Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

Last month President Trump announced that he and six members of Congress had crafted a document. A basic outline for Congress to use to write and pass a major bill on tax reform, it’s entitled, a Unified Framework for Fixing Our Broken Tax Code. Before the ink on which this proposal was printed was even dry, there were those who, on the one hand, were extolling its supposed virtues while, on the other hand, were those who were vilifying its supposed evils.

No big surprise there, which means we had better prepare ourselves for yet another legislative slugfest.[i]

In whatever way we look at it, taxes have seemingly forever been a huge bone of contention. It was certainly like that in Jesus’ day—maybe even worse. In today’s gospel, two groups used that issue to lay a trap for him. The interesting thing is that these two groups—some Pharisees and some Herodians—generally didn’t like each other. But they both disliked Jesus even more. As the saying goes: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” For their part, the Pharisees—and the Jewish people as a whole—were not against paying taxes per se. But they were when they had to pay them to a foreign government occupying their land and often mistreating them. For their part, the Herodians were more accepting of these taxes. The Roman Empire at least gave enough money to Herod so he and his court could maintain the lavish lifestyle they were accustomed to.

Jesus answering the question about paying taxes seemed, for him, a no-win situation. If he said paying them was just fine, he would anger his fellow Jews. If he said it was unlawful, then he’d be in big trouble with the Romans. So the answer he gave was remarkable in that it avoided either pitfall. Since the coin known as the denarius—which was often the amount of the tax—had printed on it the image and name of the emperor, telling them to give what supposedly already belonged to Caesar was the perfect response. Once again, Jesus made those who would do him harm look like fools. At the same time, we must remember that’s only the first part of his answer—to give to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor. The second part makes Jesus’ words not only remarkable, but also profound: “and [give] to God the things that are God’s.”

What is implied here, I believe, is that everything belongs to God—that all good things we have and the good things that everyone else has, come from the one who has made us. What we do, then, with what we’ve been given says something about our allegiance to God—whether and how much we reflect values that come from God.

Now, that may sound like a great lead-in to a stewardship message. And, in a sense, I guess that’s what I have today. But what I more specifically want to do is speak about Christian stewardship as we live it out in our public lives. In other words, how do we practice our allegiance to God not only in how we treat other individuals in our day-to-day lives, but also in how we apply our values to society at large? That’s where things can get tricky, because, if you’ve never noticed it before, we Christians don’t always agree when it comes to some issues in our communities, in our nation, and even in the rest of the world.

Yet that’s what I want us to do—to consider more thoughtfully what it means to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Put another way, how do we always know when it’s right to obey the law of the land and when it isn’t, because it conflicts with the law of God? That can end up being difficult. Even in scripture itself, we sometimes get mixed messages. For example, in Romans 13, we read:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists [such] authority resists what God has appointed…”

Clear enough, but then we read something completely different in the Book of Acts—when, sometime after the Day of Pentecost, the high priest of the temple had Peter arrested because of preaching in public about the resurrection of Jesus. The priest said to him: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in [his] name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” Peter’s response? “We must obey God rather than men.”

So, we get two kinds of advice from scripture—both of them from the New Testament. One tells us to obey human authority; the other one to disobey it when it goes against the authority of God. In other words, what we do may sometimes depend on the situation. And that’s partly how conscientious Christians can actually end up on different sides of an issue. Their moral deliberations can lead them to different conclusions. And sometimes that can get nasty.

A case in point is related to an annual event that first began back in 2006and which this year was held just last weekend. Known as the Values Voter Summit, it’s sponsored by a traditionalist, religious organization. It serves as an opportunity for others, especially presidential candidates, to convince a group of very conservative Christians why they should vote for them. One news source has described it as a “combination rally, revival meeting, [and] political convention...”[ii]Bedrock values held by people attending the summit include some having to do with sexual behavior. One is the traditionally held view that marriage should be strictly between one man and one woman. Of course, that’s in direct conflict with the Supreme Court decision of two years ago that broadens that understanding to include same-sex marriages.

For support, conservative Christians turn to some well-known Bible passages. In Genesis 1: “So God created humankind in/ his image,/ in the image of God he created/ them;/ male and female he created/ them,” which Jesus ends up quoting, along with some verses in Genesis 2: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’…”(Matthew 19:5-6).

Christians in support of same-sex marriage have a more nuanced argument, namely, that, until several decades ago, there was little scientific knowledge indicating that a small percentage of the population is biologically “wired” differently. That is, that God creates some people to be gay—that that’s what God intends. Along with that there’s a “kind” of biblical view that depends on an argument from silence. What I mean is this: Once, in a Christian ministry center on a college campus, I saw a booklet on a display table that was entitled, What Jesus Says about Homosexuality. On opening it, I saw that all the pages were blank. In other words, Jesus says nothing.

In consequence of the Supreme Court ruling, many conservatives argue that accommodating same-sex marriage infringes on a Christian’s religious liberty. For instance, that’s how some workers in bakeries see it, claiming that preparing a cake for a same-sex wedding violates their Christian values. The same, even more so, for some county clerks responsible for processing marriage certificates. On the other hand, some moderate or liberal Christians turn to the theme of social justice so often found in the writings of the prophets, believing it’s all a matter of fairness—of treating everyone equally. They sometimes compare this issue to the black civil rights’ movement of the ‘50s,60’s, and 1970s.[iii]

It’s the same thing for a second “sexual” issue—the one having to do with health-care coverage for contraceptives. It’s easy to see, then, how there can be no end to such disagreements. Christians who hold diametrically opposed views on certain moral issues can both be conscientious and well-meaning.

When it comes to moral deliberation and decision making, over the years I myself have found very helpful a statement once made by a longtime professor at Yale Divinity School. His name was H. Richard Niebuhr, and his teaching and writing were so insightful that he was known as a “theologian’s theologian.” Here now is part of the quotation I’m referring to. It goes like this: “Men [that is, men and women] are generally right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.” Let me paraphrase those words: “Our actions should be based on what we see as being positive, not on what we see as being negative.”[iv]

Another way to understand that difference has to do with how we approach God’s law, for example, the law as given to us in the Ten Commandments. We know that the majority of them are negative in nature. For instance, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.” Or, as a new version says: “You shall not misuse God’s name.” The namesake of our denomination, Martin Luther, takes the negative commandments and turns them into ones that are positive. Since Luther—like Jesus—sees every person as our potential neighbor, not only are we not to harm anyone else, but, in fact, as far as we are able, to help them.

These past few weeks, that’s exactly what some of our youth have been learning about the commandments—using Luther’s catechism as a guide. It might be good, then, that we adults refresh our memories with the positive meanings that Luther offers. I read now from an edition in contemporary English, beginning with the Fifth Commandment.[v]

·         You shall not murder.

We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.

·         You shall not commit adultery.

We are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse.

·         You shall not steal.

We are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbor’s money or property nor cheat them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deal sto obtain it for ourselves, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income.

·         You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray, or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

·         You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.

We are to fear and love God, so that we do not try to trick our neighbors out of their inheritance or property or try to get it for ourselves…, but instead be of help and service to them in keeping what is theirs.

 This past week—in another educational setting—I again had an opportunity to talk about Christian deeds that are positive in nature. It was during chapel time with some of the children at our day-care center. Now, I wasn’t trying to teach them the Ten Commandments. That would have been a bit much for preschoolers, but as it happened, the Bible story that day was the Parable of the Good Samaritan. So the children learned about the Great Commandment—that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and spirit—and also our neighbors, even those who might be enemies. Now, we do that not out of fear of punishment from God or to win God’s love, but rather out of thankfulness. It’s our “thank you” for Jesus being sent into the world to save us.

 He tells us to usually obey the authorities in our lives—whether it’s the IRS or the school-crossing guard. Andhe reminds us that everything ultimately belongs to God—including us! That means we should always seek to know God’s will and then—as best as we can determine it—obey it, which often includes how we love our neighbor. In the end, that works out much better when we do so not in ways that are negative in nature, but in those that are positive.


[i]Tom Kertscher, “Is GOP Tax Reform Farmework Aimed at Giving Breaks to the Middle Class, not High-income Earners?,” in http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2017/oct/13/pual-ryan/gop-tax-reform; Orrin Hatch, “A Huge Win for the Middle Class,” in https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/09/27/orrin-hatch-huge-win-middle-class-editorials; Janet Novack, “Trump Plan Delivers Massive Tax Cuts to the 1% and Sharp Kick to the Upper Middle Class,” in https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetnovack/2017/09/29/trump-plan-delivers-msaaive-tax.; and Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Alan Rappeport, “Trump Proposes the Most Sweeping Tax Overhaul in Decades,” in https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/27/us/politics/trump-tax-cut-plan-middle-class-deficit.html.

 

[ii]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Values_Voter_Summit.

 

[iii]Tony Perkins, http://barbwire.com/2017/10/18/values-voter-summit-2017-summit-fears-left.; Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, https://www.thenation.com/article/the-values-voters-summit-proprs-up-our-white-supremacist-corporate-oligarchy; Liz Hayes, https://www.au.org/blogs/wall-of-separation/what-i-at-the-revolution-a-report-from-values-voter-summit-2017; David Smith, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/oct/13/trump-religious-conservative-values-christian-evangelicals. On the ELCA understanding, see Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress Publishers, 2009).

 

[iv] The entire quote reads: “Men are generally right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny. What we deny is generally something that lies outside our experience, and about which we can therefore say nothing,”

In http://www.azquotes.com/author/29533-H_Richard_Niebuhr.

 

[v]A Contemporary Translation of Luther’s Small Catechism, translated and introduced by Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers,1996)