Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sacred or Secular?

 “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)

This is the lectionary text, and a very well-known, oft quoted one it is. I confess I remember it in the language of older translations of the Bible —“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”.

In the story, Jesus had been asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. His response had been to request a coin and asked of those questioning whose head was depicted on it. This elicited the response quoted above.

A seemingly simple statement, yet so complex. In the United States separation of church and state has long been accepted. It is part of the first amendment to the constitution (adopted 15 December 1791).

Thomas Jefferson reinforced it in a letter to Danbury Baptist Church, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” 1 January 1802. (

It has been challenged several times in the Supreme Court. Perhaps one of the more significant times was in 1971 when Lemon v. Kurtzman was argued in the Supreme Court. Very simply the case was about salaries and other payments in religious schools. The crux was should government money be used to fund programmes that teach religious-based lessons? In 1968 Pennsylvania had passed a law that allowed this. Lemon contended that the state was in violation of the first amendment as the state’s general population did not benefit from these preferential religious programmes.  (

Lemon won the case. The Supreme Court found that it was a violation of the first amendment to enact state laws that establish a religious body. This case led to the establishment of the Lemon Test which sets criteria to help determine whether state laws regarding funding for religious bodies violate the constitution. (

I think the separation of church and state is a good thing. It is another safeguard that protects minorities. It prevents any religious entity from getting too powerful.

Now I want to jump —and I know it is a huge leap—to thinking about the idea of giving “to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” in my personal everyday life.

Do I make a separation there?
Do I compartmentalize my life?

This bit of my life is for God (or a higher being) and this bit is for the state (or the people).

Am I two separate people?
Am I different in varying settings?

We have long talked about no division between sacred and secular. It is the Celtic Way. That life is lived as a one whole complete span not a dichotomy.

In the Understandings of the community number six says “. . . There is a need to break down the difference between the sacred and the secular; to be the same on Monday as Sunday; to be the same at work as at home; to be the same with our family as with our friends and colleagues.” (Way of Living, 19)

So, as I ponder “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” My conclusion is that for the nation I welcome the separation of church and state, but in my personal life I don’t think I want to make that division. I want to live my life the Celtic way making no distinction between sacred and secular. Striving to live the best life I can. To quote our community prayer a life trying to be “as Christ to those I meet” and “to find Christ within them.” (Way of Living, 16)

(Photo: Sunset NE Ithaca: 22 October 2017)

Sunday, October 8, 2017

No Winners, Only Losers.

Today’s lectionary reading is the parable which has often been termed the parable of the Wicked Tenants. It is a difficult parable to understand, full of violence and hatred.

Quite simply the story is of a person who bought land, fenced it, built a winepress and a watchtower. Thus, the owner created a safe environment for the workers. The vineyard was leased to tenants and the owner left, possibly to continue his business exploits elsewhere.

I would imagine that is quite a normal way of conducting business. It is a model that happens all the time in big business. Owners have multiple investments, they put managers in to run them and scoop up the profits as a return on their investments. Perhaps, one could critique this model of business and talk about enormous profits made while workers toil for a pittance. It is certainly worth considering when this parable is explored.

I have, in the past, enjoyed a book by Peter Mayle, it is autobiographical about a year spent in Provence, France. The style is a little bit too patriarchal for my taste nevertheless it is an interesting read. In one of the chapters Mayle talks about his venture into wine-making, although like the owner in the parable today he does little hands-on work. His property in Provence has six acres of vines. In the book, he describes the system used in the region which is known as metayage. The owner pays all the capital costs, of new stock, fertilizer, etc. While the farmer does the actual work, planting, spraying, pruning, harvesting. When the grapes are converted to wine the farmer takes two-thirds of the profits while the owner takes the remaining third. This system came to mind as I read this parable.

When reading parables, I resist the temptation to assign roles to the characters. I believe that is always always a mistake. I think one should read them simply as a story told to make a point. If one assigns roles then the characters often exhibit characteristics that are unfavourable. In this parable, the landowner has sometimes been equated to God. If that reasoning is followed then in this parable God is portrayed as vengeful and one who will cause suffering. (“. . . will put the wretches to a miserable death” 21:41).

Is that an image of God that is acceptable? It is certainly an Old Testament image, but the gospels and epistles have tended to change the interpretation of the image of God from a violent defender to a loving parent, a view which has increased in contemporary times. If God is put into the role of landowner then the violent image is affirmed.

In addition, roles would have to be assigned to the tenants, the servants and the son. The most common interpretation would see the tenants as the Jewish people (Sadducees, Pharisees), the servants as prophets and the son as Jesus. I would also want to reject this. I dislike the Anti-Semitic emphasis this would bring.

So, that leaves me with a story that has no winners, only losers. The landowner lost profits and a son. The servants and the son lost their lives. The tenants lost their vineyard (at, least that is hinted at, 21:41). No solution is given in the parable, there is no real ending.  

I don’t have any great interpretation or profound thoughts. Much of it just leaves me feeling it is an unpleasant and disturbing parable.

Perhaps from the tenants point of view I could explore themes of possible exploitation, injustice, unrest which results in anger and violence in their desire for change. From the landowner’s view-point there could also be feelings of injustice, of being used, taken for granted, dishonoured, great loss and ultimately wanting to turn to violence.

I suspect each of us have shared several of those feelings at some point in our lives. At those times, hopefully, most of the time ,violence is not the result. Other ways of dealing with those feelings have been pursued.

Perhaps, this is simply a story to illustrate that a time of change is coming, reflecting the unrest in society. And change always comes from those who see injustice and are bold enough to stand against it. It has happened with every generation. Hopefully, as this story is read it will show the futility of trying to bring change through violence. With violence there are no winners, only losers.

Photo: Cornell Plantations, October 2016,  (J.F-G)