Summary: The way we direct our lives says everything about our greatest allegiance(s), and thus we bear the image or the imprint of those allegiances.
About seven or eight years ago, my Dad decided he was going to sell the boat that he and my mother had bought for our family when my sister and I were teenagers. My family spent many wonderful weekends out on the lake, skiing, tubing, swimming, and just generally having fun. But with my sister and I out of the house and established in other cities, my parents decided there was no point in hanging on to the boat anymore either. So, my Dad ran an ad in the local paper. The first day the ad ran, Dad had four calls about the boat and two different people came by to look at it that same evening. Both of those individuals were very interested in the boat, and one of the guys gave Dad a cash deposit to hold the boat for him while he made a final decision. In the meantime, the other interested party came by. He offered to pay Dad the full asking price on the spot, but that man had one condition. He wanted Dad to put only half the price of the boat on the bill of sale. "That's the way we do it in these parts," he said. If my Dad complied, the man wouldn't have to pay half the state sales tax, which amounted to several hundred dollars.
My Dad was torn. On the one hand, he really wanted to sell the boat and get full price for it. But on the other hand, he knew what this man was up to, and he did not want to be a part of such cheating and lying. Thankfully, my Dad had a good excuse not to take the man’s offer. He explained that another person had already handed him a cash deposit to hold the boat and that if that offer fell through, he would call this man back. But as Dad sat at dinner that night, he shared his deep misgivings about that second offer. He told my Mom that he couldn’t even believe the man would ask something like that of him. For one thing, it would be breaking the law. But even more than that, my Dad reflected, doing what the man asked would mean going against his identity as a Christian because he would be participating in illegal activity and lying about it. In the end, my Dad decided that even if the first offer fell through, he would not call the other man back. He felt the most important thing was to be obedient to God’s standards. As it turned out, the boat was sold by the weekend and at the full asking price, with all the dealings “above board,” as they say.
Many times in the last 2,000 years, most especially in our modern age of extreme partisanship, this passage from Matthew has been cited as a clear statement of Jesus’ beliefs in the necessity of separation of church and state. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” Jesus says. To which we all reply, “Right, of course, separation of church and state.” But here’s the thing, and if you don’t go home with any other message today, make sure you hear this one, Jesus was NOT making such a political statement. Jesus was not advocating for the separation of church and state, or any other policy. Rather, Christ was challenging his hearers to consider the focus of their greatest allegiance.