The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A (by Dennis Ormseth)

Everything in all Creation “Belongs to God”—including Caesar and our Modern Economies.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011

By Dennis Ormseth

Readings for:

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A

Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]     

Isaiah 45:1-7     

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10             

Matthew 22:15-22

 

Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar? Are these two separate kingdoms?

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Commentary on this saying of Jesus commonly seeks to explain its meaning by proceeding to identify what belongs to the two contrasting categories, things that are the emperor’s and things that are God’s, and so relate these to corresponding aspects of contemporary life. In a New Proclamation commentary on this Sunday’s gospel, for example, Ralph Klein notes that the coin obviously belongs to the emperor, and “thus Jesus appears to support the state.” Thus, so should we: “Taxes are a part of the social contract that holds us together as a people, and they are a recognition that some social problem or public works are so immense that they can only be approached by all of us together working for the common good.”

 

What belongs to God, on the other hand? Since as Klein appropriately notes, “the things that are God’s are not identified specifically, and they may be interpreted in different ways by different interpreters,” he is free to import a suggestion from the next chapter of Matthew: “love of God and neighbor.” Or, he notes, “One could argue that we, who are created in God’s image and bear his image, ought to give ourselves back to God.” This opens up the possibilities dramatically: “All that we are and have comes from God and is entrusted to our stewardship. Our intellect, our energy, our compassion, our artistic abilities, and our money are gifts bestowed by God to enable us to use them for the greater good of all” (Ralph Klein, in New Proclamation, Series A, 1999, pp. 257-58.)

 

What belongs to God is the entire created order!!

It is important to note the implications that Klein draws from this perspective for Christian care of creation. While he acknowledges that “all that we are and have comes from God and is entrusted to our stewardship,” with respect to giving to God what belong to God, his focus is on what we can personally “give back” to God.” We give ourselves to God,” he writes,

 

as we serve our fellow human beings and as we attend to the protection of the entire created order that has been entrusted to our care.  We give ourselves to God as we use our minds and our talents to think new thoughts, raise holistic families, witness to Christ in our daily life, and enjoy that which is beautiful and true in God’s creation (Ibid., p. 258).

 

His focus, that is to say, is on anthropologically defined values. Straightforward and well-intended as such comments are, however, they fail to develop the full potential of the text for care of creation, in two ways. First, they misconstrue the relationship between church and state, or religion and politics, represented by the Gospel and the other readings for this Sunday. And, secondly, we would argue, they almost completely ignore the issue joined by the exchange between Jesus and his opponents that is of deepest importance relative to the care of creation, namely the relationship between the human economy, here represented by the economy of Rome, and what we might call the divine economy, or the economy of God’s creation.

 

As the lesson from Isaiah makes clear, God and the politics of empire are inseparably mixed together. Cyrus the Persian is presented as the Lord’s “anointed,” “whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robe” (45:1). As Walter Brueggemann puts it, the rhetoric of this passage “reassigns a Davidic title to Cyrus, who now becomes the carrier of Israel’s most urgent hopes. Israel’s theological horizon now reaches well beyond itself, into the gentile world, in order to locate the continuing working of Yahweh’s saving intention” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 517). Accordingly, as the first lesson reminds us, strikingly, it was precisely in the context of this mixture of religion and the politics of empire that Israel developed what Walter Brueggemann regards as the “fullest articulation of creation faith” in “Isaiah of the exile.” Brueggemann explains:

 

In the context of exile, Israel faced a twofold crisis that invited Israel to despair and to abandonment of its confidence in Yahweh. The concrete ground for the despair is the formidable reality of Babylonian military-political power. Behind that visible authority, however, is the legitimating power of the Babylonian gods who guaranteed the regime and who appear to be stronger than the counter power of Israel’s own God.

 

It is the “testimony to Yahweh’s work as Creator that counters the ostensive power of Babylon.” As Yahweh says to Cyrus, Yahweh “is the only God who has demonstrated power as Creator, and therefore the other gods merit no obedience or deference” (Ibid., pp. 149-50). As we have it in our lesson:

 

I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.

I arm you, though you do not know me,

So that they may know, from the rising of the sun

And from the west, that there is no one besides me;

 

God thus calls on Cyrus as well as David, but also upon both heaven and earth, to serve God’s redeeming purposes:

 

I am the Lord, and there is no other

I form light and create darkness

I make weal and create woe;

I the Lord do all these things.

 

Shower, O heavens, from above,

And let the skies rain down righteousness;

Let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,

And let it cause righteousness to sprout up also;

I the Lord have created it. 

 

(Isaiah 45:5-8; vs. 8 is not included in the assigned text; the inclusion of vs. 8-12 in the reading measurably strengthens the argument being made here).

 

Just so, also for this Sunday, Psalm 96 reminds us that our God is the creator of all things, the heavens and all the earth which join in praising their creator: “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 96:11-13.) 

 

It is in fact just this combination of religion and political life that made the question of Jesus’ opponents a genuine challenge for him. As Warren Carter explains, the question “is a trap in that if Jesus speaks against paying tribute, he attacks Rome’s sovereignty . . . ; if he encourages payment, he appears to be a collaborator and loses credibility as a prophet (21:11)” (Matthew and the Margins, p. 439). Carter rightly suggests that the coin Jesus called for is more than a visual aid cleverly used to make a rhetorical point:  “imperial coins,” he points out, “were portable billboards, instruments of propaganda which reminded users of the emperor’s political power and Rome’s status as the favored of the gods.” The coin was also required for the payment of tribute to Rome, the tribute being, he notes, an essential aspect of the imperial economy: “Tribute was a means of subjugation, of establishing authority (1 Macc 1:29). It was a source of Rome’s wealth and a means of sustaining its people . . . and militarily imposed peace” (Ibid., p. 440). An artifact in the technology of the Roman economy, by means of which the Romans maintained control over the economies of subject peoples and appropriated the wealth of the local regions, the coin represents the tight linkage not only between politics and religion, but also with the imperial economy. Payment involved deference not only to the emperor, but also to the gods of Rome as guarantors of the empire’s economic flourishing.

 

The question posed by Jesus’ opponents was whether it was “lawful, that is, in accord with the law of God, for Jews to pay taxes to the Roman emperor.” Jesus’ answer to this challenge succeeds, not so much by separating “the things that belong to Caesar” and “the things that belong to God,” but rather by, having differentiated between them, yet nevertheless holding them together in a new way that takes into account the relationship between the human economy and the divine economy. Warren Carter outlines alternative readings of the exchange as follows: 

 

Jesus’ answer avoids an either-or response by combining the two options!  What is the relationship of the two clauses and the meaning of the whole? Does the second clause annul the first: pay nothing because everything, including the land (Lev 25:23), belongs to God? Or does it endorse the first: the emperor does God’s will and is to be honored as such? Or does it contextualize and relativize the first: pay the emperor while recognizing God’s greater demand of loyalty? That is, does Jesus urge outright revolt, accommodation, or nonviolent subversion of Rome?

 

Jesus’ answer urges nonviolent subversion of Rome.

The third alternative, Carter argues, is the “more convincing:” The second clause “recognizes payment within the context of God’s far greater gifts and authority. It relativizes tribute payment, and establishes loyalty to God and God’s purposes as the ultimate loyalty” (Carter, p. 440). John Paul Heil agrees: while Jesus’ saying “concisely contrasts ‘the things that are the emperor’s’ with ‘the things that are God’s,’” its aphoristic form and parallel construction “directs the audience to consider the danger and difficulty of relating life to both the emperor and God. The pronouncement prevents thinking of either separately. Political life cannot be separated from the claims of God and the religious dimension of life cannot ignore the political dimension and problems of society” (John Paul Heil, New Proclamation Year A, 2002, p. 236).

 

What eludes most interpretations is the gift of all creation and our responsibility for it.

What these comments on the text lack, however, is recognition of the crucial relationship of the divine and human economies that mediates the contrast, what Carter only alludes to as “payment within the context of God’s far greater gifts and authority.” The importance of this factor is illumined, however, when we consider that the features of the Roman economy described here are very similar in character to aspects of our more highly organized modern economies, features that are destructive of the relationships inherent in natural and traditional communities. As Michael Northcott explains, with reference to modern economies,

Money has the effect of disembedding human social life from naturally ordered space and time. It creates a new concept of space and time which is as abstract from the natural order of land and seasons, night and day, as digits in a computer database, but whose abstract power is exercised in a totalizing way over the lives of people for whom those digits are a debt incurred by their household or their government. By this abstractive force of money, power in human affairs is concentrated in the modern world in the hands of those who have the most money, typically large corporations, banks and institutional investors. The new mobility and concentration of social power as money dissolves traditional sources of authority and mechanisms for the shared exercise of power within moral constraints, as represented by tribal and family groups, by communities of place including villages and small towns and by religious communities (Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics, p. 78.  Northcott follows here the argument of Anthony Giddens in his Consequences of Modernity, p. 24).

The latter point is of crucial importance: In the perspective of modern ecology, Northcott argues, the money economy “‘operates regardless of natural ecological constraints because its measures of wealth and of exchange relations are abstracted from natural ecological systems.” And in theological perspective, “Money displaces God as the ordering force or guiding spirit of modern relations of exchange and of modern culture.”  (Ibid., pp. 79-80). “The disembedding of people from nature and community by the money economy and the industrialization of food, work and leisure also reflects and enhances the disembedding of human consciousness and community from the sacred cosmos” (Ibid, p. 83).

 

Participation in our modern economy means a relationship of care for God’s creation.

What paying tribute to Rome meant in relationship to loyalty to God’s purposes, we are suggesting, participation in our modern economy means in relationship to care of God’s creation. A godless money economy has taken the place of Roman tribute; the impact on communities of life is for all practical purposes the same. Northcott describes the contemporary contrast between an economy that belongs to the modern imperial order and the economy of God this way:

 

‘The autonomy of money in the modern world is the social form of the denial of the creative and ordering activity of God in the world, and the shift from forms of human sociality oriented around the self-in-relation—to God, human communities and nature—towards atomized forms of human behavior, and the related tendency of modern states and markets to aggregate total human welfare in ways which frequently harm the welfare of particular human communities and individuals, and of the non-human world. The economy of God the creator/redeemer is by contrast an economy oriented . . . to the welfare of each oikos or household, where real economy, real wealth, is measured in terms of the realization by each household of those goods which make for human flourishing, including sociability, play and religion. Economic relations on this account should reflect the relational character of created order, and the relational character of the self, which as we have seen, are both grounded in the Hebrew and Christian traditions on a relational account of the being of God. (Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics, pp. 298-990.

 

Jesus’ saying suggests that the imperial money economy we serve with such loyalty needs to be subsumed under the divine economy of creation.

Jesus’ response to his opponents resists the Roman form of this economic dislocation, and by extension, its modern form as well. Jesus, Carter argues, “has demonstrated this loyalty in the journey to Jerusalem, in his healing (21:150 and teaching (21:23-22:46).” We would add: and in his consistent loyalty as the Lord, the Servant of Creation, to God’s purpose of care for creation. Jesus’ saying suggests that the imperial money economy we serve with such loyalty needs to be subsumed under the divine economy of creation. To give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s is to recognize the limited value of our “godless” money system as a means to building and distributing wealth; and to give to God all “the things that belong to God:” is to reorient this system to the righteousness of the God who is indeed Creator of both heaven and earth, from whom all things are, and to whom all things, both human and nonhuman, both on earth and in heaven, belong.

 

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

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