We are in the midst of the baseball playoffs, and the Yankees have done very well. People all over town, of course, are remarking on it. I am happy for them. However, having grown up in an American League city that was not New York, during this time of year I have to invoke a rule that all American League teams outside New York use. It is known as the ABTY rule, and it goes this way: if your team is not in the playoffs then you should cheer for ABTY – that is, for anybody but the Yankees.
But it is not a team that I want to draw your attention to, first off, this morning. It is, rather, a baseball play, the one known as the “squeeze play.” It is not used very often anymore, although Houston used it once to good effect when playing the Red Sox some days ago. In a squeeze play, a runner is on third. The batter then is to lay down a bunt. If he does a good job of it, the fielding team is effectively squeezed. No matter what choice they make, things will be for the good of the hitting team. If, for instance, the bunt is good and they throw to first to get the batter out, then the man on third can dash home and score. If, on the other hand, they choose to try to hold the runner at third, the batter will reach first safely, putting another man on base.
There is an analogous play in bridge, where a player, in certain circumstances, may make a defender choose between playing two cards, but no matter which he chooses, the bidder will then be in a position to be able to take a winning trick.
In this vein, the question that the Pharisees in today’s lesson pose to Jesus might also be styled a “squeeze play.” Their question is designed, as my old college roommate from Texas used to say, to put Jesus “between a rock and a hard place.” Their question appears a simple, but a pressing one: should one pay taxes to Caesar or not? But the way it is asked is not so simple. No matter how Jesus answers, it would seem, he is going to put himself in trouble. If he says “no,” siding with the people who resent Roman oppression, he will look like a revolutionary and will get into trouble with the Roman authorities. If he says “yes,” then he will appear to be on the side of the oppressive, occupying forces, and the people will turn against him. Whichever answer Jesus gives, he loses. He has been squeezed.
But we all know how he cleverly avoids the trap. He asks for a coin, and a Pharisee produces one. He asks whose image is on the coin, and, of course, it is Caesar’s. So, he tells them: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and render to God what is God’s.” Even though they want to undo him, his enemies are amazed by the cleverness of the answer, and he has managed to get out of their trap. Thus, they give him a sort of grudging respect, and they leave him, at least, for that one day.
Now, they must have been truly stunned by his answer, for they never push him on it, although they very well might have, demanding clarification on what exactly is Caesar’s and what is God’s. Perhaps they don’t, because, by their being immediately able to produce a coin with the enemy’s face on it, they unwittingly have revealed their own duplicity. They look compromised. So, they don’t press the issue. But because there is no further clarification, and there is just the irony of their situation, I often think that we may feel that Jesus may have pulled a squeeze play on us. We don’t know how to choose between the two options and, when we don’t, we can end up being wrong no matter what we do.
Now, many people readily invoke the distinction between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s, and they do so chiefly in one very obvious context, namely, the relation between religion and politics. By Jesus’ declaring that there is a difference between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s, they contend, he has established a prohibition against mixing religion and politics, especially in the pulpit. Years ago, this prohibition was invoked whenever a sermon was preached on civil rights or the Viet Nam war, and, when it was, the folks who invoked it thought it was pretty absolute. The idea was that you didn’t mix the two–ever. They didn’t want to hear about the morality of the war or about segregation and racism. More recently, however, as conservative churches have become very active politically themselves, some even going so far as to provide voter guides on how a Christian must vote to their congregations, the prohibition tends to get invoked only when one doesn’t like the side that the preacher ends up on.
But, whether the invocation is strong or weak, and while it seems to assume that there is some kind of mixing of politics and religion that shouldn’t be done, it is still never quite clear as to what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. Thus, we still end up feeling squeezed. There seems too much overlap between the two for that not to happen, especially when there are questions of justice and righteous commitment at stake. So, we are led to ask flat out: “Does one’s conscience, the inner voice of God as it were, require that we always protest injustice? Can it ever allow us to be quiet in deference to political authority?” Or, we may ask, “If we try to render to Caesar what Caesar requires, which may include not just taxes, but outward loyalty such as pledging allegiance to the flag, a symbol, is that absolute? Can it conflict with religious duty or conscience?” There just doesn’t seem to be a neat line. Even if there were, folks are so all over the map as to where that line is that it is hard to get anybody to believe you when you tell them where it might be.
But perhaps we worry unduly. I don’t think Jesus ever meant to squeeze us on this one. In fact, I think he really meant to clarify how we are to relate ourselves to God and the world. For this reason, I don’t think he ever meant to do anything like draw a line where things on one side belong to politics and the things on the other side belong to religion. I don’t think he ever meant that these two things were to be played off against each other. Above all, I don’t think he ever saw the two things as being on a continuum where you could possibly draw a line.
Why not? How can they not be? Well, take into consideration how St. Augustine interpreted this parable. Augustine noted that, if Jesus, by declaring that the coin was by right the emperor’s because the emperor’s image was on it, then to figure out what is God’s, we need to figure out what has God’s image on it. The answer is simple, Augustine thought, citing the book of Genesis; we are in God’s image. It is we, our souls and bodies, that are made in God’s image. What we, therefore, owe God is nothing less than ourselves, our souls and bodies. Nothing could be clearer. Nothing could be more absolute.
That is why there is no squeeze play. If you have a choice between two similar things, you can be squeezed. They are on the same level, and if you choose one, you can’t have the other. They will always be in conflict, or at least in a troublesome tension. But that is not the case with what is absolute. Why? Because being in God’s image is not really something you choose to have one day and not another; it is something you are all the time – or something you have chosen to efface and lose.
So, I am suggesting, the choice then that Jesus confronts us with in telling us to render unto God what is God’s, and to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, is first and foremost a choice of whether or not we are going to live as God’s image. What that choice amounts to is this: It means that we do not get to be godly in one situation, say, church on Sunday morning, and ruthlessly ambitious on Monday. But we can be good on Sunday and on Monday -- and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday and Saturday, too. Similarly, you do not get to worship God on Sunday, and worship the idols of money and power on Monday and think that it all leads to a balanced life. It doesn’t. But you can worship God all the time, and because you do, you can be a generous person with whatever you are blessed with and you will have gotten it honestly. Then you will have a balanced life because you have taken seriously what is absolute.
Now, there are also certain things you just cannot ever do and maintain life in God’s image. We cannot be good Nazis without damaging that image. We cannot be good white supremacists, either. We cannot work, even implicitly, to erase the possibility of faith in the young, or a sense of higher calling for human beings, no matter who they are, even if we do it in the name of equality or reason. You cannot make a life out of lying, or any other systematic violation of the Ten Commandments and keep God’s image. But, believe it or not, you can be a good Democrat or a good Republican. You can also be a bad one of either.
But it is not a political point I want to make here. It is one about the distinctive nature of the Christian community, the Church. It is not a community that is held together by the commonality of its people’s worldly policy choices. It is held together by the goodness of its people and their overriding concern for each other. When that is what each cares most about in dealing with the other, then a lot of worldly differences don’t make half as much difference they do elsewhere. I have served a lot of churches, and most of them have been politically a mixed bag. When they have been good communities, it has always been the case that what made them good communities was the concern that they had for each other, and also the trust they put in each other. And the reason they trusted each other had nothing to do with their individual politics – like everybody else, individuals were often genuinely baffled as to how some good people made the political choices they did. No, they trusted each other, because they were each good and trustable. In a very concrete way, what it meant to be in God’s image meant more to them than how they lined up with Caesar, although most people took that very seriously. In a church that I served in Washington, for example, everybody was, as is the case in Washington, extremely interested in politics and everybody had a view, usually a strong view. Yet, deliberately, they never talked about it in church. Were they avoiding what is important? Was this a community built on pretense? They certainly didn’t think so. What they had discovered was the value of a face-to-face community, and they tried very hard to judge people in it on their goodness, and they tried not to confuse that with their political choices.
On the other hand, I have discovered that in communities where a single political view dominated, things can easily be reversed. In such communities, theology almost always followed politics, and was tailored to it. In such communities, there tended to be a lot more mistrust, a lot more pressure to conform, and, in general, the loss of a broad perspective. In short, the loss of a certain kind of goodness. These were not conservative communities, either.
Now, the point I want to make is not that politics is unimportant. It is rather that who you are is far more important, and what is most important of all is how you show God’s image in your life and in your choices. From that absolute priority, I would presume that you would make your choices in the world accordingly. I always have. But always before you make your choices in the world, you need to think first how it stands with you and God. Then choose. Then, when dealing with others, don’t assume that you can always work backwards from their choices, whether they disagree or agree with you, to how their souls stand with God. Look first at their goodness and the faithfulness of their lives. If you do, you will not have been squeezed. You will have learned how to render unto God what is God’s. You will be building a genuine community.