You have to figure it out, he says. I can’t do that for you.
There is a twist for us, though: our political system.
We don’t have an emperor, at least if our Constitution is still the law of the land. Unlike Jesus’ Jewish hearers, who had no control of the emperor, no choice but obedience to the emperor’s edicts, we have the ability to elect our rulers at every level. We have the ability to influence the laws that are made, to make our voice heard by our voting and by our speaking to our representatives. Though it is being severely tested these days, the “emperor” – the government at all levels – actually belongs to all of us in this country.
So the order of things for us is radically different to that of Jesus’ time. Jesus’ hearers had competing rulers – God and the emperor. For we who believe in God, who have been baptized into Christ, we only have one ruler above us, and that is the Triune God. The “emperor,” that is, the government, is below us, serves all people. Or we change it if it doesn’t.
But we still have to sort out what we owe, and to whom we owe it.
Jesus’ summary of God’s will is our guide: Love God, and love neighbor.
That’s your path, Jesus will say on this same day in Holy Week, just a few verses after today’s Gospel, your way to fulfill all that God asks of you. “Giving to God what belongs to God” means that we, who love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, or at least know that’s what we aspire to, that we love our neighbor in such a way that God’s priorities are carried out in this world.
And God’s priorities in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament never waver: God wants no one to be left on the margins of society. God cares for those who are poor and those who hunger and wants them to be filled. God hears those who suffer injustice and oppression and wants our society to be one where all are free, no one is crushed. God loves peace, and wants a world where weapons of war are converted into implements of feeding and nurturing.
This is what belongs to God. And now we know what we owe and to whom.
Since the government belongs to us – and “us” means all of us in this country, of all faiths and of no faith – then how we all order that government, how we create or reform or structure our society is on all of us. And since we who claim faith in Christ know we belong to God, and know what God wants of this world, Jesus’ riddle today says we live our belonging to God in how we live, act, and think politically.
Calling for an end to racism, for the reform of oppressive systems and abusive laws, for a fair minimum wage and affordable housing, for health care for all, for peace, not war, comes from our trust in the God who desires this for all God’s children.
And we have this joy: many of our siblings who are Muslim, and Jewish, and of other faiths, and of no faith, also say, “Those are things we value, too.”
Unlike the Christian right, who openly declare they want the government to support their institutions, be controlled by their people, in short, who want a theocratic government based on their view of Christianity, what we and so many others who are not Christian believe is that a just, caring, fair society where all thrive is the necessary goal for this world.
We Christians come there from our faith stance, from what we read in the Scriptures. But we’re not threatened if others come to the same conclusions as we do for different reasons. Acting politically out of our faith is not us saying we need to be in charge and the rules need to benefit us at the expense of others. Because we belong to God and know God’s priorities, we know it’s not about protecting our particular faith, or even defending God. It’s about working for God’s vision for this world. And we’ll do that with anyone who shares that vision, no matter how they got there, from faith or not, by whatever political party or by none. Love of neighbor is love of neighbor, however it’s arrived at.
“Give to God what belongs to God.” Now we understand what that means for us.
You love God and your neighbor when you vote. You love God and your neighbor when you pay taxes. You love God and your neighbor when you make clear your priority for those taxes and whom you believe should be helped by them. You love God and your neighbor when you bring kindness and compassion to your neighborhood, when you ask it of your city council and your state and national representatives. You love God and your neighbor when you join with others to make this a just and gracious world for all.
The newly appointed General Secretary of the United Church of Canada, the Rev. Michael Blair, recently said in a podcast, “It is not that the Church of God has a mission in the world, but the God of mission has a Church in the world.”  That’s us. We’re not the only tool God has, the God of mission inspires people in many and varied ways.
But we’re definitely one of God’s tools. Because we know belong to God. And this civic society and government – the “emperor” – belongs to us. And the God of mission needs us to do that mission, for the sake of all God’s children and the creation.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
 Said in the podcast “Henri Nouwen, Now & Then,” Oct. 8, 2020; henrinouwen.org/now-then-michael-blair/