April 15th. Not everyone’s favorite day, right?
I am oblivious to things financial. I am not very good with money. A little mania and my wallet oepns and empties quickly – so many lovely shiny things to put in my shopping basket!
In my 28 married years, while I was the primary breadwinner, I was not the primary bill payer. Bill paid the bills, managed our budget, and did our taxes. And I was grateful. You start talking interest rates, IRAs and annuities, and I glaze over. My eyes roll back in my head.
Mind you, I was glad to pay the taxes. For the fire fighters, and the police, and teachers, and snow removal, and street repairs. Render to Caeasar whatever it is I owe. Just don’t make me acutally have to do the math.
But when my divorce became final in 2003, that division of labor ceased. So, what was I to do? Well, I am woman, of course. Hear me roar. I can figure this out. And isn’t that what Turbo Tax is for?
So, I would fill in the blanks that popped up on the screen. And I would fudge the answers to the questions that I did not know. And I would pay to Uncle Sam whatever Turbo Tax told me to pay.
Turns out, that due to the vagaries of the tax code, regarding clergy, I WAY, WAY over paid my taxes for at least five years. I had rendered unto Caesar, way more than the Internal Revenue’s fair share.
I got an accountant. I got some of it back.
Humbling as that experience was, being a preacher by profession, it got me to thinking: What do we owe Caesar? What do we owe God? This, of course, is the infamous trick question posed to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 22.
‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?’ The Roman tax was levied annually on harvests and personal property, and was determeined by the census. Administered by Jewish authorities, it placed heavy burdens on the impoverished people of first century Palestine…and at least once, had provoked a rioutous protest led by Judas the Galielian.
If Jesus answers ‘Yes’ to the question, he risks alienating the oppressed Jews of occupied Palestine. If he answers ‘No’, he risks being accused of rebellion against the empire. (Richard Spalding, Feasting on the Word)
Inspired, he does neither.
They handed Jesus the coin used for the tax.
‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’
‘Give therefore, to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.’
On face value, it sounds like Jesus is neatly dividing our civic duties from the religious ones.
But as one scholar says, “Jesus is not tidying, he is testing.” Rather than separate and parallel spheres of responsibility, the sacred turns the secular on its head.
The human face of God stands before them that day in the synagogue. This walking, talking, feeling, breathing and undivided God. This God on earth, just as he is in heaven, as above, so below.
The Pharisees and Herodians expected a partisan answer. A political answer. Instead Jesus gives a faithful one. Rising above politics, there is really nothing more radical than a life of faith – faithfully lived.
So what does Jesus have us render unto God?
And what does Jesus have us render unto neighbor?
And likewise, what does God ask us to render even unto ourselves?
Not loosey, goosey, sappy, sentimental love. But beatitude love.
Blessed are the poor; Blessed are those who mourn; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice’s sake — love. Render the love, preached from the Sermon on the Mount.
So. I wracked my brain trying to come up with a story – an illustration to make this gospel real. A lving, breathing illustration that could breathe some life into these ancient words.
And what I came up with is the story of my mother’s cousin, Charlie Liteky, laid to rest just this past year at the age of 85.
On a recvent visit to my brother’s house, Tim retrieved from the bottom of a box of family photos, a yellowed newspaper clipping. It told a story, I had long forgotten
1968, November 19th, The Washington Post. “Chaplain Liteky receives Medal of Honor” – the headline reads. Printed along side is a photo of Lyndon Johnson pinning the medal to my second cousin’s chest.
How could I have forgotten about my mother’s cousin: an army captain, a Vietnam chaplain, a war hero, a Catholic priest who left the church, married a nun, and advocated for peace?
Leaving my brother’s house that day, I went home and Googled my cousin– and found out more – so much more.
I found a 2009 article, written by one of his comrades in arms, that helped me fill in the blanks.
“It’s 1967, with his battalion ambushed in a rice paddy, Chaplain Liteky gives last rites to the dead and dying, often walking upright and dodging bullets. He carries more than 20 wounded from the battlefield to safety.”
“There is so much blood, he’ll smell it to the day he dies.”
In 1968, the President rewarded him for his bravery and pinnned the medal to his chest.
And fourteen years later, in 1986, he gives the medal back. “At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Charles Liteky becomes the first person in history to give up the Medal of Honor. Cameras click as he kneels before the black wall covered with the names of the dead.”
And that same year, he fasts on the Capitol steps. “Liteky is gaunt and burning with hunger. For six weeks, he and three other veterans have starved themselves protesting Reagan’s policies in South America. After 46 days, with one of them near death, they finally eat.”
In 2001, “inside a federal penitentiary…Charlie Liteky turns 70. It’s his second time in prison following protests outside Fort Benning where the U.S. trained Latin American officers accused of atrocities in their countries.”
“In 2003, in Baghdad, Charlie Liteky is there with other protesters for peace, bearing witness to what he calls an unjust and an unwise war.”
My cousin’s military comrade says, “Talk for Charlie was cheap. He had to do more than write a letter to Congress or a letter to the editor. He had to put his body on the line.”
Not for the front-page headlines. Not for fifteen minutes of fame.
But to render unto Caesar, what he believed Caesar was due. And to render unto God, what he believed his God required of him.
An ex-priest, an ex-Catholic, a former chaplain, Charlie would have told you that he was far from perfect. A lifelong witness to God’s truth, his mission had cost him his faith – in the traditional meaning of the word.
“But I have tried to live life to the truth as I see it at the time,” he said. “That’s a very costly thing; I’ve lost a lot. I’m an ex-lot of things. But what remains? I hope, integrity.”
His was a remarkable life. An unorthodox life. A life with which you might disagree. For the choices that he made. For the actions that he took. But in my personal experience, I have known of no one’s life so embroiled in the struggle to be both faithful to his country and faithful to his God. And wiling to pay the price for it.
Dear Readers, you likely know of many others. This faith stuff is so much easier said than done.
Literally dumbfounding. Gobsmacking dumbfounding.
So how do we render unto Caesar, that which is Caesars? And to God, what is God’s?
By trusting in God’s love, I believe, in God’s justice. We can try wrestling some angels and tackling more than a few demons in this crazy and most taxing of worlds.
In the flesh. In faith. In love.
One day at a time.