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The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
A problem that presses hard on many of us much of the time is what I will call divided loyalties.
I don’t mean by this rare dramatic moments, such as occurred in some families during the Civil War when one son enlisted with the Union and another with the Confederacy.
I’m talking about something that does not happen between people so much as within them, and that is not a matter of rare dramatic moments, but turns out to be a way of life where with our family members, our workplace, our community organizations, our friends we end up in commitments that incessantly challenge one another for our attention and time and resources. An old phrase for what we find ourselves repeatedly doing is “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” A new term for this is “juggling.”
Perhaps the problem of divided loyalties has grown worse as life has become more complicated. But the problem is an ancient one, and it is featured in a story about Jesus and a question that is asked of him.
The people who engage Jesus in conversation include disciples of the Pharisees. These are not leaders of the Pharisee movement, the old men, the wise heads, but they are the young upstarts, guys with far more bravado than stature. Their elders send them on this errand to confront Jesus because the old men don’t want to risk their reputations. These young upstarts, however, are still wet behind the ears; they do not yet have reputations to risk.
So these fellows approach Jesus and attempt to butter him up. “Teacher, we know that you are honest, and teach the way of God in truth, no matter whom you teach, for you aren’t partial to anyone.” (In our time, talent like this would be spent on telemarketing.) Now the young fellows swoop in for the kill. “Tell us therefore, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
This question is not an honest inquiry. It is like the bad old chestnut about “When did you stop beating your wife?” A yes or no answer is sure to get him in trouble. The demand for taxes points back to the bitterly resented occupation of the country by Roman imperial power. For Jesus to say that people should pay these taxes would compromise him in the eyes of the people. For him to call for tax resistance would bring a charge of sedition against him.
This story addresses more than a question about taxes. It is more than a proof text about issues of church and state. It addresses the incessant challenge of divided loyalties, not only in regard to choices between government and God, but in the many circumstances, some of them large, others seemingly small, where we find that divided loyalties pull us tiresomely in one direction, then another.
Jesus recognizes his interrogators are up to no good. He is aware of their malice, and accuses them of putting him to the test, calling them hypocrites. This is no friendly rap session between teacher and students; it is a full-blown confrontation. Jesus asks for a Roman coin, the sort used for tax payments. Somebody produces one. Jesus ascertains from his interrogators that the image and inscription on this coin are indeed the emperor’s.
He then brings the confrontation to its crashing conclusion with a judgment some of us can quote: “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Everyone present there knows what Jesus means by this. The coin can be given to Caesar; after all, it has his name and portrait on it, it is issued by his authority, he is entitled to have what is his. But more importantly, the true king, God himself, is also entitled to his property, to what bears his portrait, and that is every human person, for each of us is created in God’s image. We bear the divine image just as much as the Roman coin displays Caesar’s profile and name. Giving to God what belongs to God is the big issue; it is through resolving this issue that you come to know what to do about your taxes and about everything else.
What Jesus tells his interrogators in response to their one malicious question offers us a basis for resolving our many questions about divided loyalties which we raise in a spirit of honest discipleship.
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We also are to give to God what belongs to him, what bears his image and his name. We are to give ourselves to God. Not once only, but repeatedly. Giving ourselves to God is to be characteristic of our lives, something that defines and shapes who we are.
On that basis, and only on that basis, are we equipped to address competently other claims made upon us. This involves rejecting those that lack legitimacy. It also involves recognizing claims that are legitimate, and acknowledging the proper place for each in the ever-shifting network of relationships which is our life.
We are not called upon simply to give the emperor what belongs to the emperor. We are called upon as well to give to relatives, friends, strangers, co-workers, employees, and all other people whatever it is of us they can rightly claim. We are charged with the creative and challenging task of transforming our diverse and divided loyalties into a unified life governed and directed by our supreme and absolute loyalty, which is to God and God alone.
Nobody says this is easy. All of us make mistakes along the way. But we must recognize the task for what it is. And the wonder of it is that in putting God first the other appropriate demands made of us can fall into their proper places, so that divided loyalties become united in a life that is diverse, ever-changing, and creative.
Loving God first and foremost gives us the wisdom and the orientation to love others in their uniqueness in ways that are right for them and for us. Once we give ourselves absolutely to God, then remarkably we are free to give to others in ways that are gracious and life-giving, rather than distorted and destructive. All of our loyalties worthy of the name this blend into a single one. No longer are these loyalties divided; instead we recognize how, deep down, they are in concord, for each is an invitation from God.
Moving from loyalties divided to loyalties united has a lot to do with giving: giving ourselves totally to God, giving ourselves in appropriate ways to others. We may feel drained simply by considering all this generosity, as though we’re asked to put on a picnic for the immediate world. The logistics overwhelm us.
But when we get the tune right, by giving ourselves to God and to others in the best ways possible, then a transformation occurs. We no longer picture ourselves as givers. We are receivers, recipients of divine generosity. This is the truth of our lives and we recognize it.
So we can give to God our entire selves. We can give to others what belongs to them. Thus we come to recognize true loyalties for what they are: a single, unbroken love, the electricity of God, bringing power and light to the world. We are not the source of that current, but it is ours to enjoy and transmit.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright for this sermon 2007, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).