Isaiah 45:1-8, Romans 13:1-7, Matthew 22:15-22
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
October 22, 2017
Mid-term elections are over a year away, but already we are hearing news that every Republican Senate seat is going to be challenged in the primaries. Democrats are debating what will be the best way to regain the house and senate – should they run on a Hillary or Bernie agenda, or perhaps develop a third way.
In the meantime, we hear daily on the news, disagreements as to whether the NFL players honor or dishonor the American flag when bending the knee at the time the national anthem is played. Will Obamacare be repealed and replaced, or will Trump make a deal with the Democrats and fix it so it becomes more efficient. Will you lose your favorite tax break as the House and Senate seek to overhaul our tax code? Will our government ever get around to upgrading our roads, bridges and airports?
At some level this just becomes background noise for us as we seek to live out our daily lives. But the issues are real. Since we are living in a democracy, we have something to say about the outcome. But what should our response be about any given issue. How do we determine what is an appropriate Christian response? I have lived in some areas where my congregation has wondered how you can be a Christian and vote for a Democrat. I have also lived areas where they have wondered how a person can claim to be a Christian and a Republican.
Just what is the Christian response to civil matters and world events? Should we sit back and take what comes? Should we involve ourselves? Is it possible for Christians to follow biblical principles and come out on opposite sides of any given political issue? Is there no one Christian response?
I think today’s lectionary readings help us come to grips with a very complex answer. They can be summed up by the phrase “Under Authority.” The three readings are very different in their form. Isaiah gives us a kind of poem. You see this, for example, in the elegant repetitions: “Opening doors before him and letting no gate stay shut.” “I am the Lord and there is none else Beside me, there is no god.” “I form light and create darkness. I make weal and create woe.” The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, gives us reasoned advice. “Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval.” And finally, the Gospel is an anecdote, a short and memorable report of how Jesus bested his adversaries in debate. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render unto God the things that are God’s.”
More to the point, each reading presents people under civil authority in a different time and place, and the relationship between them is different for each. To use a metaphor, we might say that Isaiah is a litter of kittens being carried by a cat; Paul is a kitten protected by a cat, and Jesus is mouse watched by a cat. This morning we will look at each of these three passages to reflect on their views of the Christian’s relationship to government and then think briefly about what it means that the Bible offers us such diversity.
I. The Kitten
Let’s begin with the Apostle, Paul. His view is this: The powers that be are ordained of God. If you resist civil authority you are resisting God A ruler is of no threat to a good person, only to a bad one. Those in authority are God’s servants. To obey the government is to obey God.
There is a lot to be said for this point of view. It brings justice and social stability. Without solid respect for a just and honorable authority we will end up with no respect for anything or anyone. Anarchy and social collapse will be sure to follow. In general, the Church has followed this point of view, the Divine Right of Kings in the Middle Ages flows from this understanding. But it also gave rise to Hitler’s Germany. If a ruler is no threat to a good person, how come the Jewish holocaust? How come Paul himself had been flogged and jailed for nothing worse than giving a Gospel testimony?
The reason is that he was a Roman citizen and that he was protected by Roman law. Roman law had a great reputation for fairness, and Paul certainly benefited from it. He traveled only where Rome had conquered and subdued the lands, and where justice was in place. He was also a Jew. As a Jew he had been flogged and thrown in jail without any kind of hearing. But once the authorities found out that he was a Roman citizen, they let him go, and apologized to him for their mistreatment. As a Roman citizen Paul was a kitten projected by a cat.
II. The Mouse
The case of Jesus is different. To start with, this is an anecdote about baiting a popular public figure in the hope of tripping him up in what he says. Asking loaded questions of public figures is nothing new. In our world, politicians are briefed and prepped by their handlers with facts so that they have already anticipated the obvious questions. Last year, Hillary and Donald spent much of their campaign trying to trap each other into saying something that could be misconstrued which they would then put in ads to be aired dozens of times.
Our Lord never had the advantage of video tapes of himself being needled by imitation Pharisees in a dry run of the day he was encountered in the Temple precincts. First, they flattered him with praise for his truth, courage and impartiality. Then they slipped him the trick question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Give us a straight answer, Yes or No?” We must remember, Israel was under occupation at that time and most Jews hated the Romans. Pay taxes to the emperor? Of course, they did, but there was no way that a local Palestinian Jew would openly condone it. He would lose his self-respect. But in occupied Palestine, Rome was everywhere, just like the KGB. And if the Caesar’s listening ear missed any criticism, there were always cooperating locals who could supply the lack.
If this charismatic Galilean seemed about to raise an intifada, Rome would come down fast and Jesus would join a legion of the disappeared. He can’t possibly say no. Our Lord does not have long to think. He is a mouse watched by a cat. He says, show me the coin used for the tax. It is a surprise move, and it makes his enemies uneasy. “Whose head in on the coin?” he asks. They replied. “Caesar’s.” Now comes one of Our Lord’s most famous lines: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” His critics walk away in stunned silence.
What does this tell us about those in authority? It tells us that yes and no questions about the powers that be are trick questions. It tells us that if you are a mouse, like Jesus was in this situation, rather than a kitten like Paul was as a Roman citizen the cat can have a different attitude! This is the world in which we live, some situations are complex, our own interests compete with one another. Sometimes a ruler might come down on even on a good person.
III. A Kitten Carried by a Cat
Finally, we look at Isaiah. We notice at once that the prophet applies some of the Bible’s most exalted language to a pagan king. The Monarch was King Koresh of Persia, Isaiah calls him the Lord’s Messiah. It is the name, incidentally, taken by the WACO wacko, David Koresh, but we are accustomed to it in its Greek form, “Cyrus.”
To put the situation in terms of today’s political geography, Cyrus was an Iranian who was in the process of taking over Iraq where thousands of Jews lived as a result of a deportation fifty years earlier. Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem. and thousands of Judeans, Isaiah, among them, had been taken to Babylon. Now Persia and Babylon were at war. The Jews who were living in Babylon saw Cyrus as a liberator. Instead of resisting him as a conqueror, they applauded his victories.
In earlier conquests, Cyrus had demonstrated that he was not a brutal and savage ruler. Rather he was enlightened and even benevolent. In adding kingdoms to his own empire, he often allowed some form of home rule. Not only that, Cyrus often permitted displaced ethnic groups to return to their homeland. No wonder Cyrus looked good to Isaiah.
God refers to Cyrus as his “anointed one,” that is, his Messiah! Isaiah understands that it is God who is behind Cyrus’s military successes. He believes that God is responsible for all that the Persian Monarch has accomplished. His optimism is rewarded. The Jews are allowed to return to their homeland. Isaiah and his fellow exiles are a litter of kittens being carried by a cat. Cyrus is ta mother cat whose instincts are of care and concern. Tabby doesn’t know it, but God has created her to be this way. Cyrus, King of Persia, the pagan emperor, is God’;s Messiah! There is no stronger statement anywhere of God’s sovereign control over the powers that be!
Of these three readings, Jesus’ threatening and ambiguous world seems to me to be the most realistic. Not only that, we know of worse situations even than Jesus encountered: Germany under Hitler, Russia under Stalin, Cambodia under Pol Pot. So, the question remains for us today. “How can we find guidance in the Bible if the answers given are so diverse?” The short answer is that the Bible is a canon of sacred Scripture. It gives us writings from various times and places, bringing them together side by side. It addresses a wide range of situations providing rich and comprehensive guidance for God&’s people.
We need to hear all three passages to bring the full range of revelation into our lives. Indeed, we need to hear still others, such as found in the book of Daniel and in the Revelation of St. John, which show us a civil authority more stern and hostile than anything Jesus knew. These also contribute to our understanding of the powers that be.
It follows that Christians confess the truth of all these passages, although they are complementary to one another and do not all apply in every time and place. We confess even the Bible’s most extravagant claim of God’s sovereign guidance of the world’s powers the Cyrus model.
And even out of the most horrible of circumstances, we confess that God can accomplish His purposes to those that love Him. No matter where we are or how we are threatened, we are still in God’s hands. We gladly put our full trust in the One who says, “I am the Lord and there is none else, Besides Me, there is no God.” Amen.