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Whose is What?
October 19, 2008

Wesley United Methodist Church

MATTHEW 22:15-22

They thought they had him this time. They were sure they had backed Jesus into a corner. They set a trap. They dug a hole for Jesus to fall in. But, Jesus outsmarted them; reminiscent of Psalm 57.6, “They dug a pit in my path, but they have fallen into it themselves.” Don’t you love a good debate! We’ve been watching the presidential and vice-presidential debates. They all try to dig pits in the others’ paths, but, so far, no one has fallen in!

Jesus was in the temple when a group of Pharisees approached him and asked, “Do we pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” It was a trap. If Jesus said, “Yes,” that would alienate his adoring crowds who were chafing under Roman rule. If Jesus said “No,” he could be arrested for treason. 

But, Jesus pushed them into their own pit! Jesus said, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” The Pharisees showed him a coin, which violated their own rules. They were inside the temple. No Roman money was ever taken inside the temple; Roman money was used only in the Court of the Gentiles, outside the temple. Then he went further and asked, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said, “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and give to God what belongs to God.” Ouch! Into the pit! After they dug themselves out of the figurative pit, they walked away with their tails between their legs.

Our nation is struggling today with the question: Whose is what? What belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God? We are struggling with the church and state issue. Jesus certainly drew a line between the two, but the long-held separation of church and state in America is under attack by some right wing Christians. They want to impose their brand of Christianity on the rest of us.

Their basic premise is that the United States of America is a Christian nation. However, the United States is not nor has it ever been a Christian nation. Many of the founding fathers were Christians. Judeo-Christian principles underlie the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, but nowhere is it stated that the nation is Christian. In fact, quite the opposite. The first Amendment prevents the government from establishing any state religion. America is a nation with a large Christian majority, yes, but it is a nation of many faith groups and religions. Religious freedom is possible when all faiths stand and fight for one another to be treated fairly.

These right wing Christians, and they are politically powerful, feel they have a mandate to make this a Christian nation. James Kennedy, popular TV preacher, said, “Our job is to reclaim America for Christ, whatever the cost…We are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government, our literature and arts, our sports arenas, our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors—in short, over every aspect and institution of human society.” That is dangerous talk. Of course, we as Christians and as Christian churches seek to influence our culture, seek to make it moral and caring. Our United Methodist denomination has a Church and Society office in Washington, D. C. to lobby, to influence our legislators in matters of justice and peace. Our conference is a member of the California Council of Churches which lobbies state legislators on matters of justice.

The current law is clear. Churches may not publicly support one candidate over another, but churches may support positions on issues. For example, the Roman Catholic Church and the Mormon Church (Latter Day Saints) are spending thousands of dollars in support of Proposition 8, to ban same-sex marriages. The California Council of Churches has no money, but we are strongly in favor of defeating Proposition 8. Churches may influence, but may not control. The church’s role is to stand outside the government and speak biblical truth. Church is separate from the government.

What is dangerous in the right wing approach is the word “dominion”. Right wing Christians seek to dominate and influence through political means, through laws. They believe that they are destined to assume control of other people and governments, and rule the world. They want their brand of Christianity to control the government and legislation. They call themselves biblical literalists; but, Jesus said, John 18.36, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus did not seek political power. Jesus did not seek to overthrow the Roman government. And, we must not confuse the kingdom of God with our country, and wrap the flag around Christianity.

Many of our nation’s problems are more than political and cultural; they are spiritual-- moral and spiritual decay. Spiritual problems will not be changed through the political system. Unless there is a spiritual reformation, there will be little change. If the hearts of people are not changed, seeking political control will not help. 

To summarize, Congress should make no law that prohibits or prefers one religion over another. Separation of church and state means the noninterference of government with religion and vice versa. There is a long history of persecution and brutalities performed by churches that were state religions. Separation goes both ways—the government leaves churches alone, and churches let the government govern.

Now, let’s further explore Jesus’ reply. Jesus said, “Give to God what belongs to God.” What belongs to God? Does the air belong to God? The air which we breathe? Does water belong to God? We don’t own it, do we? Does the planet belong to God? We act like it belongs to us, but does it? What about our bodies, our lives? Your life came from God and it will go back. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away! Like our money; the Lord giveth but Wall Street taketh away! If you have lost money on investments, or if your pension is in jeopardy, if you’re in danger of losing your job or your house; the lesson learned is that financial security is not very secure. We dare not put our complete trust and hope in material things. They can easily be taken away. In the final analysis, material things don’t belong to us. Nor do our lives belong to us. They belong to God. “Give to God what belongs to God.” 

The first person to reach the status of billionaire was a man who, at the age of 23, became a millionaire, and by the age of 50 a billionaire.  Every decision, attitude, and relationship was tailored to create his personal power and wealth.  But at the age of 53 he became ill.  His entire body was racked with pain and he lost all the hair on his head.  In complete agony, the world’s only billionaire could buy anything he wanted, but could only digest milk and crackers.  An associate wrote, “He could not sleep, would not smile and nothing in life meant anything to him.”  His personal, highly skilled physicians predicted he would die within a year.  That year passed agonizingly slow.  As he approached death he awoke one morning with the vague recollection of a dream.  He could barely recall the dream but knew it had something to do with not being able to take any of his wealth with him into the next world.  The man who could control the business world suddenly realized he was not in control of his own life.  His life didn’t belong to him. He called his attorneys, accountants, and managers and announced that he wanted to channel his assets to hospitals, research, universities, and mission work.  On that day John D. Rockefeller established his foundation, which eventually led to the discovery of penicillin, and cures for malaria, tuberculosis and diphtheria.  He contributed to universities, including the University of Chicago. His contribution helped turn the small Baptist college into a major institution. The list of discoveries resulting from his foundation is enormous.  The moment he realized that what he had belonged to God, and began to give back a portion of all that he had earned, his health miraculously improved.  He didn’t die at age 53. He lived to be 98!  Rockefeller gave his life to God, and God gave his life back to him—healed and whole.

It is not wrong for you to have money; it is wrong when you act as if it belongs to you. It is not wrong to enjoy your life; it is wrong when you act as if it belongs to you. “Give to God what belongs to God.”

© 2008 Douglas I. Norris