Exodus 33:12-23/ Psalm 99/ Matthew 22:15-22
Balancing Christian Responsibility
Elizabethan “Middle of the Way”
I remember vaguely what I learned in my Church History class about the Tudor England converting to Protestantism. We know the gist: Martin Luther happened in Germany, a lot of people followed the Reformation movement, in England, King Henry VIII denounced Catholicism to give himself a divorce from the first wife who failed to give him a male heir, his heir King Edward continued to turn his country protestant, the next Ruler, Queen Mary turned the country back to Catholicism, and her heir, Queen Elizabeth I established the Church of England, a.k.a. the Anglican Church. One thing I remember from my Church History class about this is how Elizabeth chose the “middle of the way” solution to offend fewer people.
In some situations, going “middle of the way” is a bad thing. It might mean you don’t support either of whatever is concerned. For example, remaining silent between oppressors and the oppressed means condoning the oppression. However, in other situations, it means a wise compromise. Think of the Anglican Church: it looks Catholic in some ways and Protestant in others. And now, the descendants of Queen Elizabeth I are free to choose whichever church or religion they want.
Is It Lawful to Pay Taxes to the Emperor?
In today’s gospel story, Jesus is put into an impossible dilemma. Two groups that hate each other got together to trap Jesus: the Pharisees and the Herodians. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”
In the Roman occupied Israel, how can anyone answer this question without getting into trouble with any of the two groups? If one speaks in favour of paying tax to the Roman government, the religious Jews will be mad, and if one speaks against it, one will surely be arrested by the Romans. The two enemy groups thought they would trap Jesus with his own words.
Romans demanded three different taxes: a ground tax (one tenth of one’s grain), income tax (one percent of one’s income), and a poll tax. The tax in question here is the poll tax, which amounted to one denarius. For your information, one denarius was more than the usual day’s wage of a working man. This is the tribute coin that the emperor demanded. To this impossible question, Jesus not only avoids the trap, but also adds his teaching. He drove the focus from the emperor and the coin he demanded and towards God, the Creator and true ruler. To me personally, his answer sounds like the occupied Jews should do their duty to their oppressors’ government, (“whatever! Just get it over with!”) but the real and important object of their devotion/ duty is God.
Citizens of Two Kingdoms
Every person of God belongs to two (metaphorical) kingdoms: an earthly nation one belongs to, and the reign of God. We have duties for both. Sometimes, a duty to one is in conflict with the other. That is why we need to let our conscience guide us to balance the two.
It is wrong for Christians to push for the society’s law to be based on Christian teachings. It is also wrong for Christians to accept secular ideas and cultures without filtering them through our Christian teachings. In the Jim Crow United States of America, rejecting the racist law and showing black people hospitality and support would have been the Christian thing to do. In South Korea with homophobic law, it would be a Christian thing to do to support the queer Koreans and fight alongside them. Because Jesus taught us to love and serve the marginalized. Without condition.
Balancing the duties to Our Two Kingdoms
God, who talked with Moses like an intimate friend and walked with him and guided him, rules in justice and teaches us to do the same. Just like God was with Moses, God is with us. In the knowledge that we are God’s beloved and had God’s promise to always be with us, we should follow Jesus in his works of loving, serving, and standing up for justice.
Jesus believed in living in the world, yet not belonging to it. This life requires careful balancing between living among the secular and being faithful to the teachings of Jesus. It is a difficult task, since there is a lot of temptation driving us away from the way of God. Therefore, we need to hang onto our relationship with God and the teachings of Jesus like a solid rock to keep us steady. Let us trust God and let the Holy Spirit guide us as we strive to live like Jesus did, doing our Christian responsibilities in the world.