As we approach the U.S. Presidential Election, anxiety is reaching an all-time high. I see it in my clients, in my colleagues and in my students. I hear it in conversations with friends and feel it myself. It hangs in the air, invisible like the COVID virus, but more deadly. People are afraid for their safety, their futures, their means of livelihood, their health care, their children's schooling, their quality of life, their civil rights and everything else pertaining to their individual circumstances. Some are terrified at the possibility of civil unrest or, worse still, armed violence; others fear the possibility of a continuation of policies that run counter to American values, disconnecting America from her allies, destroying the environment, disregarding basic human rights... Regardless of one's political beliefs or legal status, it seems that this pervasive anxiety is dominating the collective unconscious of all residents.
When the Nazi Shadow hung over Europe and rumors of extermination camps began to reach Jewish communities, Ettie Hillesum, a Dutch Jew, wrote the following in her diary:
"One thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves."
If we allow the cloud of anxiety to take over our lives, there will be no room for hope, for joy or even for God. Like Ettie Hillesum, let us safeguard the Holy One, even if it means unplugging from the news/social media and avoiding negative conversations. If God is our guest, then we need to bar the door against intruders, visible or invisible!
PS Try my spiritual self-assessment tool! After you take the Quiz, you will automatically receive a computer-generated diagram and explanatory comments regarding your strengths and "growing edges." I hope you find the Quiz useful!
The Pharisees went off to plot how they might entrap Jesus.
They sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know you are a truthful man
and that you teach God's ways according to the truth.
Nor are you concerned with anyone's opinion, for you do not regard a person's status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"
Knowing their malice, Jesus replied,
"Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax."
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
"Whose image is this and whose inscription?" he asked.
They replied, "Caesar's."
At that he said, "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."
Jesus' opponents begin with flattery, imagining they can disarm him by appealing to his ego; Jesus does not accept their bait, immediately seeing through their trap. Their question seems to offer two possibilities:1) that it is lawful to pay the census tax-- in which case Jesus could be viewed as a Roman collaborator or 2) that it is unlawful to pay the tax -- in which case the Romans could arrest Jesus for being an insurrectionist. Instead of getting flustered, Jesus calmly asks to see the coin -- tricking them into producing a coin bearing Caesar's image and inscription. Without stopping to point out the obvious-- that his opponents must themselves be paying the tax since they possess the Roman tax coin-- he then presents an enigma of his own: "Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God." With one sentence, he silences his enemies who walk away, amazed.
What exactly belongs to Caesar? This is a moral question that each of us must answer. If "Caesar" represents an individual or group that holds national power, then there are mutual rights and responsibilities on the parts of those who govern and those who are governed. When "Caesar" rules by servant leadership, justice and compassion, then the people are more inclined to uphold the laws of the land and be supportive of government policies. When, however, "Caesar" serves only his/her ego and is unjust, divisive, and tyrannical, then there is more likely to be discord. During the Vietnam War, for example, anti-war activists burned their tax returns rather than support what they considered to be an unjust war; then, as the nuclear arms race with the former Soviet Union accelerated, there were those who defaced missile silos as a form of protest. Sit-ins, marches, demonstrations, hunger strikes and other acts of civil disobedience are signs that citizens are unwilling to sell their souls to "Caesar"; to their credit, they so believe in their convictions that they are willing to face fines, jail and even personal injury rather than let Caesar trample human rights and the foundational values of their society.
What belongs to God? It is quite possible that Jesus meant everything-- every sphere of life, without exception. The question itself forces us to ask whether we belong to God or to Caesar. Are we God's people or "Caesar's"? Do we safeguard our souls or do we sell ourselves because we hope to benefit from upholding an unjust rule? Do we seek grace or do we crave money, status, and power? Are we content to walk with our God or do we prefer the company of the movers and shakers, the lobbyists and big donors? Are we willing to face reality or do we live in a permanent state of denial? Are we People of Truth or --to use M. Scott Peck's expression -- People of the Lie?
Ultimately, we have our origin in God and it is to God that each of us will return -- not to Caesar. On the Day of Judgement, the question each of us will have to answer is whether we have put God first or Caesar. Just as Jesus once pointed out, "You cannot serve God and Mammon" (Matt 6:24), so I believe he would also say, "You have to choose between God and Caesar -- who will it be?"