- October 22, 2017
- 08:00 AM
Sermon for October 22, 2017 (Proper 24 REV, Year A)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Romans 13:1-10; Psalm 99; Matthew 22:15-22
Title: Pay To All What Is Due Them
“Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7).
My dear friends, I am excited to talk with you this morning about paying taxes. Now doesn’t that sound inspiring? And let’s talk about the government. Doesn’t that sound like fun? Well, hey! Don’t blame me. It’s not my idea after all.
We just had the opportunity to listen in – to eavesdrop, if you will – as both the apostle Paul and the Lord Jesus were talking about paying taxes and the government!
Now, first let’s quickly recap where we are in this Letter to the Romans. The primary theological argument in Paul’s Letter to the Romans is spelled out in detail from chapters 1 through 11.
This is a masterful document which explains how all people are in the same predicament regardless of background or ethnicity, how the story of Abraham provides the key into finding our way out, how God has made a way for all people to enter into the covenant through faith, and yet how God still has a plan for the people of Israel which will be accomplished in God’s own good time.
All of that is done in the first 11 chapters of Romans. And the last 5 chapters switch now to practical matters that faced the new Jesus movement there in Rome.
One hugely important matter was the Roman government itself.
So Paul wrote: “Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:2). These words have evoked a lot of emotion and debate over the centuries. But they were written in a context, and that context matters!
Remember that Paul was writing to a brand new community living in the very center of power: Rome at its zenith! This new Jesus community had no standing, no status. They were vulnerable and insecure. They had no protection and no patrons to help them.
It’s kind of like a mouse standing next to an elephant. If you are the mouse, you are existentially aware that at any moment that behemoth right next to you could decide to step on you and squash you to bits. And if it really wanted to do so, then there was nothing you could do to prevent it!
In my sanctified imagination, I reckon that this is somewhat how this early Roman Christian community was feeling. While at the same time experiencing a profound sense of joy and liberation in the good news of salvation that they had received!
Those feelings of elation were real. And yet that dangerous behemoth towered over them every moment – and the empire of Rome was well-known for crushing anyone and anything that threatened it.
So Paul encourages them to not cause any trouble, to not risk the wrath of Rome.
In spite of knowing this context, I still have to say that, on the surface, this is one instance where I want to take issue with Paul.
He seems to have a selective memory when it comes to the history of kings and rulers and those in authority. I mean, what about Pharaoh? Did Paul forget about the Pharaoh who used the sword to kill the innocent Hebrew children? And not “to execute wrath on the evildoer”, but simply out of jealousy and fear!
Did Paul forget about King Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, who was so cruel to the Israelites that they rebelled and the 10 tribes in the North broke away?
What about Daniel and his companions in Babylon? They disobeyed the authorities out of reverence for God. Were they wrongdoers who deserved the sword?
It seems like Paul forgot the history of his own people. And then, of course, we have our own history of resisting authority, don’t we?
Last night, I returned from my two days of Navy reserve duty during which I get to practice being a part-time employee of our federal government. So clearly I need to say to all of you, Thank you for paying your taxes! It allows us in the Navy to do our jobs!
And in case you don’t know, the Navy just celebrated our 242nd birthday. The American Navy was officially sanctioned on 13 October 1775 by the Continental Congress in order to strike back against the feared British Royal Navy.
And for good reason! Only 5 days after this legislation in the Continental Congress, the Royal Navy bombed the town of Falmouth, Maine and burned it to the ground! Of course, that didn’t happen here. It was a few miles to the south in what we today know as Old Port in Portland, but then it was called Falmouth.
So our government and our Navy were born out of resistance to the governing authority! We Americans are rebels and it’s not so easy for us to just go along with the powers that be.
But truth be told, if we dig a little deeper, we can actually see that what Paul is saying here is quite subversive. Rome was the ultimate authority. The Emperor – the Caesar – was acclaimed and honored and worshiped as the Son of God, as a divine person!
Rome was it! There was no higher authority! And yet, Paul is reminding the disciples IN Rome that, in fact, Rome is NOT the highest authority! There IS a higher one!. And in a sense, the disciples don’t need to worry about the Roman authorities. Oh, give them honor and revenues and taxes.
Go ahead and give them what they ask for. But these guys are small potatoes in the big picture, because they are only in place to serve the same God who raised Jesus from the dead!
Both Caesar and these believers answer to a higher authority, and this ultimate God called this new Christian community into being and gave them a purpose – just like God did for Rome itself!
So, in theological terms, in the sight of God, these believers are on the same footing as the Emperor himself – though, of course, they have different tasks to accomplish.
What a claim to make! That was very bold and audacious in that particular context.
There is another side to this as well. Listen: the fact that a group of ruling elites from Jerusalem came out and asked Jesus this question meant that it was a real and live question among the people.
Right? I mean, no one would ask this question of him if there were not some who encouraged people NOT to pay taxes. That would be like someone today asking, “Is it right for people to eat ice cream or not?” Of course people should eat ice cream! No one would ask such a silly question!
But this question of paying taxes was a real issue! There were radical elements in those days who thought that their participation in the kingdom of God meant they had no responsibility to participate in earthly kingdoms. Especially one that was as brutal and bloody as Rome.
So you see, Paul is in fact marking out a wise and prudent middle path. A via media.
God is the ultimate authority, and not Rome – contrary to popular opinion! Nothing matters more than what God is doing with the Gospel. And what God is doing is changing the world in ways that the Roman authorities could never imagine!
And this is what happened. Today, the Church continues strong while the Roman Empire is a subject in history class!
HOWEVER, this does not mean that any follower of Jesus can disregard our earthly responsibilities. Far from it! In fact, this is where we demonstrate that we are God’s people! In these earthly relationships!
And so Paul says: “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:7-8).
Oh, what a masterful statement! A middle way – a via media – based on showing love to all – in every relationship. And, yes, even by paying taxes.
Imagine that: paying your tax bill as a way to demonstrate the love of God!It can be! IF we choose to see it that way!
After all, love makes us the greatest debtor of all. Because the call to love is a call to give, and give, and give. Give to ALL what is due them – and in this way, give ALL to God!
So here is our challenge: how can we see each relationship in our lives as an opportunity to love? Even viewing our relationship to government as an opportunity to demonstrate love?
Can we be so devoted to what God is doing that everything we do becomes a chance to share the love of God in Christ? May it be so. Amen.