My sermon for Sunday, 19 October 2008 was based on Psalm 24, Isaiah 45:1-7, and Matthew 22:15-22. It was written for the following Sunday: Proper 24A, Ordinary 29A, or Pentecost+23A. Below is a tag cloud for the message.
What Belongs to God?
Imagine the scene from today’s gospel reading.
It is a classic confrontation between Jesus and his critics.
Not only does Jesus have to face the primary religious authorities of his day: the Pharisees.
He also has to deal with a group of people called the Herodians,
a political force aligned with King Herod.
The Herodians, like Herod himself, were seen as being in cahoots with Rome, and though they were not loved by the people because of this,
the Pharisees asked them along on this face to face with Jesus because they provided the Pharisees with the perfect opportunity to put Jesus between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
This way the Pharisees had the religious angle covered and the Herodians would cove the political angle.
The Pharisees would be able to catch Jesus if he said anything blasphemous, and the Herodians would be sure to run back to King Herod and his Roman cronies if Jesus said something that would upset the political apple cart.
As you can see, much thought and scheming had gone into the plan,
and the trap they had built for this rebel teacher seemed foolproof.
They would set before him a choice,
and regardless of the answer he came up with,
they were all but sure they could bring this young rabble rouser down a notch or two, if not bring him down altogether.
I can just imagine them rubbing their hands together in anticipation and patting each other on the back for their ingenuity.
They had the deadly combination of politics and religion on their side,
or so they thought.
The encounter begins with some flattery,
what we used to call brown-nosing in school,
the reasons for which I will not go into detail about in a church setting.
Nevertheless, when flattery is being used,
it is always best for the one bei
ng flattered to be cautious.
As Socrates once said, “Flattery is like friendship in show, but not in fruit”
Perhaps Jesus knew this, so that when they attempt to put him off his guard with some pleasant words,
he is ready when they try to pull a trick out of the sleeves of their robes.
"Teacher,” they said, “ we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and show favor to no one;
for you do not regard people with partiality.
And then comes the trap.
“Is it lawful,” they asked him, “to pay taxes to the emperor?”
Now the tax that they were referring to was the hated poll tax levied annually upon every man, woman and child.
Typically, it was a denarius – a whole day’s wages.
And since most people only made one denarius a day and then had to use all of it to buy the food they needed to eat for that day,
paying this tax usually meant going hungry on the days it was remitted,
This tax was also a painful reminder of their helpless submission to Rome.
So, if Jesus said yes, pay the tax,
he would alienate himself from the people.
What kind of Messiah would tell his people to pay a tax to their conquerors and have to take food from the mouths of their families to do so?
If, on the other hand, Jesus said no,
he could be accused of treason,
thus facing arrest, imprisonment and execution by Rome.
In fact, this is something the religious leaders would falsely claim Jesus did later on in Luke’s gospel as he stands before Pilate,
the Roman governor.
“This man set himself up as a king,
and taught the people not to pay tribute to the emperor!” (Luke 23:2)
“So Jesus, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
They glanced triumphantly at each other,
sure that they had set a snare from which even this self-styled prophet could not escape.
Jesus, however, outsmarted them by turning the question into a deeper issue of where ultimate allegiance of every person should belong.
Challenged by Israel’s religious and political leadership in such a way that it seemed all but impossible for him not to condemn himself before Rome or the people, Jesus says,
“Show me the coin used for the tax”.
Please note that Jesus asks his opponents for a coin;
he does not produce one of his own,
the implication being that he does not have one.
Also note that this conversation is taking place at the Jewish temple.
These are two important facts to remember.
Coin now in hand, Jesus then asks whose “head and inscription” are on it.
The coin bears the image of the emperor.
This is strike one against his would-be attackers.
If you remember your ten commandments,
you know that the law prohibited graven images.
Because of this, coins without human images had been minted for Jewish use.
But these opponents of Jesus—Jewish leaders—have carried an image of the emperor into the temple of God.
In addition to the image of Caesar,
the denarius also had these words printed on it in Latin:
“Tiberius Caesar, worshipful son of the divine Augustus”.
As fellow pastor Clare Oatney has stated:
“The coin claimed far too much for itself and for the empire represented.”
In fact, by virtue of what was printed on it,
this coin was little more than a portable idol!
An idol which the religious leaders had brought into the temple of the one and only true God.
Talk about your hypocrisy!
And Jesus does.
“Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?” he had asked them.
And then Jesus gives them his answer.
He holds up the coin with the profile of Caesar carved upon it, and says,
“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).
It was a brilliant answer, don’t you think?
And on the face of it, there is nothing in what he says to get him in trouble,
nothing on which he can be charged.
Not in the way the Romans would have heard it,
not in the way it has often been understood through the years:
that the state has its claims, and God has God’s claims,
and you can separate your life into those two camps.
It’s all easy and everyone’s happy.
Unless you think a little further.
Because, you see “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” is not exactly what Jesus said, according to Matthew.
Matthew’s actual quote of Jesus does not say “give” (dote).
Instead, Matthew has Jesus say apodote –“ give back”.
In other words,
give back to Caesar whatever is legally owed to him – but nothing more!
Thus, the saying that appears at first reading to be equal
(“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s”)
is not equal at all.
Because what is owed to Caesar?
At most, taxes – and nothing more!
And what is owed to God?
Why, it is the totality of your being.
You owe everything to God.
So give your “everything” to that One – and only that One,
the only One who deserves it!
Give to God what is God’s…
And what belongs to God?
God: the creator of all, the source of all, the ground of all being …
What belongs to God?
It’s ALL God’s.
There is no claim that can impinge on God’s claim,
no right that trumps God’s right,
no authority that eclipses God’s authority.
It’s all God’s.
The emperor can stamp his picture on whatever he wants,
but it doesn’t change that fundamental reality.
It’s like writing your name in a library book and pretending that makes the book yours.
Or like a scene comedian Eddie Izzard describes, about colonial explorers. You know, how Europeans used to travel around the world,
looking for places that no other Europeans had discovered?
Izzard imagines them walking ashore and being somewhat surprised to find the place already occupied.
“Oh, you say you live here?
Oh dear. Hmmm. (thinks) Well, do you have a flag? No? (Thwomp!—plants imaginary flag)
Then I claim this land in the name of her Majesty the Queen!”
Planting flags. As though that made it theirs.
We like to lay claim on things.
But when we are baptized, God lays his claim on us.
In baptism, we gave ourselves back to the God who gave us life.
And that claim will compete with all other claims upon your loyalty, your identity, and your commitment.
Like you, I am an American.
And like you, I love the United States.
I love my country, its culture, its people, the freedoms we enjoy and that so many have fought and dies to preserve.
Being American is central to my identity.
But I cannot give my first and deepest loyalty to America.
Because in baptism I renounce my allegiance to any power or state or anything else that I might put before God.
In other words, I owe my first and deepest loyalty to the one who made me.
As Christians, we are united first and foremost under the cross,
rather than any national flag or standard.
This is not to say the state has no legitimate claim to make,
or to condemn any kind of national feeling.
It is simply a reminder that we owe our first loyalty to the kingdom of God.
re called, throughout our lives, to measure the claims and values of the state against those of the kingdom.
We dare not accept unquestioningly the aims and methods of any worldly power, be it political, economic, social or cultural.
The Gospel calls us to question those competing claims,
whatever they might be:
are they in line with what we know about the kingdom?
Do they bring healing?
Do they seek peace and forgiveness?
Are they steeped in compassion, reaching across boundaries and welcoming in the outsider?
Above all, do they demonstrate concern for the lowest and the least?
They just might do so.
But if they do not, then we need to decide how best to respond.
Now, I could pick a political issue to illustrate this, but I don’t want to risk any appearance of partisanship that would interfere with my point.
So while I do think we allow the country, or the platform of our particular political party, to come before God too often in our lives,
there are other powers that also lay claim on us.
For instance, television and media have incredible power in our lives.
Now, while I disagree with those who say there’s nothing good on television, there are definitely some problems with the medium.
There are mixed messages about sexuality, the glorifying of violence….
And then, perhaps worse than both of these is how TV tries to convert us all into nothing more than mindless consumers
That is, we are constantly being tempted to buy things,
many of which we probably don’t even need,
because the TV promises us that our lives will be easier or more worthwhile if we only have this or that item in our possession.
Now if I compare this idea to Jesus’ teaching about and caring for the poor,
and if I take the time to ask myself the question of whether I really want my heart to be living at Target and Toys R Us along with all of my treasure,
I can begin to see a conflict.
So what can I do?
I could throw the TV out of my house.
I could limit my own viewing, and that of my children.
I could watch with them, and use the commercials as teaching moments about the difference between wanting and needing.
I could give money to public television.
Or start a campaign to ban commercials during children’s programming.
Or vote for candidates who support these kind of ideas.
As you can see, I could do all sorts of thing.
There is only one thing I cannot and must do:
I cannot allow this competing power to steal my heart and my mind away from the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God always exists in tension with competing claims of authority (Kari Jo Verhulst, SojoNet for Proper 24A, 2005).
This is not a comfortable thing.
Our gut, our upbringing, our perceived best interests might lead us right into the heart of one of these competing claims.
And it might well be easier to follow.
It is sometimes easier to just give in to the Caesars of this world,
to allow the competing claims of the things and powers of this world to hold sway over us,
but that is not the way of Jesus who tells us plainly
"Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s."
Biblical scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer makes the following points about this simple statement by tying it to our reading from Isaiah:
Our reading for this Sunday from Isaiah provides some clues.
It has God addressing Cyrus, King of Persia, a gentile.
And yet this gentile has been called by the God of Israel to do his work.
In other words, it’s not solely the people of Israel who are God’s,
but everyone to whom God gives life and breath.
And God tells this gentile king, that he is providing help
I call you by your name,
I have named you, though you do not know me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other;
besides me there are no other gods.
I clothed you, though you do not know me,
so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, there is no one besides me;
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make peace and create evil;
I the LORD do all these things (Isaiah 45:4-7).
East or west, light or dark, in all circumstances, God is God,
and there is none other.
The 24th Psalm puts it this way:
The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it.
It all boils down to this:
What belongs to God is everything.
And if we really take seriously the claim that God is rightful Lord of the earth and all that is in it, the world and all people in it,
over what is any earthly Caesar a rightful lord?
The answer is simple words is this:
Nothing. Nada. Squat. Zilch. Zero.