By Bishop Ken Carter
Over the next two Sundays, the gospel passages in the Common Lectionary are Matthew 22:15-22 and Matthew 22:34-46. The first passage is the question of Jesus about paying taxes to the emperor. The second passage is the question of Jesus about the greatest commandment in the law. In between is a question about who will be married to whom, in the event of multiple marriages, in the life to come. This fall I have hosted an online Bible Study each Wednesday Night, for people across the Florida Conference and beyond. We have been blessed with hundreds of participants each meeting and thousands of viewers. I have been in two conversations about these gospel passages, with Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli of Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C., and Dean Greg Jones of Duke Divinity School.
In preparation for these conversations, and as I have studied these two teachings of Jesus, I have become convicted that the passages need to speak to each other. It is not accidental that Matthew places them in proximity to each other. What if our learning, in an election year, is that we are called to integrate our spiritual and civic lives, to love God, to love our neighbor and to render to Caesar as disciples of Jesus?
What would this look like?
First, it might mean that disciples of Jesus participate in political processes seeking to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). We do the work of Jesus in the way of Jesus. And we vote for policies that help us to take steps toward the kingdom of heaven on earth, for which we pray each week in the prayer Jesus taught us (Matthew 6), and about which we shall be accountable in the last judgment (Matthew 25).
Second, we do not show partiality or favoritism (Matthew 22:16). This is why the democratic process is so important. It values each person’s dignity and understands that all are created in God’s image (Genesis 1). John Wesley, therefore, supported those processes in which as many as possible were involved for the common good of all. For this reason, United Methodist Bishops in the United States have called for a renewed access to the voting rights for all in free and fair elections, and for the orderly transition of power. Our Antiracism Task Force has also provided resources that communicate the importance of access to the vote.
Third, we see each other as neighbors and not as political enemies. We are increasingly aware of the polarizing intent of social media platforms for economic gain, inciting fear, anxiety and violence. We are also aware of the danger of misinformation. Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, a United Methodist, has provided this resource that can help us navigate the truthfulness of the media that we consume. We are disciples of one Lord, Jesus Christ and citizens of one nation, the United States of America.
Fourth, we are living in the midst of multiple pandemics—COVID-19, in which more than 15,000 souls have died in Florida; the public experience of several murders of black persons and the rise of white supremacy; the economic dislocation of many, especially in industries that are important to Florida’s way of life; and emerging mental health challenges (Anti-Racism Task Force and Clergy Care Initiative).
How do we respond?
We love God. We love God as we study the scriptures, offer praise to God, confess our sins, return thanks for our blessings, and walk humbly.
We love our neighbor. We cannot love God whom we have never seen if we do not love our neighbor whom we have seen (I John 4). Love of neighbor is sharing out of our sufficiency with those who have less. Love of neighbor is allowing the other person to tell the story of their own suffering and trauma. Love of neighbor means pursuing justice, as persons are harmed by systems and structures.
Love of God and neighbor is the very definition of personal and social holiness for a United Methodist. John Wesley stated this clearly in "A Plain Account of Christian Perfection."
Lastly, we render to Caesar. We are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3), but we live now upon this earth. The incarnation (John 1) was God’s way of saying that what happens on earth is important. The question of Jesus about the coin (Matthew 22. 15) was of course a trap, and we are sometimes caught in traps. Had Jesus said “pay the tax”, he would have offended the zealots. Had he said, “do not pay the tax”, he would have offended the empire. He asked a question: “whose face is on the coin?” There is place for participation in civic life, but this is within the larger purposes of allegiance to God.
I invite you to read Matthew 22, verses 15-22 and 34-40 with me. When we listen to Jesus, we see our neighbor not as a political enemy, but as a fellow citizen of the kingdom of heaven. I hope all United Methodists in Florida will vote in the elections, and that all United Methodists will strengthen the democratic processes that help all to flourish on this peninsula. And I hope we do all of this as an expression of our love for God and our neighbor. My hope is that we will become more like Jesus Christ, and that our state and our nation will reflect more of the kingdom of heaven.
Love God, love your neighbor, render to Caesar.
Will you join me in this holy work of discipleship?