I can’t remember the exact circumstance… but I was quite young, maybe about 5 years old or thereabouts. If so, it would have been around 1970 and we would have been living in Singapore. I want to say that a wheel had come off my roller skates or maybe my “Action man” had lost an arm… I can’t remember – all I know is that I was crying and making an awful stink and my mother, hearing the terrible row, came over to console me.
Inspecting the broken toy, she sighed, took me into her arms and declared:
“Ah well… After all, child, we live in a world where moth and rust corrupts.”
My mother, who was the daughter of a Dutch Reformed Church minister, grew up steeped in Bible stories, so very confusing little turns of phrase and snippets of wisdom often tripped off of her tongue.
I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you had mothers and fathers who were the same way. There was a time, wasn’t there, when this was the case for most people – a time, that is, when it was not a TV show or a movie that gave us our shared culture, but rather it was Bible stories that were embedded in the fabric of our culture… in consciousness of our parents.
Today, when I say “Prodigal Son” or “Good Samaritan” in my English class, most of my students don’t know what I’m talking about.
But I digress… Back to my mother.
You can imagine that my youthful heart was not terribly consoled by my mother’s Biblical words of comfort.
“…we live in a world where moth and rust corrupts?”
What does that even mean anyway?
Again, the exact details of this interaction have been lost to mists of time, but knowing my mother, I am quite certain that in response to my look of utter bewilderment, and my total lack of comfort, she probably laughed and said
“Oh that is something Jesus said.”
(if you want to look it up, its Matthew chapter 6 verse 19),
And if I pressed her on what the strange words meant, she might have said:
“It means that, in this world of ours, things fall apart. And I’m afraid it’s true. They do.”
Again, though I cannot relate to you the exact circumstances, I know that, on more than one occasion, my mother told me that I must “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”
You may have noticed that there is a distinct note of uncertainty that attends all these memories of mine. I am sure that something was broken when my mother cited moths and rust – but I cannot remember what. I know with absolute certainty that she told me that I must “render unto Caesar” because I remember distinctly the cadence of those archaic words – but for the life of me I don’t know when, or why this bit of wisdom was invoked. This last uncertainty – the question of why she quoted this scripture to me, is the omission that most rankles.
I know that my mother told me that I must “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar” but I can’t remember why.
If the mists of time and forgetfulness could be burned off by some revelatory sunshine, I might find out what my mother meant, but alas I cannot imagine how that could be done, my dear mother being now long departed.
Of course, I have my own interpretation of the phrase, which I have carried with me all these years. It is probable, I suppose, that my interpretation reflects my mother’s meaning – but again, I cannot be sure, and as I read the passage over this week, what little certainty I had has been weakened rather than strengthened.
I have always interpreted the phrase ““render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar” to mean that there are some things in life that we must do, even though we really don’t want to do them.
This interpretation seems to follow from the text itself, because the Pharisees ask Jesus about taxes. Taxes are the very definition of something we are obliged to do, even though we’d rather not!
Who among us has not noted, with a forlorn sigh, the alarming difference between the gross income on their paycheck, and the net income?
“render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”
Ah yes… How about the dentist?
“But I don’t want to go to the dentist…”
“render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”
Framed in this way, the “render unto Caesar” category of human experience contains a wide spectrum of things: vaccines, Thanksgiving dinners (if your belligerent uncle is coming), grading papers, doing the dishes, driving at night, doing push ups, saying sorry, the entire month of February…
All these yucky things that we have to do…
If we really don’t want to do these things, why don’t we just not do them? Why do our mothers insist that we do them?
It is because they share another quality.
They are not just a drag.
They are also “good-in-the-long-run.” Having roads and bridges and sewers that actually work? That’s good! Having good teeth? That’s good too. Thanksgiving dinner with family? Good. Finally getting home late at night? Good. Being forgiven? Good. The month of March? Good!
But this makes me wonder about the passage that Laurie just read for us… In this story, does “rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar” constitute something that is “good-in-the-long-run”?
I’m not sure that it does.
I suppose a historian could argue that the Roman Empire did a lot of amazing things that advanced human civilization, and that the taxes they levied from their subjects contributed to those things. The Romans were famous for their roads that made travel, trade, and cultural exchange possible. They were famous for their aqueducts, which helped us figure out how to bring water to large populations of people. Under the influence of the Roman Empire there were larger segments of the population that learned to read and write. The Romans, like the Greeks before them, developed forms of Republican governance that continue to be important to this day (when they actually function properly!)
But if you look at the story itself – the one that Laurie just read for us – you can see that the very idea of paying tax to the Romans was a kind of threat.
The Pharisees were not just asking Jesus a random question. They were trying to entrap him.
If Jesus had actually said what the Pharisees thought he was going to say – that it was NOT proper, according to the laws of Moses, to pay taxes to the Romans – they could have immediately turned him in to the Romans authorities, and it would have been curtains for that rabble rouser.
The Pharisees also knew that if Jesus said that it WAS lawful, according to the laws of Moses, to pay taxes to the Romans, he would have lost the allegiance of the Jewish people who were struggling beneath the weight of those taxes.
The tax levied by the Roman Empire in Israel and Judah during the time of Jesus, didn’t benefit Israel and Judah as much as it benefited Rome. The advances that the Romans made in architecture, urban infrastructure, literature and political theory, were not felt in the outlying provinces. To the average Jew, when a portion of the little they had was taken from them, it could mean the difference between life and death. In the context of empire, taxation was rarely a “good-in-the-long-run” kind of thing.
This knowledge must have been second nature to the Pharisees, because it was an important part of their scheme to entrap Jesus. If they could not use taxation as a threat, their ploy would have no teeth.
So, after this careful consideration, I do not think it is proper to interpret the phrase “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar” to refer to things that stink in the short run, but are good in the long run.
But what else could it mean?
Yesterday, Brenda and I went to the Annual conference of the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ.
There were some boring bits, as usual, but the cumulative effect of the whole day was pretty great I think – do you agree Brenda?
The part of yesterday’s festivities that I want to mention with regard to our present concerns, is when the Immigrant and Refugee Support Group presented.
This group has been doing amazing work helping immigrants who have been incarcerated in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement jail in Strafford New Hampshire.
The group – which is funded and maintained through our churches in the New Hampshire UCC, provide, in many cases, the only connection that some of these incarcerated immigrants have with the outside world. The group provides money for their commissary accounts, legal help, and even a modest monthly support after they are released.
And get this…
Folks from the Immigrant and Refugee Support Group – church folks like you and me… do you know what they do?
They visit the prisoners.
Does that phrase sound familiar to you?
It comes straight out of the Bible.
in chapter 25 verse 36 of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says:
“I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
When the disciples ask Jesus: “When did we visit you?”
He replies: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
The faithful people of the Immigrant and Refugee Support Group are turning their actions toward God.
That is what they are doing.
You remember the moth and rust thing that my mom said to me? Hear the words of Jesus:
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt… But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.
These words turn us to God. They bring us back to what is important.
And this, in turn gives us the key to understand the meaning of the phrase “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”
The full saying of Jesus is as follows:
“Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
We may not be doing something that is “good-in-the-long-run” when we are giving to Caesar.
But we certainly are doing something good
(in the long and the short run)
When we give to God.
What is necessary in this saying, is not Caesar. That’s for sure.
What is necessary…