Belonging to God – Br. James Koester
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Peter 3: 11-18
Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17
Mark 12: 13-17
It was the spring of 1976 and Canada was in the throes of a federal election campaign. I had just turned 18 the summer before so this was the first time I would be able to vote. I decided I wanted to see an election from the inside, and to cover my bases I worked for three different candidates, from three different political parties. I worked for a Liberal Member of Parliament from Toronto, stuffing envelopes in his office on Parliament Hill. I went leafleting door to door for the New Democratic candidate running in the constituency where I lived in Ottawa and I did office work for a Progressive Conservative candidate in another Ottawa riding. One evening I attended an all candidates meeting in my guise as a Progressive Conservative party worker. That riding was clearly an important one for the two main parties to win as the Conservatives had put up a well known candidate hoping she would be able to take the riding from the governing Liberals. The Liberals wanted to keep the riding, so they sent the Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, to the all candidates meeting. Between them, the New Democrats didn’t have a chance. At the end of the evening, the moderator asked for one last question. I was standing at the back of the room and my hand shot up. I had a question for the Prime Minister and I wanted to ask it. Amazingly the moderator pointed to me and I got to ask my question.
To this day, I remember the question and while I don’t remember the Prime Minister’s answer, I do remember how skillfully he answered it. To let you in on a secret, I was not a supporter of the Prime Minister and I had wanted to set a trap for him with my question. (Now why I thought an 18 year old, and especially this 18 year old, could trap the Prime Minister, and especially that Prime Minister is a whole other topic!) In his answer the Prime Minister walked right through my trap like one of us walking through a spider’s wed. My hunch is he didn’t even know it was a trap and thought it as yet another soft question.
Like that 18 year old back then trying to trap the Prime Minister, people were always trying to trap Jesus with their questions and more importantly with their answers. Today’s gospel is one such occasion. The Pharisees and Herodians team up against Jesus and try to trap him with their question and hopefully with his answer.
Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?1
But Jesus walks through this trap like one of us walking through a spider’s web. He may not even have known it was a trap but instead laid one himself. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”2
The beauty of his answer is that it is perfectly innocuous. Or is it?
It should be noted that the Herodians and the Pharisees were not big fans of one another. Yet they are united in their opposition to Jesus. The Pharisees were careful keepers of the Law and the Herodians, by the fact that they supported Herod’s collaboration with the Romans were not observant in their keeping of the Law. Yet here, as elsewhere in the Gospels, they unite in a common cause, to trap Jesus with their question and his answer.
Neither the Herodians, nor the Pharisees would have found offence in Jesus’ answer. At least until they were half way home. On the one hand Jesus appears to support the legitimacy of the Roman occupation while on the other hand he affirms the sovereignty of God. Thus the trap set, springs not on Jesus, but on those who put him to the test, and especially the Herodians. For those who heard the answer, like Jesus, would have known that “[t]he earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and all who dwell therein. For it is he who founded it upon the seas and made it firm upon the rivers of the deep.”3
The underlying question which was asked of Jesus was nothing less than “to whom do we belong?” This question was perhaps uppermost in the minds of the Jewish residents of Palestine, a country brutally occupied by imperial Rome. To whom did they belong; the Roman Emperor or the God of Israel? To many the answer was clear, but the reality was otherwise. The Temple, the observance of the Law, the daily rituals showed one thing, but the presence of an occupying army, even the coin of the land showed otherwise. It was clear to whom they appeared to belong, yet whispering in the back of their minds like a vivid memory was another answer: “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein.”
I don’t know about you, but this is a question I reflect on a great deal in one way or another: to whom do I belong? Where do I belong? What does it mean to belong? Whose am I? This in a sense was the question posed to Jesus and his answer, ‘though ambiguous, was clear. We may have responsibilities to Caesar, but we belong to God.
Having responsibilities is one thing. Belonging is quite different. Responsibilities are about obligations. Belonging is about love. Responsibilities are about commitments. Belonging is about identity. We all have obligations and commitments but we also have an identity shaped by love. It seems to me that Jesus was reminding his audience that we all have commitments and obligations as citizens, but our identity as persons is shaped by God’s love for us and that can only be found in union with God.
One of the great struggles of contemporary North America is the decay of community. We see it in our inner cities, and we see it in our suburban neighbourhoods. People have stopped taking responsibility for one another because we no longer know each other. We no longer belong to one another. We no longer live in communion with one another.
And yet as our Rule of Life reminds us:
[o]ur human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love. The mystery of God as Trinity is one that only those living in personal communion can understand by experience. Through our common life we can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctness as persons. Through prayer we can see that this flows from the triune life of God.4
The Herodians and the Pharisees set out to trap Jesus with their question about taxation, just as I had tried to set a trap for the Prime Minister with my question that night of the all candidates meeting. But what Jesus revealed in his answer was not a defence about paying tax or a reflection on responsibilities and obligations, but a reminder that we all belong to God and that it is our union and communion with God where we find our true identity as persons.
As a monastic community we believe that our identity as persons made in the image and likeness of God lies at the very heart of our personhood and identity. That we are loved by God and belong to God is what makes us who and what we are, not if and where we pay taxes or hold positions of responsibility or have certain commitments. What we hold up for others is that same vision for:
[o]ur life as a community should also be a sign to the Church to rise up to its true calling as a communion of the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ and the company of Christ’s friends. We are not called to be a separate elite, but to exemplify the life of the Body of Christ in which every member has a particular gift of the Spirit for ministry and shares an equal dignity. Fr. Benson taught that “there are special gifts of God indeed to the Society, but only as it is a society within the Church. The small body is to realize and intensify the gifts, to realize the energies, belonging to the whole Church.”5
In a funny way that is the gift that Jesus gave to us when he reminded us to give to God the things that are God’s. In so doing he reminded us that we too belong to God and in God we live and move and have our being and it is there where we find our true identity as persons loved and made by God.
Now just to finish my story: in case you are ever thinking about running for public office, don’t bother asking me for help. Each of those candidates I worked for back in 1976 and all the ones I worked for subsequently lost their elections. In fact, and it is safe to say this here as I have never voted in an American election, only once in my entire voting life have I ever voted for someone who actually won the election. You don’t want my help, because it’s no help at all.
1 Mark 12: 14, 15
2 Mark 12: 17
3 Psalm 24: 1,2
4 SSJE Rule of Life: The Witness of Life in Community
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Regarding quote : “One of the great struggles of contemporary North America is the decay of community. We see it in our inner cities, and we see it in our suburban neighbourhoods. People have stopped taking responsibility for one another because we no longer know each other. We no longer belong to one another. We no longer live in communion with one another.”
Thank you for pointing out this obvious phenomenon but this is deliberate, perhaps. The reason behind the above phenomenon is : heterogeneity. Heterogeneity is forced upon some peoples. Diversity of good things is appreciated but a diversity of non-good things is deliberately permitted by some misguided folk perhaps. Diversity of wrongs is something that adherents of the Abrahamic faith ought to oppose. Diversity of that which is beautiful and fair ought to be supported.
Thank you my brother!
To be a member of a community is not a simple thing. Can one be kind of a member or must we accept the entire doctrine of the community? What is life on the margin of a community? As we look at our world notice the people who struggle to find where and to what they belong. For communities to allow room for variation without losing their own identity presents difficult and the need for careful deliberations by all involved
I lived in Port Credit, Ont in the late fifties, the Anglican Church led me to Christ and now today another Canadien is enriching my Christian life. Another “hands across the border” growth in Christ……Thank you, Br. James!
In your last paragraph you said, “You don’t want my help, because it’s no help at all.” That may be if I were a politician, but as a human being and follower of Christ, you’ve been a great help to me this morning. Thanks!
I endorse Peter’s comment. Br. James words are very timely – at our cathedral the Dean’s name is one among others who are being considered in an upcoming election to be chosen as a Bishop. The Dean has been here nearly six years, and her influence has been significant. This is a difficult decision for her: to let her name stand or not.
It comes down to this sermon: ‘what is it that God wants of her.’ Difficult when we are given free will. C
Mary will be leaving us this month and will become the Bishop in a Montreal diocese. C
This is a good time of year to think about identity as many people finish a school semester and worldly obligations to take a summer’s break or “vacation” from some required routines. What is a “vacation”? A break from requirements so that we have some extra time to find ourselves, our “true” selves in relation to God, and our eternal relationship in the Kingdom of God, our relationship with others, an opportunity to do some service work, to connect with the needs of those who have less, those who have problems in areas with which we are unfamiliar, time to read a sIgnificant book, time to do some sorting out of physical accoutrements as well as cobwebs in our heads, time to enjoy natural beauty of God’s creation, time to make needed changes in life-style, time for emotional intimacy in family relationships as good building blocks for the future, etc. The gift of time is an important opportunity.
James Koester was a classmate of mine at Trinity College, University of Toronto. I have been enjoying his and others “Words” since a friend led me to this website.