by Michael Shapcott
Sometimes a handful of words in the Bible can be wrenched with violence out of context in order to support a position that is pernicious. Take today’s Gospel reading of the Pharisees trying to trick Jesus. The phrase often plucked out of this little passage is part of verse 21 that most of us know by heart in the poetical language of the King James Version:
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
This story was obviously considered important to early Christians as it is repeated, in somewhat similar form, in Mark and Luke.
Skip forward to Romans 13 and we read, once again, in the good old KJV, ‘let every soul be subject to higher powers’ in verse 1 and the word ‘render’ appears once again in verse 7. In fact, the margins notes in my old and beloved King James Bible has these three phrases next to the first few verses in Romans 13 – Duty to the State, Authority of the State, Duties of Citizenship.
The word ‘render’ from the KJV sets a powerful tone. The word came into English in the 15th century and describes, among other things, a process of taking waste animal tissue from slaughterhouses – like fat and muscle – and turning it into something useful like lard and tallow.
Think of big, bubbling vats of smelly residue and you’ll get a sense of what rendering is all about.
And so, I ask: is today’s Gospel lesson instructing us to offer ourselves up as passive subjects of the state so that we can all be thrown in a great big pot and reduced to a gelatinous mush?
The theologian Ched Myers reminds us, in his analysis of the similar story in Mark chapter 12, of three critical points as we approach this important story:
First, there was a punitive and much-hated tax imposed by the Roman authorities. Virtually no one wanted to pay this tax to the imperial state, it was unjust and it supported a grossly inequitable regime. But non-payment was not an option. Refusal to pay the tax was considered treason and that, in turn, was a capital offense.
Second, the coin that was used to pay the tax included an image of the Emperor and a reference to his status as a god. Even the mere handling of the coin would have been considered offensive to patriotic and observant Jews of the day.
Thirdly, and most importantly, remember that the point of the question from the Pharisees was not to engage in an honest political discussion on a challenging current topic with Jesus. They wanted, as we read in verse 15, to snare Jesus into making a politically damaging admission, and when he not only avoided their trap, but deftly set out a clear political as well as religious response, the Pharisees were amazed, as we read in verse 22.
The Pharisees were trying to cajole Jesus into making a damaging statement on one of the hottest of the hot button issues of the day.
Jesus’s response amazed the Pharisees in its directness: Give to the emperor exactly what is due to the emperor, says Jesus, and give God exactly what is due God.
This is no call of total submission to civil authorities, but a recognition that there is a relationship between people and the state that binds both sides in that relationship that includes standards of justice and equity. And the emphasis is on the just and loving relationship between a people and their state, and a people and their God.
A few years ago, I was in the Italian city of Siena for a conference. I had a few moments for some sight-seeing and went to the Palazzo Publico, what we would call the old city hall, where in the early medieval times the leading men of Siena gathered to manage the civil affairs of the city-state. They were called the Council of the Nine.
Sienna is in close proximity to the nearby city-state of Firenze – Florence – and there was a constant rivalry, both economic and military, between the two.
The practical problem for Siena was that Firenze usually had more money and therefore could buy more and better mercenaries to staff their armies. The powerful and extremely rich Medicis were based in Florence, and their political tactician was the famous Machiavelli, whose name has become synonymous with a ruthless form of civil rule captured in the phrase ‘might is right’.
Most of us would bristle at the notion that superiority in military might confers some kind of moral rightness, but for Jesus and his fellow Jews in the early years of the common era, the might of the Roman Empire was not an abstraction. In the same way, the people and rulers of Siena knew that, whatever their political and moral viewpoint, the weapons and armies of Florence were very real indeed.
They needed to counter that physical reality with an equally robust response.
The challenge for Siena was that it would pull together an army of mercenaries to attack or defend against the forces of Firenze, only to have their forces depleted as their own mercenaries were bought off by their richer opponents.
Which brings me back to the Palazzo Publico in the central square of Siena. In the main meeting room, where the city’s rulers met to discuss the practical issues of the day, a great mural was commissioned by the Council of the Nine in 1338 with the artist Lorenzetti. It’s a striking set of frescoes that dominates the entire room.
The group of frescoes is called the Allegory of Good Government and Bad Government and was intended as a direct counter to the powerful and practical concept of might makes right. The ruler is portrayed as being bound with chains of gold to fundamental values such as justice, magnanimity, peace, charity and wisdom, as well as being bound with chains of gold with the people.
The fresco is meant to tell us that the duty of citizens is to participate and engage with the state, and be bound by a mutual obligation, but only to the extent that the state follows through with its commitment fundamental values and its obligations to its people. If the ruler becomes corrupt, unjust and lacks a commitment to wisdom, peace and charity, then another fresco, the Allegory of Bad Government, demonstrates the social and economic devastation that follows.
Siena began to staff its armies with civilian volunteers who were committed to their homes and families and felt a strong bond with their state. Unlike the mercenaries, the citizen-volunteers could not be bought off by the superior resources of Firenze, and they became an effective force.
A small footnote: Each neighbourhood in Siena and the surrounding communities would hold local practices to train their militia, and these militias would engage in annual friendly rivalries to hone their military skills. In the modern era, these events – known as pallios – continue mainly as tourist attraction and typically feature a thundering horse race in the central square.
So, Jesus was not calling for a position of meek subservience for people to civil authority, but noting that there is a relationship between people and the state that, just like the relationship between people and God, is bound by mutual standards and values such as justice, equity, love, and peace.
Paul clearly intended this in Romans chapter 13, which I noted earlier. He starts the chapter by saying that people are subject to civil authorities, but then stresses in verse 7: ‘Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.’
The operative words are ‘what is due to them’. We are a thoughtful and justice-seeking people here at Holy Trinity and our relationship with Toronto City Hall, across the street, with the provincial Legislature up the street, and with the national Parliament in Ottawa is not easily reduced to simple platitudes.
Canada’s founding Constitution – and how often do you hear the British North America Act of 1867 referenced in a homily – sets out the basic obligation of the state as delivering ‘peace, order and good government’. Constitutional scholars refer to this as POGG. I actually think that those five words are a pretty complete statement of the aspirations that we have of government.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our politicians would only deliver on these – instead of the current social and economic agenda that includes poverty, inequality, ongoing inequity with the First Nations, homelessness, environmental erosion and, most recently, yet another war in the Middle East, to name just a few of the government-manufactured issues.
I have my municipal voting card and I intend to exercise my right to vote this afternoon in an advance poll. I hope that everyone else here does the same – voting is an important part of the relationship between a people and the state, one of the golden chains, to use Lorenzetti’s image, that binds us in a mutual relationship.
But, of course, our duties as people, and our duties as a justice-looking and justice-seeking community, don’t end at the ballot box.
Dr Martin Luther King reminded us that there are moments when we are called upon to take our commitment into the public square. In his life, and in his writing, he set out an orderly process for the person to engage with civil authorities.
After identifying an injustice, Dr King believed that the first step was to bring it to the attention of competent authorities. Place the issue on the public agenda and demand action.
If there is a rebuff, then Dr King set out an escalating series of actions from protests to economic action to civil disobedience. He understood, only too well, the challenges of wrestling with values of love and justice with civil authorities committed to the exact opposite.
I would like to end with a few sentences from his speech on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City. Dr King came out powerfully against the US war in Vietnam, opposing his own government – a government that he had spent more than a decade calling to conscience on civil rights.
‘Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, people do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.
‘Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.
‘Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.’