Life with Caesar

18th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 22:15-22

Growing up in Iowa, we had a saying—although I suspect it’s a Midwestern kind of saying—“If you’re gonna wrestle with a hog, you should expect to get dirty.” You don’t stay clean because you wrestle the hog better than the hog can wrestle you. You stay clean by staying clean away from the hog! And yet…when you live on a hog farm, there are days when it is important that those hogs get wrestled—from weaning the little ones to sorting and loading the big ones for market, to all sorts of chores in between—ya just gotta get in there and wrestle those hogs, regardless of how long it takes to clean up afterwards.

Whether Jesus was standing down wind from them or not, He got more than a nose-full of foul aroma as the Herodian hogs and the swinish Pharisees arrived to root around in the mud of the tax issue. Conventional wisdom would have dictated Jesus stay far away from the tax issue. There would be no keeping clean in that mud! The Herodians, supporters of the puppet king, Herod, supported the power of Rome, and their taxes. The Pharisees, zealous advocates of a clean Israel, considered it all blasphemous. More mud could fly with that tax question than any amount of mud flung around in a Wisconsin recall election.

And these guys were in hog heaven! To their minds, there was no way Jesus could answer them without alienating half the community. Say yes to taxes and the Pharisees will be all over Him like hogs in a fresh mud hole. Say no and the Herodians will have Him shipped off to market for treason. Say nothing and folks will see bologna in their hero from Nazareth, Mr. Clean in the Capitol City, as His popularity hits the meat grinder. How these little piggies must have squealed and grunted in glee.

But with one brief comment (and they did not see that coming!)…with one brief answer, Jesus leaves them hog-tied and humiliated in the mud…as He Himself emerges spotless. They asked a tax question. Jesus gave them a mission answer. “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

But…after a few moments to savor our Lord’s ability to answer the impossible, and a bit of daydreaming about how He might handle a presidential campaign debate…we come back to this famous answer and we wonder, “OK, what’s that supposed to mean?!”

It’s clear that Jesus’ answer is not limited to taxes. Yet it must be noted by this answer, that Jesus Himself said since the government issues the money, the government has the right to expect back in taxes whatever it deems to declare. And since our Lord’s famous Apostle, St. Paul, likewise insists that a Christian has an obligation to pay taxes, as he notes in his letter to the Roman Christians, who being capital city dwellers were keenly aware of Rome’s policies…since both our Lord and His Apostle obligate the faithful to be taxpayers, it is clear that one aspect of our life with Caesar is to be faithful as citizens.

It is mission work to pay what we owe in taxes. It is mission work to vote in an election. It is mission work to run for public office, if that is your talent and interest. Even though it may seem that taxes and elections and public office are devoid of any spiritual dimension, by Jesus’ own Word these are, in fact, acts of faith. They are mission, our Christian life with Caesar.

Oh, but life with Caesar is such a muddy affair! And aren’t we Christians supposed to stay clean? So doesn’t it follow that a Christian remains spiritually clean by avoiding taxes, politics or the secular authority in general? Except, as we have heard from God Himself, life with Caesar is a hog we Christians are obligated to wrestle. And yes, our faith might squirm…a lot…over the limited choices we have in any given election. Our faith might trouble us…a lot…about the purposes to which our taxes get put, or how often the taxes bind those who are the least able to pay them! Our faith is tempted…a lot…just to tune out the politics of the village, of the state, of the nation, of the world.

Ah…but, surprisingly, it is not by avoiding those hogs that we stay clean. We Christians are clean in Him who has wrestled every hog, in every mud hole, that humanity has ever known! Christ Jesus wrestled those tax hogs. He wrestled with the swinish rivalries among His own disciples, the ethnic rivalries between Jews and Gentiles, the rivalries of power politics in His day. Jesus even wrestled the ultimate match from which no one gets clean away—death—and yet even there, He emerged spotless, glorious, resurrected clean.

Jesus is our clean! His victory is ours. His resurrection is ours. He is the One who enters into the mud of the world, the mud of our own lives, wrestles every hog, and emerges spotless. He is our clean. So in Him—washed with Him, feed with Him, clean in Christ by faith—in Him we live our life with Caesar.

We wrestle the hogs. In Christ we pay taxes, even though we may debate the various taxes and how they are spent. In Christ we vote our conscience, even though the little boxes next to the names give us something less than an ideal list of candidates. In Christ we read and ponder the arguments for and against hot-button issues—whether played out on the local, state, national or international stage—we ponder them, even though it appears that there is no way to wrestle them and come out clean. Ever! Still we do it, because we are in Christ…in Christ, who is clean for us.

You see, Jesus’ answer to those swine in Jerusalem was not that there are two isolated domains: Caesar’s stuff over here, and God’s stuff over here—as if the things that belong to Caesar have nothing to do with God, or that the things of God have nothing to do with Caesar. As if taxes are a Caesar thing, and not a God thing. As if peace, love, joy, and hope are God things to which Caesar has no interest. Hogwash! In that sense Thomas Jefferson was flat-out wrong. There is no absolute wall of separation.

Ah, but…our Christian calling within Caesar’s realm, then, is not to turn a Rome into a Jerusalem, turning the secular authority into a religious one. No! But neither is our calling as Christians to avoid all contact, all association with the secular realm.

Our mission in Christ is to do what citizens have the privilege and, therefore, the greater obligation to do—to think and to act in love for the welfare of all people. That is what belongs to Caesar. Yet, it is in doing this very thing that we are, in fact, giving God what belongs to God; acts of love which spring from our confident faith that Christ Jesus is our clean for us. He is our Savior.

This is our life with Caesar, our mission in and to the secular realm. It is as startling today as it was that day in Holy Week, which we heard from the Gospel Reading. In this oh so very muddy world, with all the hogs that require wrestling…our faith calls us to step into the mud and wrestle. And yet, when the mud flies (and it most certainly does), we know that our spotlessness, our clean, comes in Christ and in Christ alone.

Contrary to the old saying, it is not by avoiding the hogs that we stay clean. It is in wrestling those hogs with Christ that we discover where clean is truly to be found! It is in taking up our secular duties, our responsibilities in the world, taking them up in Christ, that we discover again and again, and again and again, that Jesus Christ is our clean.