Formations lesson for June 10: Religious Freedom
May 18 2001 by F. Calvin Parker , Matthew 22:15-22

Formations lesson for June 10: Religious Freedom | Friday, May 18, 2001

Friday, May 18, 2001

Formations lesson for June 10: Religious Freedom

By F. Calvin Parker Matthew 22:15-22 The "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations is a comprehensive statement of our rights and freedoms as human beings. Article 18 is especially significant for today's lesson: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." Some members of the United Nations violate this declaration with impunity. They pay lip service to human rights while blatantly suppressing "freedom of thought, conscience and religion." They say one thing and do another. Jesus often had to deal with such hypocrisy. It appears in today's scripture passage as a malicious question wrapped in flattery.

The tricky question (Matthew 22:15-17) The Pharisees and Herodians praised Jesus as sincere, truthful and impartial even though they were out to discredit Him and ultimately destroy Him. Then they asked, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" Probably they had in mind the head tax or poll tax, which all adults had to pay up to the age of 65. The tax exemption beyond that age was what we might call a negative social security benefit. Most people in those days did not live long enough to enjoy it.

The question was framed so as to entrap Jesus. A no answer would get him in trouble with the Roman authorities, who would view Him as seditious. A yes answer would antagonize His own people, who deeply resented the tax.

During World War II, the dreaded "thought police" in Japan used another malicious question to ensnare Christians. They asked, "Which is greater, the Emperor or Christ?" To answer "Christ" was to invite imprisonment or a stern reprimand for showing disrespect to the ruling "Son of Heaven." To answer "Emperor" was to deny one's faith and disappoint fellow believers. Many Christians hedged the question. "They are like air and water," said one Baptist pastor. "You can't live without either of them."

The amazing answer (Matthew 22:18-22) Jesus answered the question about taxes with a "yes," but in so skillful a manner that his Jewish audience was amazed rather than incensed. By holding up a coin bearing the emperor's image and title, He showed that paying the tax was returning a piece of property to its rightful owner. He also balanced this "yes" with a command to give "to God the things that are God's." Jesus left no doubt but that God is greater than Caesar and must take precedence when the two are in conflict.

I vividly remember riding on a Tampa city bus when I was 13. At one of the stops a heavy-set woman climbed aboard and teetered down the aisle, bundles cradled in her arms. She stopped beside the unoccupied half of my seat and caught hold of the handgrip just as the bus lurched forward.

Instinctively I squeezed my body against the window to my right, opening up the greater part of my seat. I was a Boy Scout who had taken the oath to be courteous, helpful and kind. More importantly, I had just rededicated myself to God in a revival meeting at my church.

But the woman continued to stand, swaying precariously with the motion of the bus. She was black, forbidden to sit where I was sitting, in the last row of the white section. I glanced back at the Negro section and saw that the aisle was crowded. My mind reeled; my heart pounded. I wanted this woman to sit beside me. I wanted to jump up and yield the whole seat. But I felt compelled to obey the law and keep us both out of trouble. The metal "white/colored" divider hung above the back of my head like the sword of Damocles.

When God and the state are in conflict, the right course to take can be very unclear. Whatever else it means, religious freedom includes the right to support the state and the right to oppose the state, as conscience may require.

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5/18/2001 12:00:00 AM by F. Calvin Parker , Matthew 22:15-22 | with 0 comments
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