Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost 10-18-20: Saving Politics from Politics

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In our Gospel reading this morning, we are told that religious leaders set a trap for Jesus, and yes, even Jesus had a small group of people that were out to bring him down. As the crowds gathered around Jesus in the usual way, their delegates approached Jesus with loads of flattery and then asked him an apparently straightforward question, “Tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22:17). Why was that a trap? It is because there are only two answers, “yes” or “no”, and either one of them were likely to get Jesus killed. His homeland had long been occupied by the foreign power known as Rome with soldiers everywhere. Rome collected taxes from the people it occupied to pay for the cost of their occupation. Many in Jesus’ country greatly resented this arrangement, one that they never consented to, paying tribute to the conquerors (and, arguably, their gods), over and over again.

There was, therefore, an ongoing insurgency, known as the “zealots” who aimed to drive the Romans out of their land. To instruct people to pay their taxes, risked running afoul of them, since it meant recognizing the sovereignty of the emperor and being seen as a traitor. To say, “no, don’t pay your taxes because the only Lord of our land is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” would make Jesus one of the leaders of the revolt that the Romans were determined to stamp out at any cost. The politics were entirely polarized in a way that we can probably recognize. The stakes were high, or better, everything was at stake all the time. Those putting the question to Jesus were not looking for the truth or for understanding. They just wanted to win and bring him down.

Jesus responds, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Not “yes” or “no,” but “both and.” This stopped the conversation because it turned the question back onto those who asked it, “what is it exactly that is Caesar’s political order?” “And what is it that belongs only to God and isn’t political at all?” This was not a conversation that his enemies were ready to have on the record. They only wanted to entrap Jesus, but it’s one that is set before us today by those who remembered this moment in Jesus’s ministry as one for his later follows to reflect upon over and over again. It is easy in our polarized, divisive, times to recognize this “Gotcha moment” for what it was, and we don’t have to imagine at all how there could be people more interested in winning and losing than in solving common problems affecting everyone. But what is hard for us to imagine is the way out of this toxic situation. It may well be that Jesus, in his cryptic answer, provides a way forward, past the stress of that kind of conflict all the time about everything. And I don’t mind going on the record myself saying that what you hear from Jesus about politics is less crazy than anything or anyone else in 2020 weeks before our election.

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). What is really hard in our time is to find the limits of politics, that is, the boundaries of the partisan and the political. Pretty much everything is politicized. [So much so that even now here, with Jesus raising the topic, there is a bit of “Oh no, what is he going to say?”] We have so little experience of speaking about politics when it is only about solving shared problems together. We are, instead, told in many ways on all frequencies that where you shop, what products you buy, what foods you eat, what you wear, how you wear it, and any other of a huge number of lifestyle choices are like daily votes for this cause or that. People move to parts of the country just to live with people whose politics they share. There is even a great sorting going on in Christian denominations, where what kind of Christian you are more and more corresponds with political parties. There is this all consuming quality of our politics. Good luck trying to get news that isn’t political. That being said, how could you not feel the pull of issue after issue and not rail against indifference and call for even greater political engagement, where it is time to pick sides, and the name of victory is “51% not 100%”

In our time, it is hard to understand how Jesus can say “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” and not have that sound a little irresponsible and unpolitical. The zealots of his day, in between killing Romans one by one, certainly heard it that way too. They could not afford to be indifferent to unjust occupation by an oppressive foreign army. But that we, and the zealots, even hear it that way, says more about us and them, than it says about what Jesus really meant. We may just know a whole lot more about Caesar and politics than we know about God. If that is the case, then Jesus’ saying that there is more to life than politics isn’t going to make much sense to us.

The political story Jesus knew best in the Bible is the book of Exodus. Moses’s life was mostly taken up by politics. Liberating slaves from Egypt and governing them in desert (even with God’s help) is nothing if not political. Multiple stories are about people complaining and coming to Moses with their problems and how he worked for solutions that work for the most number of people. But then he climbs up above all that, goes up the mountain alone to find God. He receives from God the 10 commandments which also contain a good deal of politics, but notice what happened next. He pleads with God for something else, something more than politics, he cries out, “Show me your glory, I pray” meaning “I want to see you God myself face to face.” God replies, “You cannot see my face; for no mortal can see me and live.” But then God makes an extraordinary offer, as if God can’t help but honor the pure hearted desire expressed in Moses’s sincere wish to see him. God says, “I’ll hide you in a cleft of the rock, my glory will pass by, and you will see what it is possible to see from behind” (Exodus 33:18-23). Wow, in that moment, with his heart and mind engaged trying to see from behind what no eye can see or heart fathom, he wasn’t worrying or stressing about who was doing what down the mountain, he was on fire with life, having passed beyond the limited possibilities of political movements, past the narrow shortsighted goals of what can be accomplished with 51%. He found a passion powerful enough to swallow up the 100%.

So what does Moses do what this experience? He goes back down the mountain to the people he loves and returns to politics a changed man. Would that man have any trouble understanding “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s?” Not at all, but only because he had once pleaded with God, “Show me your glory, I pray.” Perhaps Moses, thereafter, found a kind of balance between his love of God and the world, where his responsibilities down the mountain were always refreshed and enlivened by his experience up the mountain. Did he ever quite looking for God, even knowing that the best he could do was always being behind never quite able to catch the One he was looking for? And maybe in that deeply personal space, in that space reserved only for God, that space beyond the limits of politics, maybe he found that he wasn’t there alone, but that other people were there too, looking and seeking. If that was the case, and I suspect it was, then Moses found a generous welcoming space connecting him with other people that also wasn’t political and partisan, but generous, solid, and true. The fact that there is more to life than politics, takes enough pressure off of politics, that things can get done for the benefit of the most number of people. That is the kind of space that Jesus inhabited, but it was too profound for the superficial politics of winners and losers that his enemies held dear. Jesus explained, “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be added to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

One of the perennial lessons of politics is that politics is impossible when there is only politics. The problems then become all-consuming. It is only when politics is demoted and part of each of ourselves is chasing higher loves, that the art of the possible becomes possible.

May All Saints’ Church be to you that nonpartisan space, where politics recedes but only for a moment, and may you be so bold as ask of God, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And be ready to hear, “Oh, no, you can’t see my face and live but you can chase after me with your love.” And may that love for God grow and grow in you to include more and more people, so that you are not engulfed by the trials and tribulations of our day (or this election), but have feet placed on ground that is more solid and firm the more it is shared. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet