Sunday, October 19, 2008

Joe the Plumber - A Sermon

You know who Joe the Plumber is.  He’s the guy who stopped to talk with Barack Obama while he was campaigning in the neighborhood and told him he’d be paying too much tax under Obama.  Joe then hit the big time during the final presidential debate when he was evoked 26 times.  Then, of course, we couldn’t get enough of him and had to discover his real status as a plumber, his real name and his own tax issues.

Poor Joe.

But his fifteen minutes of fame are just about up, and I suspect he’ll be relieved.  What won’t be over is our grousing over taxes.  It’s never over.  Think Boston Tea Party.  Or think today’s Gospel story.

Now, the issue Joe the Plumber brought up in his question to Barack Obama and in subsequent interviews was the fact that he had to pay taxes at all.  This wasn’t the same issue for the Boston Tea Party where they were upset about a particular tax and how it was instituted.  And it wasn’t the issue that started off our Gospel story.

Here, we have Jesus teaching in the temple when he is confronted by a group of people but not just any group.  The Pharisees and the Herodians hate each other.  The Herodians were Jews who felt that the Romans had run Israel for five centuries and weren’t doing a bad job, so they thought they just paid their taxes and get on with their daily lives.

The Pharisees hated the Romans as occupiers, and although they paid their taxes reluctantly, they complained about it.  But both groups hated Jesus even more, so they banded together to trap him.  The way they did was with a lose-lose question.  By asking Jesus if it was right to pay the Roman tax, they were trying to force him into YES or NO answer.  If Jesus said, “No, don’t pay the tax,” the Herodians would go to Roman officials and have Jesus arrested.

If Jesus said, “Yes, pay the tax,” the Pharisees could say, “He’s an appeaser!  He’s for Rome and not for Israel.”  His credibility would be shot.

Only thing is, they didn’t know Jesus.  He gave neither a yes nor a no.  You might say during this political season, “That’s just like a politician, never answering the question.”  But Jesus saw the trap, and he was not going to fall for it.  So he asked a question of his own.  “Whose image is on the coin?”  Caesars.  

You know, of course, that graven images are idolotry to Jews, so to use such coinage was a bitter pill for them.  You should also know that these coins were important to Caesar.  They were his sign of kingship.  AND, by putting his image on the coin, Caesar was claiming ownership of all his coinage.  By law, it all belonged to him.

Jesus takes all this information and wraps it up neatly into one small statement.  “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  His opponents left, confounded.

Actually, this statement still confounds people.  For example, it raises the question:  “What belongs to God?”  or “What belongs to Caesar / the state / my community?”  In other words, how do I divide up my duties?

In a sense, it’s easy.  What belongs to God is everything.  Nothing exists without God, and nothing can survive without God.  Simple.

Or not.  Because Jesus reminds us that we do not live in a vacuum.  We are not loners.  We are meant to work together, and that means combining our resources to create community.  Back in the 50s, famed biblical scholar William Barclay wrote, “Failure in citizenship is also a failure in Christian duty. … The Christian has a duty to Caesar in return for the priveleges which the rule of Caesar brings to him.”

He talks about roads, schools, police, sewage (I was going to say plumbing but that’s pushing Joe too far).

So the simple point is that we are part of a community -- we are not lone rangers.  Paying our taxes is part of being in the very community that our faith values.  Those who grouse about taxes -- about it being “My Money that THEY are taking from me” are not listening to Jesus.  He says, pay the taxes to be an active participant in your community.  If you’re a citizen, then act like it.

But, he adds, remember your ultimate citizenship.  While the coins may belong to Caesar, and while you belong to an earthly community, in the end, your heart belongs to God.  Joe the Plumber will disappear from the news next week, but the constant struggle over what we owe God goes on.  Jesus doesn’t answer but he trusts us to know.  What we owe to God is our very selves.  Amen.