19th Sunday after Pentecost, year A (preached October 19, 2014)
first reading: Isaiah 45:1-7
second reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
gospel reading: Matthew 22:15-22
Today’s gospel is one of those passages that is famous, but often not looked at deeply enough, because there’s a lot below the surface.
The Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus, to stump him. Perhaps their intention was to discredit him in the eyes of the people. They were the learned religious leaders of the day, held up as examples of good faith to the regular people like you and me. But as they said themselves, Jesus didn’t show deference or partiality to anyone. In fact, if anything, Jesus went out of his way to show compassion to those who were marginalized or ridiculed in the world.
The Pharisees were rightly suspicious of him and wanted to protect their place in the community. Jesus’ teachings were a threat to them, and so they were trying to trip him up.
And their question was a good one. Since they were the people of the one true God, should they be giving their money in taxes over to a pagan emperor? Should they be giving their hard earned money, what little they had, to support a government that persecuted them and mocked their God?
It WAS a good question, because if Jesus answered “pay your taxes,” he would be giving an answer that the people wouldn’t like for many obvious reasons. But if he answered, “no, don’t pay your taxes,” he could be seen as sowing rebellion against the government and would be in trouble with the legal authorities.
One could say this question put Jesus between a rock and a hard place – a no-win situation.
But Jesus, knowing the Pharisees motives, has no time for this game-playing and shows his frustration: “Why are you putting me to the test you hypocrites?”
And his answer to their trick question has literally gone down in history, so that even many people who aren’t Christians, who have never read the Bible, know the statement, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
But what does it mean, to give to the emperor the things that are his, and to God the things that are God’s?
We like to think that we are in control of events, that we are the master of our destiny, and we take pride in what we consider to be rightfully ours. But the economic condition in our country, the wars in many places of the world, the violence HERE, the fear over Ebola, the enterovirus which has claimed children not too far from where we live – and our own specific health and money troubles – remind us that we control very little, and in fact, don’t OWN anything.
Reality proves to us that while can control some small things in life, we are not in ULTIMATE control. Reality proves that practically anything, whether it be our financial well-being, our jobs, our physical health, are transient – they can be stripped of us at any moment.
You see, Jesus really gives the Pharisees a trick answer to their trick question.
At first glance we might think he’s saying, “Sure, give this to the emperor. Since it’s got his face on it, it’s his,” but in truth, Jesus’ answer challenges us way beyond that.
What is a coin made of? Most coins in the United States are made out of copper and nickel. Sure people and machines craft the coins, but who made the elements that make the coins? Who makes copper and nickel?
When we look around us, ALL we can see, taste, smell, touch and hear comes from God in one way or another. NOTHING belongs to the emperor. Everything even that pagan emperor owns or uses really belongs TO God, because it comes FROM God.
And what is true for that emperor is also true for us.
Everything we make, everything that we use, ultimately comes FROM God and belongs TO God – we are only the consumers and stewards of God’s goods and gifts.
When Jesus tells us to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s – he is really telling us that EVERYTHING belongs to God – everything we earn, everything we “think” we own, indeed everything we ARE.
We cannot compartmentalize our lives into “what belongs to the government,” “what belongs to my employer,” “what belongs to my family,” “what belongs to my church,” and “what belongs completely to me” – because it’s all God’s.
We belong to God, and because we belong to God, everything we do and say, everything we accomplish, the gifts and talents we have, even the money in our bank accounts – belong to God.
This is not something the Pharisees wanted to hear, and it’s not something we want to hear either. Our society is SO immersed in the idea of independence and self-reliance, that the thought of us just being “stewards” of our stuff rather than outright owners is cultural heresy.
But Jesus didn’t come to tell us what we want to hear. He didn’t come to help us feel comfortable. HE CAME TO SAVE US.
He saves us from our sins – and part of that is saving us from the false notion that we are the ones who MAKE or BREAK ourselves – that there is ANYTHING we have that doesn’t belong to God first of all.
For some, this might be disturbing, but for those suffering, for those “without,” for those of us who recognize we’re sinners in need of saving, this is the BEST news.
It is proof that God loves us all – the rich, the poor, the healthy, the sick, the popular, the bullied, those who think they have everything and those who believe they have nothing.
Because the Pharisees WERE right about one thing – Jesus shows NO partiality – we are all equally loved and all equally belong to God.