Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for October, 2011

An Unholy Empire

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

Caesars, emperors, pharaohs, oh my! Claims about earthly dominion and heavenly sovereignty undergird and perfuse the scriptures and the societies that emerged from them, deeply influencing us across time, including here, today.

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

Sounds easy doesn’t it? But does Jesus mean that his ancient hearers should have given all of their money or even just all of the coins with the imperial image to Caesar? And he can’t mean that we, his contemporary hearers, should give all of our money back to the government that minted and printed it, can he? But then again, doesn’t everything belong to God? Does Jesus mean that we should give all of our money to the Church? Or offer it up directly to God without the middlemen (or women) by setting it on fire as an old-fashioned, biblical-style offering? What does he mean, “Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God,” and how are we supposed to do that anyway?

Is Jesus talking about Tiberius Caesar, his Caesar in particular, or is he using Caesar generically to mean emperor? Remember Caesar was a family name of the Julii, whose infamous son Gaius Julius passed it down to his adopted son Octavian Augustus who passed it down to Tiberius, his stepson. Much later emperors like Nero and Hadrian who were not related to the Julii claimed the title for themselves and it ceased to be a family name by the time the gospels were being written down, so both senses could be at play here.

We just celebrated the feast day of Hawaii’s beloved sovereigns, Queen Emma and King Kamehameha IV. Monarchy is a tender subject for Hawaiians and a touchy subject for mainlanders and post-colonial peoples around the world. Yet the language of monarchy, which is human language, is used to describe God, the abode of God and God’s relationship to everyone and everything else in the world, in the bible. And in today’s gospel lesson there is an apparent conflict between a human monarch and God. The monarch in question is no mere king, he is an emperor – empire is monarchy on steroids, I’ll get back to that – and not just any emperor, but a Caesar, taking that whole empire thing to a completely new level.

Monarchy is the practice of recognizing some family lineages as legitimate rulers over other people. Historically monarchy has been tricky because not all of the would-be subjects accept the would-be monarchs as their rightful rulers. Monarchal claims and rejection of those claims have led to thousands of years of warfare on this planet, formation of new nations, republics and at least one last state admitted to the United States of America. It’s really only in the last century that warfare and monarchy have enjoyed some separation.

The question of what makes one family, tribe or lineage royal and entitled to rule others in their extended community is for many a theological question. For many royals and some of their subjects, God, the gods and/or the ancestors bestowed the right to rule on them, making rebellion against a monarch a religious crime, a sin, as well as a criminal, political, treasonous matter. Religion is a powerful motivating force and the intentional intersection between monarchy and religion in virtually every culture deliberately exploits this power.

From the perspective of ancient peoples including the Israelites, monarchy was just how the world works: everybody had kings and queens, on earth and in the heavens. If there were monarchs below there were surely monarchs above. From the Israelite perspective, as soon as there were enough people living together in one place to call a city or town, there were monarchs. Early in Genesis, the biblical writers list groups of kings at war with each other in the lands that Sarah and Abraham are supposed to cross and eventually settle. In the book of Judges a man named Avimelek, Abimelech, became the first monarch in Israel, ruling for three years, about a hundred and fifty years before Saul’s kingship. Later, when the Israelites ask God for a monarchy, it is because all the other nations have one and they want one too.

In one of the funniest passages of scripture, the prophet Samuel is beside himself that the people have asked for a human monarch. God has to calm him down and soothehis hurt feelings. So Israel got their own monarchy for a little while – in their glory days the nation wasn’t any bigger than New Jersey although they did have one of the great wonders of the ancient world, the temple in Jerusalem. And God partnered with the Israelite monarchs– some more than others, yet all of them were anointed by their prophets in the name of God, whether the bible calls them good or bad.

Israel’s little monarchy gave it a good run for as long as they could but they couldn’t compete against the big dogs: Empires, those monarchies on steroids. The difference between monarchies and empires can be summed up in one word: colonization. Monarchs rule their own people in their own land but empires rule peoples in other lands, frequently by destroying their monarchies.

Monarchies can be beloved and an immense source of pride to their own people as is the case here in Hawaii and elsewhere around the world. Monarchies can have complicated relationships with each other – who sits where at a royal weddings.

But empires gobble up monarchies, depose, execute or imprison anointed monarchs and sovereigns. Empires are voracious, devouring lands and peoples and their resources to fuel their engines of war for more and more conquest. Many ancient monarchies held slaves, but empires tended to fund their expansion on the backs of slaves, exporting them to new lands to build up outpost colonies and spread the dominion of the empire to new places over new peoples.

And so the Roman Empire had replaced what was left of Alexander the Great’s empire that was built on the bones of the Persian Empire that toppled the Babylonian Empire which destroyed the Israelite monarchy when it was thinking about becoming an empire like the Egyptian empire from which it had so recently – in global terms – escaped.

And Rabbi Jesus, Rav Yeshua, the son of a people that had not ruled their own land for nearly six hundred years says, Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

Jesus is beating the Pharisees at their own game, outdebating them. And he calls them hypocrites, the term for actors at the time. They are pretending to seek him and study God with him, but of course they have another agenda and he lets them know that he knows exactly what they are doing. Well, two can play that game. He will answer pretending that they are really confused about whether they ought to pay their taxes.

Rabbi, is it permitted to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

However unjust empires may be, and injustice is the bread and butter – or in biblical terms, the bread and salt – of empires, the power of the empire is real and lethal. Jesus’ death warrant was granted on the charge that he claimed to be a monarch, an emperor, a Caesar. Brutality is the stock and trade of empire which brooks no competition. Empires are lethal inventions. Yet empires are comprised of people and people can be redeemed. The work of redemption pitted Jesus against empire and with the people being ground underfoot – the 99% of his time and for the redemption of the purveyors of imperial power.

Jesus and his followers were very practical about government even as they were critical of its injustices; paying taxes was practical advice. And Jesus did not provoke the empire to lethal action until he was ready to die. They would have cut his ministry down in its prime if he had let them. For Jesus there was no competition between the imperial and religious worlds. He didn’t call for people to give all of their money to the temple and boycott the government. He saw a role in the world for both. And to the degree that there were injustices in both he preached against them all. And ultimately an unholy alliance between the empire and their supporters in the religious community took his life, not understanding that he was freely giving it.

We still have taxes in our world and we still ought to pay them. I’d be really concerned about a church or religion that says none of the citizens of a country or state should pay taxes to support that state or country in which they live. We still have empires, but they look quite a bit different from those in the time of Jesus. The Roman Empire that ruled Jesus fell to Germanic tribes in 476 CE. And the sun set on the last of the old-world traditional empires when Great Britain gave back the city of Hong Kong to the Chinese people in 1997. The title emperor no longer means what it once meant; the role of Japan’s Emperor Akihito is vastly different than that of Emperor Hirohito. And he’s not alone, the crowned heads of Europe are regularly trotted out for occasions of state, but they are only titular heads of state.

Earlier this morning, people on the mainland gathered to celebrate the life of another man who gave his life while another empire thought it was taking it from him. The national memorial honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dedicated today. Most know that he opposed the imperial forces of racism and segregation; some know that the night the was assassinated, murdered and martyred he was opposing economic imperial forces in partnership with the working poor. A few will know that he was killed after he began to speak out against the immorality of corporations in terms of racial and economic injustice. He called some banks and corporations by name and recommended that folk stop putting their money in the local segregated banks and stop buying some products. He called for the economic support of black banks and insurance companies. He called for an economic boycott on the 3rd of April 1968 of Coca-Cola, Sealtest Milk, Wonder Bread, Hart’s Bread; those companies are no longer segregated, but the price was blood. On the 4th of April, less than twenty-four hours later, he was dead. Empires are lethal, particularly when their financial interests are challenged.

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

So who’s running this world? Who are our Caesars? The protestors on Wall Street and in cities across the country including in Honolulu might say corporations and/or their boards and officers. Others might say that nations like the United States, China and India are competing to rule economic empires with commercial rather than military might. Sadly, even Jesus doesn’t envisage a world in which there are no more empires. But he does see the image of God stamped on the face and body of every human soul, just as the image of Tiberius Caesar was stamped on every coin he minted.

Give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God.

You are the image of God and you belong to God, lock, stock – stocks and bonds – and barrel. Amen. 

The All Saints Episcopal Church

Kapaa HI

16 October 2011


Torah on One Foot

While you’re still standing, if you’re willing and able, please stand on one foot and repeat after me: “What is hateful to me I will not do to another.” You may put your feet down. This is the law and the prophets. All the rest is commentary.

In the name of God who fathered our Redeemer Jesus Christ, Christ our Savior and the Blessed Holy Spirit. Amen.

The story goes that a certain gentile approached two of the famous rabbis teaching in and around Jerusalem in the first century. The person told the first rabbi, Rabbi Shammai, that he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot.

Torah is frequently translated as “law,” as in “the Law and the Prophets” and, law is torah but torah is more than law. The word torah comes from one of the words for rain. Torah is everything that God rains down or reveals from heaven. Sometimes torah is translated as teaching orrevelation. The first five books of the bible are called the Torah. The Torah contains law and story and poetry and song and genealogy and more. There is also torah in every part of the scripture and in each testament. I like to say that there is torah in the Torah and more than torahin the Torah and there is torah outside of the Torah. In the Jewish congregation to which I also belong my sermons are called d’vrei torah, words of Torah. And it’s not uncommon for someone to say to me after I have taught, “thank you for sharing your torah with us.”

Back to our story, when the would be convert told the rabbi that he would convert if he taught him the whole Torah while standing on one foot, he was asking to be taught the whole revelation of God, everything that God had revealed to humankind. And the second rabbi’s answer, Rabbi Hillel’s answer was, “What is hateful to me I will not do to another. All the rest is commentary.”

Some of you may recognize this as one formulation of the Golden Rule. There are many others:

Baha’i Faith

Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you,
and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.

– Baha’u’llah, Gleanings 

Buddhism

Treat not others in ways 
that you yourself would find hurtful
.

– The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5.18

Confucianism

One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct
. . .loving kindness. 
Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.

– Confucius, Analects 15.23

Hinduism

This is the sum of duty: 
do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you
.

– Mahabharata 5:1517

Islam

Not one of you truly believes 
until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.

– The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith

Jainism

One should treat all creatures in the world as
one would like to be treated.

– Mahavira, Sutrakritanga

Zoroastrianism

Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.

– Shayast-na-Shayast 13.29

 

This principle is the essence of good religion and is shared by religious and ethical communities around the world and across time. But all of our churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, ashrams, ethical and humanist societies are full of people. And people don’t always agree on religion and ethics. In fact, people are responsible for most of what’s wrong with religion, even and especially when they – we – blame it on God or our scriptures.

For some folk, rules and regulations dominate religion, for others, religion is all about relationship. And depending on your perspective, the Ten Commandments offer proof of one viewpoint or the other.

Let’s take a vote. How many say religion is about rules? How many say religion is about relationships? How many say religion is about rules and relationships? I voted all three times, because I think it’s all of the above and more than all of the above. Let’s see if we can get a little more clarity.

To make a definitive ruling I suggest we ask a Rabbi. Rebbe Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Rabbi Jesus, the son of Mary of Nazareth – you know, the one with the questionable parentage – is the authoritative Christian Rabbi. Not because he was ever Christian, he was not, and is not – he is for those who believe in his Resurrection, still alive and still Jewish. But he is one of the Rabbis to whom Christians turn for our Torah, arguably the preeminent Rabbi, although there are some who turn to Sha’ul L’Tarsus, Saul or Paul of Tarsus, I’m not one of them.

In order to consult Rabbi Jesus, I’m going to offer another Gospel lesson:

Mark 12:28 One of the torah-teachers, (biblical scholars or scribes) came near and heard Yeshua, Jesus, some Pharisees and some Sadducees interpreting the scripture and debating with one another, and seeing that Yeshua/Jesus answered them beautifully, the torah-teacher asked him, “Which commandment, is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Sovereign our God, the Sovereign is One. 30 And, you shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength/substance.’ 31 The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the torah-teacher said to him, “Beautiful, Rabbi! You have truly said that ‘God is One, and besides God there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Yeshua, Jesus, saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the reign of God.” After that no one dared to ask him another question.

The question focused on rules. Jesus offered them an alternative rabbinic opinion, focusing on relationships. In his answer, Jesus changed the rules by changing the Torah. Jesus modifies the “you-shall-love” commandment by adding a category for loving God with one’s mind, understanding or intellect that is not present in the original verse in the Torah. This makes sense in a world in which Greek philosophy is being articulated as the highest of intellectual pursuits. In that context it would be unreasonable to proclaim a religion that does not account for the intellectual capacities of human beings. I argue that today Jesus would add “You shall love the Holy One your God with all of your deoxyribonucleic acid, your DNA,” and perhaps even your quarks, avatars and social media personas.

You might not see “love” in the Ten Commandments as they are presented in the Church’s readings today. If you look closely, verses five and six are missing. That’s because God says in verse 5, “You shall not bow down to or worship idols; for I the Holy One your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.” That wasn’t considered very PC, so they cut it out. But God also says in verse 6, “I show steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Reflecting on the Ten Commandments and the question, “Is religion about rules or relationships?” The answer is neither “yes” nor “no;” rather the answer is a word that is behind the text, underneath the text and between the lines of the text, and that word is “love.” What is the most important commandment? Love! What kind of relationship should I have with God? Love! What kind of relationship should I have with my neighbors? Love! What about strangers? Love! What about my enemies? Love! What about me? Love! So this religion is about relationships. Yes, based on love. What about the rules? The rule is love!

Whether you’re a “half-empty” or “half-full” person when you see eight ounces of Dr. Pepper in a sixteen ounce glass, whether you believe the commandments, bible, God and religion are about rules or relationship, the answer is still love!

It is the love God that surrounds us in this and every place. It is the love of God that speaks to us through the scriptures and commandments and in our hearts. And it was love that conceived Christ Jesus in the Virgin’s womb, love that raised him to love Jew and Gentile, women and men, whole and broken, guilty and innocent. It was love that suffered, bled and died. And it was love that rose with the sun offering light and life to all in its embrace. And it is love that remains in the broken, hurting world, shining beyond the sin, grief, disease and death. Love.

In the name of the One who waded in the waters of Miryam’s womb, walked the way of suffering as one of the woman-born, and woke from the grasp of death in the deep darkness of the morning. Amen.

Christ Memorial Episcopal Church

Kilauea Kauai

2 October 2011