GIVE UNTO CAESAR THE THINGS THAT ARE CAESAR’S AND GIVE UNTO GOD THE THINGS THAT ARE GODS
“Jesus says to give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to give unto God what belongs to God”. The Pharisees sent their disciples to trick Jesus with a question about whether all people were to pay taxes to Caesar, and whether there should be any exceptions. Jesus recognizing their malice, called them hypocrites and asked to see the coin that was used for paying the tax. They showed him the coin, and he asked them: “Whose head is this on the coin, and what is his title”? They answered: “The emperor” (Caesar Augustus). Jesus then replied: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are God’s”. The disciples of the Pharisees were amazed at this response, and they went away. (Matthew 22:15-22) Jesus leaves their question unanswered, at least not the way they expected.
We know from the writings of the Inter-testament period between the Old Testament and the New Testament. More specifically from the writings of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees that the Jewish people in Israel felt like they were taxed excessively and unjustly. We find this same message echoed in the Gospels, and the low-esteem that was held for tax collectors.
Here’s the questions that the followers of Jesus faced: “Why should we pay taxes to Caesar? The family of Caesar is considered deity. Caesar Augustus claims to be the Anointed One, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. So, the question remains, who is Caesar and who is God? In His response, Jesus differentiates between God and Caesar, but in the Roman Empire Caesar Augustus was considered by the Roman Parliament to be the “God Incarnate of the world”. So, now how do we interpret how Jesus answered this question? He did not consider Caesar Augustus God. He did not answer the question outright, but he did put the question into proper perspective. He would follow His father, the true God, and not Caesar.
Jesus, are you the Messiah? What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? Perhaps Jesus is saying: Pay your taxes, but realize that everything you have belongs to God. In Romans Paul encourages us to give ourselves over to God as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. (Romans 12:1) As good stewards of God we acknowledge that all things we have, our resources, gifts and talents, and the way we conduct ourselves with our purses that will never wear out, is a testimony that we serve only one God, the true and Living God. (Luke 12:23)
Some of us are blessed with more resources than others. We are the rich and the poor, and all those in between, but we all pay taxes. Well…most of us do. Some of the wealthiest people in the world get away with not paying taxes or very little taxes because of tax loop-holes. So, brothers and sisters, the question is for you this morning. “What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God”? Here’s my opinion on the matter. As a steward all my resources belong to God, but the taxes registered to me, I need to pay or suffer the consequences.
I have heard of people that thought it was their God-given duty to not pay taxes. That’s fine, but if you want to continue that fight it will eventually lead to prison, and I guess there’s always room for more prison ministry. If you’re going to fight battles in the trenches, be careful of the battles you fight. If it’s something you can change, change it. If it is something unholy that you do not know whether you can change it or not, but you feel it is your calling to work for change, work for change. Because, not all laws are right or just.
For example, the 4th and 8th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and it has been upheld in court repeatedly, that homeless people have the right to be homeless. The Constitution of the United States protects all American’s. It is not against the law to be a US Citizen. If it is then we all need to be written citations, and it is not against the law to be homeless. It is not against the law to be a person. Every day in the city of El Cajon, citations are given to people who sleep in public places, such as parks, driveways, alleys, cars, etc.… I’m not talking about private properties or homes. I’m talking about city owned public places, like parks and parking lots and city sidewalks.
People are ticketed for loitering in the park. The courts have held up the 4th and 8th Amendment, and have ruled repeatedly that you cannot be ticked for sleeping, eating, or loitering in public if there is no shelter available for you, and if the shelter does not violate your privacy. Besides the legal thing, what is our ethical requirements from Scripture. We are told to feed the hungry, to care for the marginalized, to help those that for various reasons are unable to help themselves or speak out for themselves. (Matthew 25)
There are new street signs recently posted on the streets of El Cajon that tell people not to give money to the homeless, and an encouragement to send money instead to a homeless organization that has long term housing plans for the homeless, but does not supply temporary housing, not even for one night. I did buy a cup of coffee for a homeless man this morning at 7/11, and I do give out food from time to time. As a rule, I usually don’t give out money on the streets. But, that does not mean I will send money to an organization that does not meet the needs of the homeless people that I am working with. I may, or I may put my money elsewhere. I’m sure they are doing a good thing, but it is not affecting any of the people we work with at Welcome Church.
We have an ethical dilemma in outreach to the homeless and those in need. We want to work with the city. We respect our police force and appreciate their work on our behalf. I have met personally with the City Manager and the Chief of Police regarding the homeless in this city and how we can work to eliminate homelessness. We want to work within the laws of the city, but when the laws of the city violate ethical standards, and violates people’s rights as human beings, and violates Scripture, then it our duty to stand up and say: “We are going to work with you in East County to combat homelessness, but if the right hand is working for the good and welfare of others, and the left hand is violating people’s rights and privacy with excessive and unjust punishments, and some authorities brag about how many truckloads of homeless carts full of living necessities that have taken from people in the parks of the county, violating constitutional rights and stealing from United Sates citizens. It might be a city ordinance to sleep, or to have a cart in a city park, I’m not sure about a law about carts and belongings.
It’s against a city ordinance of El Cajon to feed people in the park. This church and the church across the circle have been doing that for as long as Wells Park has been in existence, and even prior to Wells Park, St. Alban’s has been feeding the homeless. So, the churches and organizations that simply feed people in the park have been warned and even ticketed. So, we have changed our strategy. After the Eucharist Service in Wells Park, we have a church picnic. I eat lunch, and I encourage everyone, “sheltered” and ‘non-sheltered” to break bread and to enjoy each other’s company over a sandwich, fruit or pastry of some sort, and to take a bottle of water. We know almost all the people that are part of the Welcome Church, because they are with us almost every time we meet. So, when we say we are having a church picnic, we know these people by their names, we know their stories, we share their hurts and desires. We are available as in Mark Hargleroads case to celebrate Mark’s life and memory on his passing with a special service here at St. Alban’s. We know where they spend their days and where they sleep. We know Bobby, Eddie, Ruth, Judy, George, Charles, Deborah, etc.… If it’s against city ordinance to have a church picnic in the park, then you better shut down all the church picnics, all the family picnics. And, we are hospitable. Even if you did not come to our worship service, we invite you to join us and share a meal and conversation. And, if you shut us down then we better call our lawyers.
“Give unto Caesar what is Caesars, and give unto God what is Gods”. A refugee came to me about a year ago for assistance. His wife and the wife of his landlord got into a squabble. So, the next day the landlord issued him a letter of eviction. I asked him if he had paid his rent, and he said he had. I asked if he was violating the terms of his contract in anyway. He assured me that he had not. I sent him to an organization that provided a lawyer, and the lawyer intervened. The eviction papers were withdrawn, and the refugee family kept their apartment. Sometimes providing advocacy for those in need is easier than other times. In that case the city confirmed the rights of the resident in opposition to the unethical action of the landlord.
We always want to work with the city, mayor, city council, city manager, chief of police, Chamber of Commerce, with all the teams of the homeless coalition that are working together to help eliminate homelessness by providing shelter, food, showers, laundry services, temporary shelters and increased low income housing. I am working with and alongside lots of leaders in this county. But, at the same time, if the right hand is doing all these wonderful things, and the left hand ignores what the right hand is doing by violating the rights and privileges of people that have no place to call home, then it is also our job to be advocates for those that are unable or not allowed to speak for themselves.
We are called to speak up for the marginalized, the homeless and for those that are wrongly violated, bullied and persecuted. Our obligations as Christians is to speak up for justice, for equality, for those things that sometimes we take for granted because we don’t have to live in that environment. We do not have to live in squalor. There are people in this city that are living in squalor, places that you think, “how in the world can you rent a place like that”? It’s because it is allowed. Even though I’m sure there are laws in the books, they are obviously not always enforced.
Stand up for justice. Be merciful. Be humble, and be careful about how you work for change. We are not called to be vigilantes, because the people that are civil servants, are people just like you and me. Sometimes, they are working for change too, and sometimes you can assist others in pushing those changes forward. I think that is where we are at in East County right now. It is an opportune time for us as a church, and many people in the county are ready to work for change. The opportunity is knocking at our door. The opportune time is now.
The Reverend Dr. David Madsen