First Wednesday of Advent (Year B)
Advent Meditation by Walter Perry
Here we are on just the fourth day of Advent, only one month after a pivotal and divisive national election, in a year of unprecedented conflict between secular demands for isolation and spiritual longing for connection and community, and in today’s Gospel we find the most political–and politically fraught–passage in the entire New Testament:
When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They said, “The emperor’s.” He said to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent.
Let’s recall the scene here: In this season of Advent we prepare for Jesus’ coming as Messiah into the world, but in Luke 20 we see exactly what it means for the Messiah to be present in the world. Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday and now sits in the Temple teaching and interpreting the Law of Moses with an unequalled and divine authority. When asked the trick question of whether paying taxes to a pagan gentile king violates Jewish law, Jesus exposes the question itself as a category error. The denarius with Caesar’s likeness and inscription is intrinsically a graven image and therefore anathema to, and entirely outside the regulatory purview of Jewish law. Trafficking in such idols at the behest of a gentile might be what one does perforce in the unsanctified quotidian world, but that commerce has no moral dimension–or at least none cognizable to the Law of Moses.
The famous Monty Python scene “What have the Romans ever done for us?” from Life of Brian gets Jesus’ lesson exactly backward. The Roman taxes cannot be justified as more-good-than-bad in some moral scheme of things just because of the self-evident good of the roads, sanitation and education which those taxes finance. Neither the taxes themselves nor any secular good which might come of them has a moral dimension within the scope of the Law of Moses–nor presumably within the New Covenant which Jesus establishes as the Messiah. Talk about separation of church and state! The fundamental values of each are entirely non-cognizable to the other.
History seems to demonstrate that this may be the most difficult practice for any society. In the current Hobbesian war of all against all in national and international politics no faction is able to resist harnessing the coercive power of Caesar to enforce its particular moral vision on unconsenting neighbors or justifying that coercion with an appeal to the moral superiority of its own peculiar ethos. Perhaps to prepare for a world in which the Messiah is coming to rule by principles so difficult for us, it might help to recall those beliefs in light of which we are fundamentally Protestant.
First, our salvation is individual and personal and cannot be delegated to a Pope or a Caesar, however intrinsically good the works we do at their direction might be. Second, the uniquely individual work of our salvation is as generally described in the Two Great Commandments. Individually each of us must find the God–and the Good–which we can love with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind. This is a most difficult task, yet we believe that we will be given the Grace to accomplish it if we apply ourselves sincerely. But being unique individuals we will each come to subtly, or not so subtly, different understandings of that God. Since we cannot survive as isolated non-cooperating islands we must then ‘love our neighbor as ourselves’ at least to the extent of giving our neighbor’s free will to consent to a compromise, or not, the same weight as our own. Not a permanent compromise; not an iron law binding upon both of us come what may, but a workable cooperation which allows us to solve a particular problem with the help of consenting cooperators, and then move on to new problems with new allies.