Knowing and Living Your Allegiances
By Clara D. Thompson
When I was a child growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we said the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag each and every morning at school, our prayers to God each and every night at home before we went to bed, and it was expected in my family that part of our weekly allowance would go into the Sunday School offering at the First Presbyterian Church. My parents instilled in my brother and sister and me that one financially supported one’s colleges and universities until death do us part, and that one ALWAYS voted at each and every election. These things were taught not only by my parents’ words, but by their actions. My mother always came in to say my prayers with me before I went to sleep at night; they themselves were generous in their financial contributions to their church and their colleges; and I have a vivid memory of my parents, having studied and discussed the issues of the day, regularly walking down the street to Burns Park Elementary School in order to cast their votes. Country, church, and education were high priorities for my parents. They knew where their allegiances lay, and they wanted their children to know it too. I have real concern for people and societies which do not know where their allegiances are, or don’t have any and their ”convictions” blow with the wind.
Our New Testament reading this morning is about allegiances. Allegiances to one’s country, and allegiances to God. The Pharisees and the Herodians had come to Jesus with the intent of trying to trick him. Remember that Jesus was a threat to the religious and political powers of his day, and in today’s Gospel reading it’s the Pharisees and Herodians who are feeling threatened. First they try to flatter Jesus, perhaps trying to weaken him before going for the jugular: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God with truth … etc., etc., etc.” The Pharisees and Herodians try to feed Jesus’ ego before they throw him the curve ball: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor not?” (Mt 22:17) It was a trick question, for if Jesus approved of the tax it would be offensive to the Jewish nationalists, yet to disapprove would be treasonous. Those who posed the question to Jesus had him in a corner, or at least they thought they did. But Jesus was smarter than they thought. Sizing up the situation and knowing that they were out to trap him, Jesus answered their question both skillfully and theologically. “Show me the coin used for the tax.” “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They rightly answered that it was the emperor’s head, Caesar’s. Jesus responded to them: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21).
Jesus is making the clear point that one does indeed have a duty to one’s state or one’s country, and citizenship is highly important, but he also reminds them that one has a duty to one’s God as well. There was never any doubt in Jesus’ mind that God was ultimately supreme, even in the realm which the emperor was permitted to have, but one did owe a certain allegiance to the state as well. Jesus is telling the Pharisees and the Herodians that one really holds a dual citizenship. Those of us who are followers of Christ certainly are citizens of our individual nations or countries, but we are also citizens of the kingdom of God. And if those should come into conflict, Jesus would very certainly come down on the side of following one’s allegiances to God as of primary importance.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have to know where we stand! And perhaps, especially, in this time in our history as we in the United States are just a couple of weeks away from a national election that will have far reaching effects on our country and potentially the world at large, each of us needs to grapple with the issues. And we may not agree, and that’s okay! Clearly we are not all going to hold the same allegiances, within a nation, within a state, within a community, within a church, even within a family. We will have differing opinions. This year it has been excruciatingly evident, both in Wisconsin and in our country, that we don’t all agree on some very important matters. We are not all of one mind on every issue. My concern though, my real concern, is for the people who don’t seem to stand for anything, who don’t seem to have a solid underlying base upon which to reach the conclusions they arrive at, either privately or publicly. Neither their verbage nor the way they lead their lives seems to speak of anything important beyond themselves.
We who claim to be Christians are members of the body of Christ. If our faith in the saving love of God as it has been revealed to us through Jesus Christ isn’t making a difference in our lives; if our faith isn’t making a difference in the way we think about things, isn’t making a difference in the critical decisions we face in our lives each day, isn’t making a difference in the voting booth, then we’d better take a serious look at ourselves and our faith. The allegiances we hold, including our allegiances to our Creator God, ought to be evident to those around us!
There is an old story of an IRS agent who pulled out a file from a taxpayer who earned $40,000 a year and claimed he gave his church $4,992 the year before, well in excess of a tithe. The agent decided to investigate so he went to the man’s house.
The IRS agent asked the man about the contribution, assuming he would get a very nervous response. Without batting an eyelash the man said he did, in fact, give $4,992 of his $40,000 income to the church the previous year. The skeptical IRS agent then asked to see the cancelled checks. The man reached into the drawer where he kept them and showed them to the agent, who then apologized for bothering him, but explained that he needed to check any deductions that seemed too high.
As the agent was about to leave, the man invited the agent to church the next Sunday. The agent replied, “Thank you, but I already belong to a church.’ The taxpayer responded, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. It never occurred to me that you were.’ The IRS agent wondered what the generous taxpayer meant by that, until the next Sunday when he reached for his own offering envelope as the plate was being passed in church.
Now that story clearly has a stewardship message in it as well, but my purpose in telling the story this morning is that our allegiances should be evident to the people around us. We ought to stand for something, believe in something, be passionate about something beyond our own little worlds, and those around us should be able to tell what it is! The IRS agent was a member of the church, but the way he lived his life, at least in this particular instance, gave little evidence of that.
You and I are not necessarily going to have the same allegiances, the same priorities, though I suspect and hope that we have some in common. I certainly hope that we share an allegiance to the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, but our other allegiances may vary, and even the way we interpret our allegiance to God may vary. Though concerned parents do try to pass along their values and allegiances, there is no guarantee that the children will accept them hook, line, and sinker. But for me, the fact that my parents HAD convictions, HAD priorities in life, HAD allegiances which they held on to, is far more important than what their particular allegiances were. The fact that their words matched their lifestyle, the fact that what they believed to be important was lived out in their daily lives, the fact that they felt strongly enough about it all to pass it on to their children, that’s what is important.
As with so much of Jesus’ teachings, Jesus is not giving us a concrete rule to live by this morning, but instead he gives us, as Richard A. Floyd, a Presbyterian Pastor in Atlanta, GA, puts it, “a vision that reconfigures our loyalties.” Ultimately, it is up to each of us to sort out what our loyalties or allegiances mean in the many decisions we face in our lives. As Rev. Floyd puts it, Jesus “leaves us with a difficult task, the task of sorting out our loyalties, of discerning how to make our duty to the emperor (or we might say our duty to our country) an expression of our duty to God.” It’s not going to be like our junior high math books used to be with the answers in the back of the book. We have to figure it out, each of us, for ourselves. Let us do so with God’s help. And then, in the name of God, let us have the courage to let our life show it. Amen.