Taxes have been a hot political topic this political season. Taxes were also a hot religious-political topic in first century Palestine. Questioned about it, Jesus' answer gave birth to the familiar quote "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's . . ."
Palestine was a country occupied and governed autocratically by a foreign power, Rome. Taxes had been imposed by Rome on the citizenry, who had no voice or vote. In addition, these taxes were paid in Roman currency, which bore the image of Caesar Tiberius (at the time of Jesus) and which claimed him to be divine. The Jews of Palestine were offended by this representation of a god other than their God. Two laws of their own religion were that there should be no gods other than the one God and that their should be no images of God (or god). These religious laws were honored, for the most part, by Rome in Palestine, with the exception of coin.
Jesus' detractors sought to entrap him in a debate during the highly emotional and significant time of the Passover. A question over the "lawfulness" of paying taxes to Rome seemed to be the perfect question. If Jesus supported paying the tax, then he would lose the support of many of his followers who resented the tax because it represented the Roman rule and broke the understanding of proper piety. On the other hand, if he argued against payment of the tax, he could be brought before the regional prefect, Pilate, for sedition against Rome. It was an apparent no-win situation for Jesus.
In perhaps the first recorded "both-and" statement, Jesus gave his answer to his detractors. As to the tax, his solution was "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's." (The Roman coin, as noted, bore the ruler Caesar's image, and to a great extent, it was spent for the common good -- roads, protection, etc .)Taking the question a step further, unbidden, Jesus continued his answer: "And (give back) to God what is God's"
What is God's? It is an important question. According to Judeo-Christian understanding, everything on earth and in the universe belongs to the Creator. And in this belonging to God, the human, most importantly, bears a special responsibility. Only the human, "stamped" with the image of God, is under the obligation to return the whole self to God, ultimate ruler of heaven and earth.
America, unlike first century Palestine, is a democracy where people participate actively in government. In participatory government, government is not imposed upon people, but is itself shaped by people, people who bear the stamp or image of their creator. Particularly at this election time of year, people of faith are challenged to consider carefully how they render to Caesar and to God. In a democracy, where the citizenry has the right and privilege of the vote, people of faith not only answer the question, "What is God's" but also the question, "How does my vote move my community, state, or nation toward the kind of country and world scripture reveals God to desire?" People of faith have a call to reflect seriously and faithfully on the options the ballot offers them.
Therefore, as the various candidates discuss the issues -- the economy, taxes, the poor, welfare, the aged and the alien, the rights of the fetus and the rights of a woman, relations with other countries, the oppressed, the environment, the needs of children -- the citizens have three tasks
The three step process requires education, prayer, and discernment. It is not easy because the problems are complex and do not lend themselves to simplistic answers or twenty second sound bites.
This election year, residents of the Danbury area are fortunate because the Association of Religious Communities (ARC) is sponsoring an occasion whereby persons of all faith traditions can gather to learn more about the human needs of persons in this country. Those who attend will be given opportunity to reflect on those needs and what it means to be a community sensitive to and responsive to those needs. It will also be a time of interfaith prayer and discernment. This helpful event will be held this Sunday, November 3, at 4:00 PM at the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Clapboard Ridge Road, Danbury. You are invited to come so that on Tuesday, November 5, you may have greater insight and wisdom on how you will "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's."
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