As I write this morning, the first whispers of a gray autumn are in the air, and thankfully so because in Nebraska we have been enjoying an Indian summer for quite some time. Yesterday I had the chance to clear out some of the few remaining vegetable plants in my garden – the ever-abundant Amish paste tomatoes – and put them in a tidy little pile to burn when the time is right (that is, when the ground is moist and the wind is not blowing, which means that I may be waiting a long time). Though I am never overjoyed to see the summer reach its conclusion in this way, I do take great comfort in knowing that the peculiar rituals of this season somehow make everything right. I feel as if I am conforming to a grand cosmic liturgy in which the vestments of my community turn necessarily from green to gold, from light to dark, and from life to death. Though in my later years I have come to welcome the spring with much more enthusiasm, I am still grateful for the weighty reminder that this transformation of my corner of the planet is by divine design. It is at once both intimate and mysterious to me, and not a year has gone by when I have not gained some important insight from it.
In the Middle Ages, alchemists identified four humors that they believed were responsible for the emotions and personality of every individual, and these they tended to connect with the distinctive qualities of each season. While summer was sanguine, full of vitality and youthful optimism, autumn was melancholy and brooding, tinged with sorrow and perhaps even a sense of foreboding. As I consider the dialogue that takes place in our Gospel lesson for this week, I cannot help but think that Jesus must have been experiencing a similar change of emotional outlook as he approached his tragic destiny. In Galilee, among the people he fed and healed, among the disciples he taught and challenged, and even among the Pharisees who questioned his rather liberal reading of the Torah, the sun seemed to shine brightly and a sense of hope was ever in the air. But in the city of David, and in the shadow of the Temple, the curiosity of the religious leaders turned quickly to interrogation. And though the people of the land were anticipating the prospect of an abundant grain harvest, in Jerusalem the political winds were changing for the worse. They were colder, bearing intimations of suffering and grief.
The first hint of autumnal sorrow amidst the advent of spring is borne on the breeze of two unlikely allies – the Herodians and the Pharisees – who endeavor to trap Jesus into some form of subversion. The former, the sycophants of the Idumean chieftain whom the Romans had appointed "king" of Judea, probably had little interest in the spiritual teachings of Jesus, but the claim that some were making about him – that he was the long-awaited Messiah – surely caught their attention. Wanting to maintain their favorable status with Pilate, it was in their best interest to get some dirt on this pretender, this upstart Nazarene. By contrast, the Pharisees in this account were less interested in Roman politics than Torah observance, and they had gradually come to see Jesus as a threat to their traditional understanding of the covenant. They would not lose much sleep if this radical rabbi were to disappear into the Passover crowds. Getting rid of Jesus was in their best interest as well, and to this end they were willing to enjoy the company of some strange bedfellows.
But how to pull it off – this was the question. Apparently after some discussion, the two groups decided on the one issue that stood at the heart of their disagreements with each other. It offered the best chance to put Jesus in his place as a threat to either Rome or Israel. They devised to corner him on the topic of taxes.
Death and taxes: the two certainties in life. Today we lament the relatively meager tribute we pay annually (when compared to other industrialized nations), but it is really a pittance compared to the burden placed on the Jews of Jesus' day. The obligation was in fact threefold. First, if you were a Galilean farmer, for instance, you had to offer your gratitude to the Romans for bringing to you the advantages of imperial civilization: the roads, the aqueduct, and of course the Pax Romana. Second, Herod needed to be paid his due, for after all, he did renovate the Temple to the glory of God (and himself). And speaking of the Temple, someone had to cover the cost of its upkeep, and you could bet your sandals the Romans weren't going to do it. So every Jewish male was required to offer his support of the proper worship of God in the form of hard currency. As a consequence, by the end of the day, after all the deductions had been made, the average farmer had very little left for the welfare of his family. Paying his fair share in fact drove him to certain ruin. The subject of taxes, then, was a tinder box just waiting for the spark of some radical rabbi from up north to set it ablaze.
So taxes it was – that was how the Pharisees and the Herodians would set the wheels in motion to bring about Jesus' demise. But the rabbi's unexpected response to their query, as the text tells us, left them all "amazed," and this amazement is where we need to focus our attention. For us – living as we do in a democracy where our loyalties to church and state are so uncritically apportioned – Jesus' retort appears eminently reasonable. Why, then, were his inquisitors so astonished?
Before considering Jesus' reply, it is important to realize just how he succeeds in destabilizing the situation. He demonstrates by way of an object lesson the real differences between these improbable allies. Whereas a Pharisee would never dream of carrying a denarius on his person – a clear violation of the prohibition against graven images – a Herodian, by contrast, had no problem fulfilling the request. Jesus, therefore, in asking for the Roman coin, accentuates the distinction between the two groups, reminding them of how unlikely the entire scenario really is. It is as if to say: "I get the joke, you guys, and I'm not going to fall for your false flattery."
Though the rift in this bogus alliance begins with a coin, with the image of an imperial ruler displayed so cavalierly in the Temple precincts, Jesus' subsequent teaching on taxes is what finally exposes it for what it truly is. "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:21).
This gets to the very heart of the matter. On the one hand, it is precisely the kind of response that would appease the Herodians, suggesting as it does a vindication of the status quo with Caesar's coins going back to him in the form of tribute, and the Temple currency finding its way into the coffers of the priests. To the Pharisees, on the other hand, whose testimony of faith included the affirmation that "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof (Ps. 24:1), Jesus' reply seemed to fall clearly in line with their perspective on the sanctity of God's creation. If all things belong to God, as the Psalmist clearly states, then what can possibly be left over to offer to the emperor in tribute? But what exactly does Jesus mean? Both parties are left wondering whose side he is really on. Is Jesus an ally or an enemy?
Personally I am more inclined to believe that Jesus opposed the Roman tax; the conclusion seems to be much more consistent with the kind of radical politics that were prevalent in the Galilean countryside where he was raised. I hesitate to say this, however, for fear of piquing the ire of many, both Christians and secular Americans alike. We have all been led to believe – by way of Paul's admonition to the Romans to "be subject to the governing authorities" (13:1) and to "pay taxes to whom taxes are due" (13:7) – that this simple and efficient division of labor between the secular and religious authorities has been established since the foundation of the world, and thus it should be affirmed in both word and deed. So we dutifully pay our tribute every April with the assurance from many of our pastors and priests that in rendering unto the emperor we are also offering unto God. But I wonder. Given Jesus' ambiguous response to his enemies, what does it mean for us truly to follow the example, not only of the word, but of the Word made flesh? More to the point, in light of my Christian belief, should I consider myself an enemy or an ally of the state?
Every spring, when the wheat in the Nebraska fields is ripening toward a fruitful harvest, I admit that I am filled with my own melancholia as I dutifully write my check to the IRS and ponder this question of faith. By some accounts, as much as forty cents of every dollar I provide to the U.S. government is dedicated to some form of military spending. Add to this certain expenditures in the form of subsidies proffered in the name of the poor for the benefit of the rich – for example, commodity payments made to the nation's largest agricultural producers – and the picture becomes even grimmer. When I consider what I am rendering unto Caesar, I have to say that I am indeed inclined to throw my hat into the ring with the radical rabbi and refuse to offer my tribute.
But it is important to remember, I think, that Jesus did not come down unambiguously on this side of the equation, much to my chagrin. It has never been clear, even to this day, whether he was an enemy or an ally of the state. This being the case, then perhaps this is the example that we should also follow as we continue to plumb the depths of this perplexing issue. For too long we have relied on a simplistic reading of this text, as if in this one instance Jesus' teaching were suddenly fully transparent and self-evident. Pay taxes, tithe in church – what's the problem? But we cannot simply discredit the centuries-long practice of our tradition without proposing some viable alternative. The best I can offer is that a new direction perhaps lies in paying more attention to the second half of Jesus' teaching on this issue. This is the real punch line of the narrative anyway – "give unto God the things that are God's."
So for now, I will continue to offer my tribute every April, though in doing so I will strive always to remember that my commitment to the Kingdom of God cannot begin and end here. Instead, what is most valuable in my life – my faith in a Creator of mercy and grace, my hope for the day when the meek will inherit the earth, and my love for those who work toward this end – will be offered up to God every day of the year, including tax day. For the Gospel, as I understand it, calls us to be neither enemies of the state nor its staunch allies. Rather, we should think of ourselves, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, as "resident aliens." We do not refuse to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, even when – much to our dismay – their utilization defies our most deeply held convictions. This is as true of the right as it is of the left, and in this we can take some solace. But the affections of our hearts and minds must always, and with greater fervor, be focused on the more urgent clause in Jesus' directive: "give to God the things that are God's."
In saying this, I realize that our commitment for the future will necessarily lie in a posture of perpetual discernment, for if the past is any guide, it is likely that we will continue to confuse our steadfast devotion to God with our compulsory obligations to the state. Despite the fact that Jesus never established it clearly in his teaching, that he left Pharisees and Herodians alike astonished at his cleverly ambiguous perspective, we are nevertheless prone in our human weakness to identify ourselves as either allies or enemies of Caesar.
Monday, October 13, 2008
Monday, October 6, 2008
It feels good finally to get my fingers on a keyboard again! With the start of a new school year I'm always a little harried trying to cover all the bases – making sure all of my advisees are taking the right courses to complete their majors, and seeing that all of my other students are reading and writing to the best of their ability. And then there are the meetings – the tedious, incessant meetings.
I am often asked what it's like to have such a cushy job, where all I have to do is walk in front of a classroom a few times a day and talk off the top of my head about whatever comes to mind. This is the impression that some, perhaps many, have about teaching. Suffice it to say that it is a mistaken impression. All I can do when confronted with this question is to remain calm and patiently explain that when it comes to education there is much more that goes on behind the scenes than meets the eye. Still, since I don't wear a hard hat everyday, or handle money on a regular basis, or trade stocks (thank God!), sell cars, drive a tractor, etc., etc., I am sometimes met with looks of sheer incredulity, as if I'm joking when I suggest that there is actually some preparation that goes into my daily lessons. I can imagine that pastors have similar experiences, trying to explain to their skeptical parishioners that they really do work more than just one day a week.
As I began to reflect on one of our lectionary passages for this Sunday – the story of Moses coming down from his long consultation with Yahweh on Mount Sinai – I felt a similar need to remind myself of just what had been going on behind the scenes before this unfortunate descent into anarchy. Reading the four chapters that precede this narrative helps us get a clearer sense of how Moses must have felt upon witnessing the actions of his "stiff-necked people." Actually, I'm not sure that he had any desire to claim the Israelites as his own. Neither he nor God seemed to want them at this point, despite all the work they had just been doing on their behalf. Consider the subtle humor betrayed in the text as each seems intent on blaming the other for the excesses of these backsliders.
"The Lord said to Moses, 'Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…'" (Ex. 32:7).
To which Moses, not willing to be held solely responsible, ups the ante with his bold response:
"O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?" (Ex. 32:11).
I've been in meetings like this, when someone's best-laid plans have come to naught and there needs to be a fall guy to make things right. It's also a common strategy among parents: "Have you seen your son's report card?" It's amazing that anything ever gets done with so much blame being passed around.
But the exasperation of both Moses and God is understandable, for it had only been a short time ago when the Israelites – like eager college students reviewing their syllabi at the start of the semester – gave their solemn pledge to the conditions of the covenant: "All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do" (Ex. 24:3b). Such big plans. Such high aspirations. But this was before the forty-day summit that left them wondering why they had registered for this difficult course in the first place. In the absence of their teacher and leader, it was not long before the men started getting grumpy and the women began fiddling with their earrings.
Behind the scenes, of course, Moses was working hard, doing his best to ensure that the people of God might come to know their redeemer in all things, from their proper worship and sacrifice in the tabernacle, to the construction of the Ark of the Covenant. And you should see how God hoped to adorn his priests. Aaron would have been ashamed to know just how much time and effort both God and his brother were putting into his sacred vocation.
But even Aaron got a little bored, and perhaps doubtful of Moses' return, so he was easily persuaded by the will of the people. Soon the crowd was pooling its resources in order to create its own tabernacle and priests and Holy Ark in the form of a golden calf. So while Moses and God were on Mount Sinai, taking their time to provide for the spiritual sustenance and well being of the Israelites, the so-called people of God, who had once been so enthusiastic for their new lifestyle of freedom, were making indulgent plans of their own. They started with the first commandment and worked their way down the list until each of those proscriptions was fairly well dragged through the desert dust.
I think there is much in this text that can inform us about the necessary limits of human freedom and the perils of unregulated excess. More than this, I believe this narrative reminds us all of how indispensable to our spiritual lives such virtues as discipline and patience really are. Given the recent events on Wall Street, it could not have come at a better time.
I have often asked my theology students to reflect on the concept of human freedom and what it is supposed to look like in our day-to-day existence. We certainly hear a lot about it, especially from those whose tastes run toward sporting little American flags on the lapels of their suit coats, but I'm not sure we ever stop and think about its implications. The mantra in Washington over the past decade or so has been that deregulation of the banking industry – that is, liberating the exchange of funds from the meddlesome imposition of federal laws so that freedom might reign in the economic sector – would certainly mean fuller coffers and more satisfied consumers the world over. A "bull market" they call it. And so to this end we began pooling our earrings and the like so that we, like the depraved Israelites at the foot of Sinai, might worship our own golden calf of consumptive excess. Indeed, we placed so much faith in this commercial means of grace – "No money down and no payments until 2010!" – that we became entirely convinced of its efficacy for the continued health of the free market and thus for our souls, so closely were the two aligned.
But just last week the party came to an end. Freedom in the markets gave way to panic and fear, and now we are looking for our own Moses to lead us out of the wilderness. Perhaps this will come in a return to virtue. I hope so. What we need is a Moses whose stone tablets will remind us that the one freedom we should value most highly has nothing to do with the lack of external constraints in a free market. Rather, it is established on the real presence of internal convictions in the heart of every believer. In the midst of profligacy and abandon, we might convince ourselves that we can actually get something for nothing, but in the strange logic of God's grace, we know that this will happen only if we are willing to work for it, only if we are ready to acknowledge our covenant responsibility. So it is with some justice I think that while we languish this week in the pits of Wall Street, we will be asked on the Sabbath to raise our eyes to consider Moses on the mountain, covenant in hand.
It is a shame that some in the last few years have tried to baptize our economic excesses with an appeal to the Gospel, assuring us that God desires for God's followers both health (salvation) and wealth (stuff). It's not difficult to see how this elicits its own golden calves, all in the hope of trying to establish a tangible sign of the Lord's favor. But given our current economic climate, I think we would do well now to consider a movement that has been going on quietly behind the scenes for many years. For while the loudest have lauded the dawn of a kingdom of prosperity, the gentle voices of some have preached a different gospel, a message of voluntary simplicity.
At one time frugality and thrift were considered to be model virtues of the faith, and they were founded on the assumption that all Christians are to be stewards of God's creation. This being the case, it was important to emphasize the need for discipline, both in one's spiritual and economic affairs, for the two were of a piece. One doesn't have to talk long with those who lived through the Great Depression before being reminded of this simple truth. At the heart of this discipline, of course, are some of the very "thou shalt nots" that Moses came to bestow upon his wayward people, even though they were none too enthusiastic to hear them.
But this is where it must be different for us. Though golden calves are better at attracting our attention and briefly satisfying our lusts, it will be the spiritual values of our faith tradition – forged over time, and usually behind the scenes – that will be the backbone of what sustains us through this present crisis. And though it may seem contrary to our way of being in the world, there are times, as Moses' commandments remind us, when our "thou shalts" of personal freedom will need to take a back seat to our "thou shalt nots" of communal responsibility.
And this may not be the great sacrifice that we all expect, for as the old Shaker hymn assures us, simplicity can engender its own peculiar joy. That is, the possibility of fulfillment can be found in a spiritual discipline that curtails our wants and thereby accentuates our real human needs. This is one of the forgotten hallmarks of our faith, of which we need desperately to be reminded. Perhaps Garrison Keillor said it best in a quote that I have held dear for close to twenty years now:
What keeps our faith cheerful is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music, and books, raising kids – all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through. Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.
As the Titans on Wall Street fall, the faithful in our Main Street churches will endure, for the meek – those who revel not in gold but in the gift of human relationships – will ultimately inherit the earth.
Great River Earth Institute
The Simple Living Network
The Simplicity Resource Guide
Art and Images
1. Nicholas Poussin, Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-34),
The National Gallery, London.
2. I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but there's this lovely statue of a bronze bull on Wall Street.
3. Photo by Katie Derus, The Winona Daily News, Winona, MN, September 24, 2007.