For our conversation citizenship is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself. (Phil. iii. 21,22)
Perhaps the hardest challenge that Christians face in the postmodern world is that of disentanglement. Disentanglement means prying or freeing oneself from the world in order to serve God. The problem is as old as the Gospel itself, and it is not made any easier by Jesus himself who, prior to His Ascension, prays to the Father: I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. (St. John xvii. 15) Here, Jesus looks as though he is strongly affirming the world in this passage. Jesus has no intention of carrying His friends with Him at that time, literally and physically, to Heaven. Had that been his plan, there would have been no evangelization of the nations. Rather he prays that they may be disentangled from the world so that they might carry Heavenly redemption into it. Disentanglement is a quality of soul that enables the Christian to be in the world but not of the world. So St. Paul says, in our opening quotation, that our citizenship or conversation ought to be in heaven. (Ibid)
And I don’t mean to suggest that disentanglement is easy. To the mind of ancient man the problem came down to this: How can I live in this world and be happy, knowing that only God is happy? Putting this another way, they asked: how can spirit and matter, or even heaven and earth coexist in an ordered way? To the ancient mind, God was the source of human existence yet did not share anything with man. And we know that the tension between the two dimensions bothered St. Paul. In our opening passage he makes it clear that he will be all too happy to greet the day when he gets rid of his pestiferous and lowly body, so that he can put on a glorious body that will be immune to sin and reconciled or one with God. St Paul is struggling to explain that new relationship between earthly and heavenly as revealed in Christ. In fact, human life, redeemed or not, does seem to require the unhappy and difficult co-existence of the spiritual and the natural, the heavenly and the earthly.
The problem of disentanglement is nicely illustrated in this morning’s Gospel reading. We read that, Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle Jesus in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians….(St. Matthew xxii 15, 16) The Pharisees were the keepers of God’s Law, and yet as a religious sect of Jews were also always a political force uncomfortably positioned under the foreign and alien rule of the Roman Empire. Their service to God was everywhere monitored by Caesar’s threatening eye. And if this entanglement wasn’t bad enough, they decided to join forces with their enemies the Herodians in order to attack Jesus. The Herodians were the servants and soldiers of Herod, who was himself a creature of entanglement. The Herods’ blood had been polluted through intermarriage to pagans. To the Pharisees, the Herods were not full Jews spiritually since through their acquiescence and submission the Romans ruled the Jewish nation. So two political forces came, together to tempt and provoke Jesus –to entangle him His talk. (Ibid)
Here is what they say: Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not? (Ibid, 16, 17) The Pharisees saw human life only in terms of either/or and not both/and. They thought within themselves that if Jesus answered that it was lawful to give tribute to Caesar, His fellow Jews would consider Him a traitor to the nation of Israel. On the other hand, should He say it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the Roman occupiers and their Herodian supporters would judge him to be a potentially subversive insurrectionist or a revolutionary. So they were determined to entangle Jesus in an unsolveable dilemma.
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? (Ibid, 18) The Herodians were known to have been rather cynically disposed towards the truth, and the Pharisees claimed that they already possessed it. Their real motivation was envy and invidiousness. Jesus’ manner and message threatened their respective power-bases. He says: Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. (Ibid, 19) Christ knows always exactly what He is doing. And this instance is no exception. If you wish to speak about taxes and tribute to Tiberius Caesar, let us examine the matter closely, lest we make a mistake in so important a matter. [So] he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Cæsar’s. (Ibid, 20) Christ wishes to disentangle Caesar from the plotting of the Pharisees and Herodians. The image on the coin is that of Tiberius Caesar, the ruler of the, then, civilized world. The coinage, minted in silver and gold, was used for, among other things, paying taxes. The image of Caesar was the image or symbol of Roman authority and governance. Then saith Christ unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Ibid, 21) Jesus helps the Herodians and Pharisees to distentangle the two worlds so that they can honor and respect both. Since Caesar is your earthly king whose armies protect your borders, keep the peace, and enable you to live in safety, pay your taxes. It is a small price to pay for the freedom from external and visible threats to your bodily existence. And besides, if you render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (Ibid) no more, and no less, you will be better enabled to render unto God the things that are God’s. And this kind of disentanglement is really what alone will generate a good and holy life.
Rendering unto God the things that are God’s really sums up the life and mission of Jesus Christ and all who would follow Him. The problem with the Herodians and the Pharisees is that they are consumed with the things that are Caesar’s even though both think that they have found a way to overcome it. What I mean to say is that both groups are obsessed with Caesar, this world, earthly life, politics, and even economics. The Herodians are obsessed with serving Caesar through Herod, and have staked their lives and destinies on the good things that can come out of it all. But the Pharisees are equally obsessed with Caesar, in a negative way. They resent the Roman occupation, and look for deliverance from foreign occupation. They do not recognize their Saviour because their idea of the one who should save and deliver them looks more like Caesar than God. In other words, their Messiah will be all too human. Both sides are so rooted and grounded in this life, in the human nature that Caesar personifies and symbolizes, that they haven’t the slightest perception of God’s presence when it is standing right in front of them in the Person of Jesus Christ. They are so entangled with each other and with Caesar that they have no idea of how to render unto God the things that are God’s.
So disentangling what is God’s from what is Caesar’s is essential to the way that Jesus brings to all men. Knowing God must be man’s end. Of course, in truth, everything is God’s, including Caesar. But if what is Caesar’s is separated from God’s will and way, it will only and ever be the means to earthly goods and worldly happiness. Caesar’s life and rule come and go like governments. And Christ isn’t much interested in that precisely because he wants to teach us how to render unto God the things that are God’s.
So rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s is only possible when we know that God is the providential ruler of all things. You see Caesar is only on the throne because God placed him there, just as we are only here today because of God’s providential love. For our citizenship [or conversation] is in heaven. (Phil. iii. 20) And what this means is that we are called to give our true selves, our souls and bodies, over to God each and every day for sanctification and redemption. If we would follow Jesus, we would be far more concerned with the things that belong to God, namely our eternal destiny and salvation. With St. Paul we would learn to have our conversation…in heaven; from whence we learn to look for the Saviour (Phil. iii. 20). We would be vigilant and acutely aware of the dangers associated with the commerce of false gods. With St. Paul we would be wary of me with ungodly ways, who are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things. (Phil. iii. 18) And he has in mind those who have rendered [too much] unto Caesar and this world, and not enough unto God and the other. Rather than disentangling themselves from this world in order to pursue their salvation, they have relapsed into worldly and natural entanglements, and so are moved more by this world than the desire for God and His kingdom.
But we, with Caesar, are stamped with the image and likeness of Christ. In the end we must disentangle what is Caesar’s from what is God’s, but only for the sake of clarity. What this means is that the one must serve the other. That Caesar neither knew nor served the one true, living God is not important. For our purposes, life in the earthly city is meant to serve the pursuit of God’s kingdom. This means that our earthly lives can and will be sanctified and redeemed if we put first things first, God before Caesar, heaven before earth, the soul before the body, and heavenly treasure before mammon. Christ calls us to redemption that leads to salvation. Christ invites us into that Love which will redeem and save both the body and the soul. His intention is nicely summarized in a portion of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Four Quartetets:
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
…In my end is my beginning.