Give to God!

Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s
and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.

Mark 12.17

THIS IS THE ANSWER Jesus gave the religious leaders and politicians who attempted to trap him into admitting that Jews should pay tribute to Caesar. Believers today tend to understand Jesus’ answers to be, “Of course, good Christians pay their taxes.” However, that understanding cannot come from this story.

First, if Jesus had answered clearly and unambiguously—that Jews should pay taxes to Caesar—then his adversaries could have revealed Jesus as the false Messiah they believed him to be. Since no true King of Israel would concede that tribute should be paid a pagan overlord like Caesar.

Secondly, if Jesus had answered clearly and unambiguously that Jews should not pay taxes to Caesar, then his adversaries could have handed him over to Rome as a subversive and be done with him.

So what did Jesus’ response mean? How was it an answer that eluded both of these trap doors?

By reviewing the image on the coinage, Jesus underscored the religious leaders and politicians’ hypocrisy in using “Caesar’s” money in the first place. Though the Jews strongly detested images of any kind as in keeping with the Ten Commandments not to make graven images, they had, in this case, capitulated. They had to admit how dependent they really were on Rome; and consequently—if they thought more deeply about it, how little they actually trusted God. “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19.15) was truer than any of them would have admitted.

What amazed the people is not that Jesus said believers should pay their taxes without actually saying believers should pay their taxes; but that Jesus had been able to bypassed totally the either/or mentality of his opponents (as well as most Christian interpreters today).

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s
and to God what is God’s.”

Using the common poetic device of parallelism Jesus crafted a conundrum (a riddle designed to tease and puzzle one into a deeper levels of understanding). Thus when we read this saying along the lines of “Pay your taxes and don’t forget your tithes” we greatly miss the point; most of us give Caesar more money than we do the church anyway.

The wonder of the statement is that once we give God his due, what is left for Caesar? Nothing! This was the beauty of the statement! It rested in the eye of the beholder! One inclined to trust Caesar would hear it one way; while those inclined to trust God would hear it another.

He who has an ear to hear!


An Insensitive Word

It all started with an insensitive comment from a supposed Christian. Let me tell you how the famous Scopes Trial, better known by de Camp’s title, The Great Monkey Trial, came to the quiet community of Dayton, Tennessee.(1) Most people know of this famous trial today and its memory lives on through the movie Inherit the Wind (1960) starring Spencer Tracy and Gene Kelly.

In 1925, the opponents squared off. At the prosecuting table sat the folksy William Jenning Bryan, a three-time presidential loser, whom the Christian Fundamentalists enlisted to defend the cause of Christianity against the onslaught of evolutionary theory. At the table of the defendant, waited Clarence Darrow, famous trial lawyer and skeptic, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union. Finally, to complete the cast of characters, the irreligious H. L. Mencken, reporter for the Baltimore Sun, who, in this event, gave the first nationally radio broadcasted trial. Mencken had little love for religious people and once said, “Heave an egg out of a Pullman [train car] window and you will hit a fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today.”(2)

Near the end of the fight, Bryan made his crucial error: he accepted Darrow’s challenge to take the stand as an expert on the Bible. Within minutes the defense attorney had him, and, for many, Christianity was to sustain a debilitating loss.

The following dialogue actually occurred at this trial:

DARROW: When was that flood?
BRYAN: I would not attempt to fix the date. The date is fixed as suggested this morning …

DARROW: What do you think that the Bible itself says? Don’t you know how it was arrived at?
BRYAN: I never made a calculation.
DARROW: A calculation from what?
BRYAN: I could not say.
DARROW: From the generations of man?
BRYAN: I would not want to say that.
DARROW: What do you think?
BRYAN: I do not think about things I don’t think about.
DARROW: Do you think about things you do think about?
BRYAN: Well, sometimes.(3)

Before Bryan left Dayton, Tennessee, he died. The symbolism of Christianity’s defeat was complete. However, what set this course of events in motion? How did this famous court case get started. Surprisingly, it was not John T. Scopes teaching evolution in school.

It all started when the manager for Cumberland Coal and Iron Company, George Washington Rappleyea, though a native New Yorker and except for Scopes the only evolutionist in town, attended the funeral after a worker lost his six-year-old son in a car-train accident. Here he heard the child’s mother moan, “Oh, if I only knew he was with Jesus! If I only knew that!” To this, Rappleyea heard the preacher reply, “I’ll not lie to you even to bring you peace. The ways of the Lord are His. You know and everybody here knows that this boy had never been baptized. He never confessed Christ. There can be no doubt but that at this moment, he is in the flames of Hell.”

Rappleyea—though not generally hostile towards religion, became incensed at the minister’s coldness—brought the ACLU’s offer to underwrite a test case against Tennessee’s anti-evolution law to the attention of other local people.

Now as Paul Harvey would say, you have the rest of the story.


1 L. Sprague de Camp, The Great Monkey Trial (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968).
2 Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, Mencken: The American Iconoclast (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 293.
3 The Most Famous Court Trial: State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes: Complete Stenographic Report (New York, 1971 [Cincinnati, 1925), 287, as cited in George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evagelicalism, 1870-1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 187.

The Present Distress: Who Wrote This?

Does this quote sound familiar to what we are experiencing in the US markets? Guess who wrote it?

“In a system of production, where the entire continuity of the reproduction process rests upon credit, a crisis must obviously occur — a tremendous rush for means of payment — when credit suddenly ceases and only cash payments have validity. At first glance, therefore, the whole crisis seems to be merely a credit and money crisis. And in fact it is only a question of the convertibility of bills of exchange into money. But the majority of these bills represent actual sales and purchases, whose extension far beyond the needs of society is, after all, the basis of the whole crisis. At the same time, an enormous quantity of these bills of exchange represents plain swindle, which now reaches the light of day and collapses; furthermore, unsuccessful speculation with the capital of other people; finally, commodity-capital which has depreciated or is completely unsaleable, or returns that can never more be realised again. The entire artificial system of forced expansion of the reproduction process cannot, of course, be remedied by having some bank, like the Bank of England, give to all the swindlers the deficient capital by means of its paper and having it buy up all the depreciated commodities at their old nominal values. Incidentally, everything here appears distorted, since in this paper world, the real price and its real basis appear nowhere, but only bullion, metal coin, notes, bills of exchange, securities. Particularly in centres where the entire money business of the country is concentrated, like London, does this distortion become apparent; the entire process becomes incomprehensible; it is less so in centres of production.”

What Does It Means to be Missional?

The simplest way to begin is to begin. So here I go. The word “missional” has come into vogue in an attempt to speak meaningfully about the church’s place in North American culture. This has two basic challenges. First, the church has been encrusted, if not lost, in Christendom. And, second, the church is deeply North American in its instincts and values. No doubt we will have a chance to unpack these in other posts.

So what do we mean by being “missional”? My working definition begins with God. God has always been on a mission. That mission involved calling a distinct people, to be different from the culture around them, to live God’s life in the world and thus participate in his mission in calling others into the mission of God. One last item I find necessary to say is that God calls people not for their sake alone but for the sake of the world. To live God’s life is to be spent for the good of others.

What would you add?

On Being a Disciple of Jesus

Often we describe being a disciple of Jesus in terms of what “Christendom” has taught us about what it means be a good Christian. Show up for church. Read our Bibles. Say our prayers. Etc. Occasionally we get deeper, seeking to do what Jesus did (remember WWJD bracelets). So we move out a bit more to do a kind deed for those who don’t have what we do. And all of these we should perhaps do, but it seems to me that being a disciple of Jesus is more than just what we do but what we are (or, at least, hope to become).

The path to becoming a “real” disciple of Jesus is to focus on those things which Jesus was passionate about. If you begin this quest, you will be surprised to discover that most of what we take as the trapping of being a good Christian concerned Jesus little. What did, in fact, concern Jesus? For one, Jesus was passionate about the kingdom of God. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God with urgency and with a sense that everything else would make sense if you get this one concept right: Seek first his kingdom…

So take a few moments, and make a list of what you believe Jesus was passionate about. How would your life change if you were passionate about the same things?

Christian Education as Spiritual Formation

The measure of excellent teaching is that students learn. No matter how deep the preparation, brilliant the presentation or clever the exams, if students do not learn, then the teaching has been ineffective. Only when students have mastered the objectives of the course taught can we say that the instructor is a good teacher.

Hence, at the heart of teaching is this relationship between the teacher and the student. This relationship is, at its best, a reciprocal relationship in which the teacher continues to be a student. Yet, that is not the end. There is the still the relationship of the teacher and the student to that which is to be known.

In theology, for example, this is supremely important, as the “topic” to be known is God and God, conversely, is the one who knows everything about the teacher and the student and any area that might be the focus of teaching. Thus, teaching is a very complex and serious matter as it has the power to shape not only the lives of the teacher and the students but also create future possibilities for both.

Given the consequences of this process we call teaching, I see Christian education, regardless of the topic, to be an exercise in spiritual formation. As such, Christian education seeks to facilitate “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” [M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 15.] This could easily be the goal of excellent Christian education, period.

However, what does it means to be shaped or conformed to the image of Christ? I would center this in Jesus’ own teaching as what was most important. When asked, Jesus said that we should love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind and that, in close relation, we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Together, these capture what Mulholland summarizes in the phrase, “the image of Christ for the sake of the world.” To become like Jesus is to love God fully and to extend our lives to those around us, to those in the world.

Good teachers invite students to give God their hearts, soul, minds and strengths. Western education has myopically chosen the mind as the preeminent quality for what it means to be human; we are, after all, homo sapiens. However, the biblical tradition would caution us on making the mind the sole criteria of what makes us human.

Still, we should not neglect the mind in seeking to balance the score; there is no room for anti-intellectualism in our journey toward becoming more like God. Mark Noll correctly asserts that the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of one. In contrast, good Christian education gives adequate attention to the life of the mind. What (and how) we think does matter!

God also calls us to love him with our hearts, which in the biblical tradition could include both intellect and emotion. To love God with our hearts includes a deeper commitment to God than just cavalier acceptance that there has to be a God. It involves a commitment on the part of the teacher and the student and moves us in the direction of loyalty and devotion.

Likewise, to love God with our souls suggest that there is a component of humans that is unseen or the inner person, as the apostle Paul calls it. This inner person is the location of the most serious work of God’s Spirit. It is here that Christian education finds its deepest target. To change a person from the inside out is the very work of God. When this God-change has occurred, the movement of a life reaches, to use her strength or might to help others find the way of inner transformation that will express itself in the love of neighbor.

Christian education, then, is a human activity that participates in God’s mission. Christian education ultimately invites students, and their teachers, to live God’s life in the here and now, for the good of neighbor and world. Consequently, teaching has only been effective if the student learns, in some small way, to live well and that for others.