Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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Living With Multiple Loyalties

Matthew 22:15-22

 I’m very glad that this little encounter from Jesus’ life found its way into the Gospels.  It’s reassuring to me that Jesus had to struggle with the same situations that we do in our lives.  In this case the situation is:  How do we honor God in the midst of a world that is filled with multiple loyalties?

 We all have multiple loyalties in our lives.  We want to be loyal to God.  But we also want to be loyal to our families.  We want to be loyal to the state, the nation.  We want to be loyal to our workplace.  We want to be loyal to organizations that we belong to, things like the Masons and the Elks and the Sierra Club and the Boy Scouts and so on.  How do we live with multiple loyalties?

 The day I began working on this sermon, I got an email from the Communications Office of the United Methodist Church.  I get those quite frequently, maybe a little too frequently.  And often it’s an invitation to take part in a survey about a current affairs situation.  I decided to do the survey because it was about a subject in which I disagree with some of our United Methodist Social Principles as found in the Book of Discipline.  Probably no one will pay attention, but I felt better saying that I disagreed on the matter.

 There was a question on the survey that read, “When United Methodist Discipline and United States Law are in conflict, which has priority?”  That was a hard question for me.  It would have been easier if it had said Scripture instead of either Discipline.  I’m proud to be an American and I’m proud to be a United Methodist.  But which one am I more loyal to?  It made me realize that not only is there a competing loyalty between being a Christian and being an American, sometimes, there’s also a competing loyalty being a Christian and being a United Methodist.  

 So we all live with these multiple loyalties:  faith, family, country, work, etc.  How do we honor God in the midst of all that?  Let’s look at how Jesus handled one such situation.

 Our Scripture lesson this morning is part of what I would call the Temple Controversies.  For several chapters in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is in the Jerusalem Temple, just a few days before his crucifixion.  And the religious leaders of the nation are challenging him in several different ways and trying to trap him in his words.  They’ve already failed a few times, so now they try to trap him with a question about loyalties.  

 It comes from the Pharisees and the Herodians, the supporters of Herod, together.  Well, a common enemy makes for strange bedfellows because the Pharisees and the Herodians did not get along with each other on the subject of Rome.  

 The Pharisees, like most Jews, deeply resented the rule of the foreign, pagan Roman Empire over Judea.  They viewed it as an affront to God for them, the people of God, to be ruled by pagans.  Many Jews said, “There is no king but God.”  Now the Pharisees did not go as far as some other Jews who regularly used violence, but they did resist any semblance of Roman authority over them.

 The Herodians, on the other hand, believed in accommodation.  They believed in “getting along to get along.”  They were mostly made up of the aristocracy, the wealthy, noble families.  And they wanted a return to local autonomy.  At the time of Jesus’ birth, Judea was ruled by the Herod family.  But Rome had stepped in and taken direct control of Judea after the death of Herod the Great because his son was incompetent.  The Herodians figured if they played nice, then maybe Rome would back off and allow local rule again.  

 Both groups found something to hate in Jesus.  The Pharisees, of course, did not like Jesus because he didn’t follow their ideas about personal holiness.  And he challenged their authority and their teachings.  The Herodians didn’t like Jesus because he was a Messianic figure.  And messiahs had a tendency to stir people up and cause trouble.  And the Herodians wanted everything nice and quiet.

 So they both come to Jesus with a trap.  They begin with flattery:  “Oh, Jesus, you’re so wise and so honest.  You speak the truth no matter what.  You are hot influenced by people.”  The flattery was meant to force Jesus to answer their question lest he be seen to be influenced by people.  “Is it right to pay taxes to Rome or not?”

 The issue had to do with a certain Roman tax.  The Romans collected three taxes from most individuals.  The first was an income tax:  1% of everything one earned.  The second was a ground tax.  A ground tax was a certain percentage of the crops grown on one’s land, and it varied from crop to crop.  The third was the poll tax or head tax or per capita tax we would call it today.

 That one was the issue.  The head tax was one denarius per year from every adult.  And it had to be paid with the Roman silver denarius.  The Jews in Judea were allowed to mint their own copper coins, but only Rome was allowed to mint gold or silver.  And

all Roman coins were imprinted with the image of the emperor and the title of the emperor, which contained a description saying that the emperor was divine, a son of the gods.  

 You see, the Roman Empire had an official “cult of emperor worship.”  The idea was to unite the Empire by requiring everyone to worship the emperor, in addition to their own gods.  And that presented a major difficulty for Jews and later for Christians.  It was idolatry.  And that coin, which they were required to have, was an emblem of idolatry.  

 Is it right to pay or not?  They wanted a yes or no answer from Jesus because either yes or no would get him in trouble.  No would get him in trouble with the Roman authorities.  Yes would get him in trouble with the people at large.

 Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”  In other words, Jesus was answering “yes.”  Rome was to be recognized as their overlords.  Rome would not have been in that position if God had not allowed it.  And so they were to be responsible citizens.  They were to pay their taxes.  They did, after all, derive a certain number of benefits from being part of the Empire.  

 But Jesus also said, “Give to God what is God’s.”  Well, what belongs to God?  The Psalms say, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”  Everything belongs to God.  Even that Roman coin belongs to God.  

 As we live with these multiple loyalties, we may be tempted to “divide our lives up.”  We may be tempted to say, “Well, I’ll be loyal to God over here, and I’ll be loyal to my family over here, and loyal to country over here.”  Maybe on Sunday we’ll be loyal to God and go to church.  But on Monday, when we’re asked to lie or cheat at work, we’ll be loyal to that because it’s not Sunday any more.  

 I don’t think that’s the right answer.  You’ll notice that I keep saying “multiple loyalities,” not “divided loyalties.”  We can’t have integrity if we compartmentalize our lives and try to separate what we do over here from over there.  For example, I’m very frustrated when I hear politicians who, when they are asked about their faith, say something like, “My faith is a personal matter.  It has no influence over my politics.”  If I can help it, I never vote for someone who says that.  To me that’s saying, “I don’t have integrity.  I do what works in each place, regardless of whether or not I think it’s right.”  

 Instead, what I think we ought to do is to place loyalty to God in a different and higher category than all our other loyalties.  After all, “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”  And then we should try to live out our loyalty to God in the midst of all our other loyalties.  As Christians, we should do our best to be good Christian citizens and good Christian husbands, wives, children, parents, and good Christian employees and a good Christian Elk or Moose or any other large quadruped. 

 I think the writings of Peter and Paul both affirm this in the New Testament.  In Romans 13 and in 1st Peter chapter 2, both of them affirm that Christians should be loyal subjects to the Empire since God ordains human authority.  Jesus affirmed the same thing in John chapter 19.  We should respect those in authority.  We should obey the law of the land.  And we should pay our taxes.  In short, we should be model citizens.

 But, we should also remember that loyalty to God is our first priority.  In Acts chapters 4 and 5, the disciples ran into trouble when the Sanhedrin, the High Council of Judea, ordered them to stop preaching and teaching about Christ.  And they responded, “We can’t.  We can’t be loyal to human authority above that of God.”  When loyalty to anything else conflicts with loyalty to God, we should choose loyalty to God.

 The hard part is knowing where the boundaries lie.  When should we reject our loyalty to our family, to our country, to our employer to be loyal to God?  That’s not always easy to know.  And we can’t sit here and exhaust every possibility.  We can’t say, when this happens, do this.  There are just too many possibilities.  

 Let’s say this though, God has given us a conscience, and God speaks to us through our conscience.  And when we pray, God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit.  And often God speaks to us through other believers.  So when we are wondering what the right choice is, we would be wise to listen to our conscience, to listen for God’s Spirit, and to listen to each other.  And when we believe we know God’s will, we should choose it over any other loyalty.

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