2 Operating Systems? - Reflections 10-18-17

 Texts for Sunday October 22, 2017

 Isaiah 45:1-7

 Psalm 96:1-9
 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
 Matthew 22:15-22

In this story from Matthew, the religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus into saying something that will either sound like a betrayal of the Empire or a betrayal of God. Either is punishable by death. Jesus’ answer – which was an adroit maneuver - amazed them, so “they left him and went away”. 

This story brought to mind Martin Luther’s concept called the two kingdoms. 

First, a disclaimer: I am not a Luther scholar. Scholars/theologians have had lots of debates about the proper understanding of this.  I’ve known Luther scholars who are very passionate and knowledgeable; I teach Luther to 7th graders so my knowledge doesn’t really plum the depth of the idea.

Second, a note: The concept of “kingdom” made sense for Luther’s worldview. Can you think of a different word that might make sense today? Realm? Territory? Operating system?

In his 2 kingdoms concept, Luther tried to explain how God cares for this complicated world which is populated with complicated people. First, in the kingdom on God’s “right hand”, God works through unmerited grace – think forgiveness of sins, the sacraments, and the word. Also think “freedom from the bondage of sin; freed to be servant of all”.  In the kingdom on God’s “left hand”, God works to establish justice, peace, and order for the good of all.  “Order” means limits on the actions of individuals to allow for a just and peaceful world that is just and peaceful for all people. 

We aren’t inclined to see that kingdom of the left hand in that way.  We want justice and peace for ourselves and those in our tribe/group. The kingdom on the left is where we live every day.  And where we regularly get in trouble when other tribes or groups push ahead of us or we push ahead of them.

So, back to the Gospel, the key to this whole concept is that both kingdoms belong to God. “Give to God the things that are God’s”. Giving to the kingdom which includes the emperor, is giving to God.

If you know some of the history in the Old Testament, you know that God’s people got in trouble over and over again because they did not pay attention to justice and peace. First, God said, take care of the poor, the orphans, and the widows, then you can turn attention to yourself. They never managed that for long, and so God, to whom the left-hand kingdom belongs, let the consequences of stepping over the limits happen. Note that whole arena was in play, including those outside of God’s people. 

Recognize that this does not say that our country is supposed to be a “Christian nation”. Luther said that believing in God is not necessary for secular authority – emperors (again, remember this is his worldview) do not need to believe to have a decent government - “It is sufficient for the emperor to possess reason”.  Think Cyrus in the Isaiah text.

But I also don’t want you to think that I’m saying that Christians can lay aside their faith when they act in the world. That got German Christians in a really bad place during the Nazi era. We live as citizens in the good order of the laws of the land because this kingdom on the left hand belongs to God. Order in society is not an end in itself. If laws work against justice and peace for all people, we need to act. 

And really, think about it: There is not a single place on earth right now, nor has there ever been a place on earth, where God’s people could kick back and just let things ride. Our feet are in both kingdoms all the time. We have been freed to serve the common good, and most especially those who are outside the tribes in power.

Comments are always welcome.

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Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Iowa City

Gathered by grace. Scattered for service.

123 E Market Street
Iowa City, IA 52245