This morning as I walked to work, I stepped over a chalk drawing on the sidewalk of Oakland’s Chinatown district. “Currency causes chaos.” it said. “Tax the rich!”
And I was reminded that Wall Street is currently being occupied. By… someone. Of course, anyone who has ever been to Oakland knows it is a long way from Wall Street. But this chalk drawing is here because the occupation is spreading.
Someone is occupying Oakland, California, too. Along with almost every other moderately sized city across the country.
“Is this lawful,” we are asking, “for us to pay these taxes?”
“Is it fair?”
And the lectionary text from a few weeks ago is scathingly relevant, and I spend my lunch break sitting on that same chalked (and apparently occupied) sidewalk reading about the pharisees coming to Jesus to ask that very same question: “Should we pay these taxes?”
They think they have created for Jesus a catch 22 which will at last reveal his mortal weakness of inconsistency.
“Is this fair?”
The pharisees asked Jesus. I wonder, to whom are we asking these questions? What answer are we hoping to hear? What trap are we laying with our language and our anger and our action?
And I hear Jesus’ answer as though it is spoken straight to me: “Show me the coin used for the tax.”
What should I bring? My most recently filed 1040 form? A $5 bill? The daily stock market report? A plastic Visa card? A series of digitized 1s and 0s?
More than ever, his request highlights the nonsense of it all. What is this thing money that exists enough to cause a man to set himself on fire for the injustice of it, yet it exists not enough to be presented in its true physical form?
I can see his look of disappointment… That I have chosen to trap him with this – with symbols and images, with the myth of power.
“Whose image is this?” He asks. And all I can think is: “Not yours.”
Why am I giving power to an image that is not my Lord’s? Why am I worshipping it? Saving it? Holding it? Desiring it? Protecting it? Believing in it?
“Give to Cesar what is Cesar’s, and give to God what is God’s,” says Jesus.
Let the empire occupy itself.
I think of Joshua saying Chose for yourselves who you serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. We will give to God what is God’s.
I sit on this sidewalk and begin listing those things in my life that belong to God: my self, my time, my life, my energy, my thanks, my praise, my love, my hope, my commitment.
And I realize there is little left for Cesar.
I get up and vacate the sidewalk. Someone else will come along soon to occupy this space. And they can choose for themselves who they serve. But as for me…
My friends, here is what I’m taking away from this Gospel story:
Religion is not for systematizing.
Religion is for meaning-making, for understanding, for relationship.
It is not for production, or profit, or protocol.
It is for transformation, for undoing, for rebuilding.
Religion is not a weapon but a salve
to heal the wounds of confusion and greed.
Give to the empire what is of the empire,
but as for those of us who serve the King,
we are otherwise occupied.