Monday, November 03, 2008

Competing Claims

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25).

“So, what’s your favorite bible verse?”

I struggle with that question, probably because I’m not able to answer it. For one thing there are too many passages of scripture that I find meaningful. Identifying a single text as a favorite feels like choosing a favorite child. Choosing favorites is for things like movies and NFL teams and songs on the radio, not the Bible.

While I have a hard time choosing a favorite scripture, it isn’t too hard for me to come up with a collection of least favorites. It might be those pesky texts that convict me or inconvenience me. Most often it’s a scripture I struggle to understand. Case in point: Jesus being asked about paying taxes to Caesar and his proverb-like “render unto” answer.

Parts of this story are clear enough. In Luke’s gospel Jesus has told a story about the owner of a vineyard who entrusts his land to tenants who then reject him. It was obvious to the professional religious types that Jesus was telling this story about them. They’ve had it up to their phylacteries with Jesus and they want to take him into custody, but they don’t have a good reason and besides, he’s very popular with the people (Luke 20:19).

At this point they devise a plan to trap him, get him to say something subversive, something that threatens the public good and shows him to be a traitor. Luke tells us that “spies” were sent, posing as admirers, speaking flattery to Jesus, acting like eager students of the rabbi. They ask a question about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus sees through their duplicity and gives his non-answer answer.

“Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Checkmate. Clever. Obscure. Non-committal. Maybe all of the above. Jesus’ opponents are stumped by this and the conversation ends. We may be stumped as well.

Rather than trying to get at what Jesus means we might do well to simply observe what he says. Both the state and God make claims upon our lives. What’s more, these claims can’t be neatly compartmentalized, God things listed in one column, state things in another. The claims of the state and the claims of God are mingled in our lives in ways that are not always neat and clean.

Some try to make it clean by making the claims of the state an expression of the claims of God. They want elected officials and legislation and court decisions that are “Christian.”

Others make a clean break by assuming a defensive posture, convinced that Government is hostile to faith. They have given up on the state and turned to militias or other fringe groups that are preparing for the inevitable show-down between the faithful and the fooled.

Whatever Jesus meant by his “render unto” statement, he didn’t allow a clean break between the competing claims of the state and God on our lives. The state makes claims on us and so does God, and somehow both are to be honored.

And it doesn’t stop with the state and God. Today multiple claims are being made upon you. Your employer makes claims upon you, your spouse and children make claims upon you, your tennis team makes claims upon you – and you spend your days “rendering unto.” We render unto someone all the time.

The question today is this: how will you “render unto” while honoring God in all of the claims made upon you?

Many are the claims and demands made upon us, O Lord. But you alone are God. Give us grace today that we might honor the claims made upon us as citizens, as family members, as employees – and yet serve you in all things. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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