God, Caesar, and the Power of a Good Question

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Let me re-introduce you to three of the most powerful words in the world. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and while “I love you” are three great words, they’re not the one’s I’m thinking about this time. Instead try, “I don’t know.” Surprised, confused, dismayed? Let me explain.

I suspect that saying “I don’t know” seems like an admission of failure to many in our culture, especially those of us who have been to college and graduate school, as if admitting any kind of ignorance somehow undermines the validity of our diplomas. But I’d like to offer another slant, as I think that telling another person “I don’t know” offers an invitation for them to share what they know or, sometimes even better, to join you in together figuring something out. This becomes especially true when you pair those three words with four others: “What do you think?”

Seen in this way, this combination — “I don’t know. What do you think?” — can be incredibly empowering. Next time a child asks you a question, try it out. You might be surprised at how much he or she knows and has to say about the subject matter in question, none of which you’d have heard if you’d just given a quick answer. In fact, I suspect that our rush to answers is informed in equal measures by our twin desires a) to avoid looking ignorant and b) for expediency at all costs. But what if we slow down, risk admitting the limits to our knowledge, and thereby empower others to think for themselves and, together, figure some important things out.

If you’re willing, I’d suggest that this week’s gospel reading from Matthew offers an excellent opportunity to do just that. You know the scene: the Pharisees are once again trying to trap Jesus, this time by asking a politically loaded question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor.” And Jesus once again foils their plans, this time by replying, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Fabulous answer, don’t you think? Except what, exactly, does it mean?

I don’t know. What do you think? Most biblical scholars agree on two interpretive elements of this passage. First, our modern separation of church and state — which this text is often employed to support — is just that, modern. It’s highly unlikely that a devout Jew of the first century would imagine the clean separation of our lives into political and religious spheres that we are accustomed to. Second, the coin produced likely had not only the likeness (icon) of Caesar but also the title “Son of God.” Which means that possessing it was tantamount to idolatry and a violation of the first two commandments.

So is Jesus saying that we owe nothing to a false God like Caesar and should reserve all things for God? I don’t know. What do you think? Or is he inviting us to recognize that we while we may, in fact, owe the emperors of this world some things — like taxes — we owe God other things — like our whole selves? I don’t know. What do you think? Or is Jesus instead inviting us to avoid giving our allegiance to the material and temporal things of this world that our coins can buy (and that seem to delight emperors) and demanding our ultimate devotion go to God? Again, I don’t know. What do you think?

This isn’t just a clever exercise. I really don’t know. And I really am interested in what you think and wish we could talk it over in person. I have a hunch — and it’s really just that — that Jesus isn’t advocating a full-scale retreat from the economic and political dimensions of our lives but instead is helping us to recognize that all of these things are part of God’s divine economy. That is, I think Jesus invites us — actually, demands of us — that we be thinking regularly and relentlessly about how all of our decisions — what we buy, who we vote for, how we spend our time — should be shaped by the confession that, indeed, the whole world is God’s and everything in it — including us!

But what does that mean? Or, more to the point, how should our faith actually shape our daily decisions, particularly our economic ones? As it turns out, this can be incredibly tricky business. More than that, there’s not a Christian I know who doesn’t think about these things a fair amount. For some it’s a question of how much to spend on themselves or give away, while for others it’s a desire to pass on their values about money to their kids. Whatever their questions, however, almost everyone I know wrestles with this stuff. Which brings me to my own question: could we maybe talk about this at church?! Honestly. It seems like the only time we talk about money in church is when we’re asking people to give some to the church.

But what if, this Sunday, we reversed that trend and impression by asking people to wrestle with what Jesus says by asking, “What do you think Jesus means? What things are Caesar’s and what are God’s? How does our faith shape our economic decisions — our buying, saving, giving, and the rest?” You might be surprised by the insights people share. More than that, we might also ask, “What one question about the relationship between faith and money would you most like to talk about at church?” (Make sure you collect these questions, as they should greatly inform both your education programs for the coming seasons as well as your preaching.)

I hope by these questions we can a) get people more actively involved in interpreting these texts instead of just listening to you interpret them, b) empower them by inviting them to think through their faith with each other and with you, c) help people make the incredibly important connection between faith and daily life, and d) create a sense that the church is a place where they can find support in thinking through the things that matter to them. Will it work? I don’t know. What do you think? (I do know, however, that we’ll never find out if we don’t give it a try.)

I also know one other thing, Working Preacher. Your guidance and encouragement of your people in taking on these important matters makes a big difference. Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

Yours in Christ,