We Christians are amphibians: we dwell in two habitats. We are inhabitants of two universes. We live in the earthly realm and also the heavenly realm at the same time, and often there is tension between the two. Both of today’s stories deal with this tension, each in a separate way. Both reveal the wisdom that is necessary for a Christian to be both in this world and yet not of it.
The first story, in which the Pharisees attempt to trick Jesus, is a tale of two kingdoms. In the red corner, wearing the logo SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus or “The Senate and the People of Rome”), is the heavyweight champion of the world: the Roman Empire. In the white corner, wearing the logo INRI (an abbreviation for “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum” or “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”), is the challenger, the Kingdom of God. Of course, the Pharisees had an ulterior motive in setting a trap for Jesus by asking the question of whether or not to pay the tax. But in doing so they highlighted for all time the tension that exists between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God.
For Jesus, the Roman coin symbolized the tension and even competition that exists between the two kingdoms. When asked about the two kingdoms, the expected answer would have been an Either/Or answer. Either you pay the tax and submit to the Roman Empire (the kingdom of man), or you refuse to pay the tax and join the Kingdom of Heaven. To pay the tax would have seemed to overthrown the Kingdom of God for the kingdom of man, but to refuse to pay the tax would have meant imprisonment or torture or death.
In either case, so the Pharisees thought, Jesus and His kingdom would be discredited.
But not so fast. Jesus asks them to pull out a tax coin. When they do, they are already defeated, because they themselves have also played the Roman game, or else why would they happen to have a tax coin? He asks them whose image and inscription was on the coin, and they say, “Caesar’s.” Now this would have been highly offensive to the Jews. First, they would not have liked the graven image of Caesar on the coin. Second, on some of the coins, Caesar proclaimed himself to be both the Son of God and high priest.
And yet, in spite of these things, Jesus can suggest that we are allowed, and even ought, to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Knowing that Caesar was blasphemous and knowing the ungodliness of the Roman Empire, Jesus is generous enough to ask His disciples to live in the Kingdom of Rome and even pay it tribute.
How can He do this? I believe that the answer to that question is only a smaller version of a much larger question that is still a problem for us. How can Jesus, who is the King of kings and Lord of lords, allow the kingdom of man and the kingdom of Satan to still exist? “Why didn’t He overthrow the Roman Empire?” is a variation on “Why doesn’t He overthrow the kingdom of Satan completely?”
Maybe we, too, are looking for an earthly answer to a heavenly problem. What if it’s possible for the Kingdom of God to exist and even advance among the petty kingdoms of men that dominate our lives? Is this so incredible? To me, it’s not any more unbelievable than that God, through His Holy Spirit, can inhabit a sinful man like me. This world, as long as it exists, seems to be a mixture of both the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of man, of heaven and of earth. And God has put us here to learn to live in His Kingdom, our true home, even while dwelling in the kingdom of men. I think it has something to do with the Incarnation, in which heaven came down to earth and God came down to man. History seems to be a strange, messy, confusing extension of the Incarnation and of God coming to man in spite of man.
The second story may help make our situation clearer. In it, the Sadducees take their crack at Jesus, and they attack Him along very different lines. They attack the truth of the resurrection and point out the seeming absurdity of it as a possibility. But they can only see the earth and its kingdoms, and from that point of view the resurrection seems to be a lie. Modern science would concur. None of us have ever witnessed a resurrection, and since only the things we can observe are real, then the resurrection must be a myth.
But Jesus uses their assumptions and attack as an opportunity to open the Kingdom of Heaven to them, even if only for a moment. They are mistaken because they have assumed that this world is all there is. But if there’s a resurrection, then there’s also a different kingdom waiting on the other end of it. It’s an eternal kingdom and one in which death has no part. It is a kingdom which is invisible and thus impossible to prove. There is no hard scientific evidence for it, and yet the vast majority of humanity has hoped against sight that such an eternal and good kingdom exists after death. Why, if it’s so absurd?
The sad truth is that too much of my life is spent thinking like a Pharisee or Sadducee. Too much of my life is spent thinking like this world is all there is and rather stoically bearing all of the injustice, evil, suffering, and disappointment that this life seems to hold.
And yet God has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. American culture is ubiquitous, and now it streams and screams to me 24/7 on my phone, my computer, wherever I go, whenever I am. There is no escaping it. It appears that we must all continue to lead ever faster lives, cramming in ever more stuff, and pursuing all the latest technologies – or become a social pariah. And the reach of the blob known as the federal government isn’t far behind the reach of the media.
But the truth is that the Kingdom of God is also present in our lives. The presence of God’s Kingdom doesn’t magically make the kingdoms of man vanish from our lives, but it is supposed to transform them. The truth is that my home is in heaven, with God, and so this world will always seem a little strange. It will always seem as if things are not quite right, because in this world they never are. But I am already in a world, God’s world, where things have already been made right.
I may continue to limp along in this world, laboring with ever-greater difficulty as my body continues to wear out. But that labor, if done for the glory of God, is also part of the Kingdom of God. I may lament my own sins and blindness of heart, but I’m someone in whom God has deposited His heavenly treasure, even in this life.
The match seems uneven: the reigning champion of the world – the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of man – seems to be nearly infinite and to occupy the entire universe. But in reality, there is already a new champion, Jesus Christ the righteous, for He won the battle on Calvary.
And so my labor today is not so much to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s: I’m pretty sure he’s going to get what I owe him. The more difficult and more beautiful thing for me to today is to remember to give to God what is His. And what is His is me: someone made in His image; someone redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb; someone inhabited by the Holy Spirit; and someone who is promised a resurrection of his body in my true home in heaven with God.
Prayer: We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting.
To thee all Angels cry aloud; the Heavens, and all the Powers therein;
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of thy glory.
The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee.
The noble army of Martyrs praise thee.
The holy Church throughout all the world: doth acknowledge thee;
The Father: of an infinite Majesty;
Thine adorable, true and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.
Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son, of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man: thou didst humble thyself to be born of a Virgin.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God, in the glory of the Father.
We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge.
We therefore pray thee, help thy servants: whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy Saints, in glory everlasting.
O Lord, save thy people: and bless thine heritage.
Govern them, and lift them up for ever.
Day by day, we magnify thee;
And we worship thy Name ever, world without end.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.
O Lord, have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let thy mercy be upon us, as our trust is in thee.
O Lord, in thee have I trusted; let me never be confounded.
Points for Meditation:
1. What are some ways in which God allows you to see His kingdom in the midst of the kingdom of man?
2. Meditate on how the discomforts of this world can lead to hope more in the world that is to come.
Resolution: I resolve to find one way today to give to God what is His: my time, my talents, my treasure, my hopes, my faith, my fears, my worries, my job, my family, and my thanksgiving and praise.
Caesar Coin – Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license