Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sermon, Proper 24A, Matthew 22:15-22

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and render unto God the things that are God's.

This story is rich with texture and meaning that we sometimes overlook. We need to remember where Jesus is. He has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey. He has kicked out the merchants and made a mess of the money-changers in the temple. He has told revisionist parables that speak directly to the religious leaders. And he is just two days away from his crucifixion.

He has really upset things, not the least of which was by telling those in positions of authority and power that their love of those earthly things meant nothing. Jesus is putting forth this idea that those people the leaders considered outcast, impure and beyond redemption, were, in fact, the very people God is reaching out to. And we can either recognize that fact and work to be inclusive and welcoming to all, or we can ignore that fact and be left out in the darkness.

So Jesus is not very popular with the leading authorities right now; hence they try to entrap him so that either the Roman government will eliminate him or so that the crowds will abandon him. And who tries to entrap him? The Pharisees and the Herodians. Nothing brings people together like a common enemy.

The Pharisees, remember, were a group focused on obeying the law and purity codes, and ensuring that they weren't tainted by the presence of outsiders. The Herodians, on the other hand, were a group comfortable in Roman alliances as a way to ensure at least some level of self-governance amidst the occupation. The religiously pure have allied themselves with those they consider apostate in an effort to defeat a common threat: Jesus.

These two different groups try to trap him with a question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? If he says, "No," the Roman officials will arrest him for sedition. If he says, "Yes," then he upsets his fan base by agreeing to meekly cave to the occupying Roman government as well as turning his back on their religion. Part of the issue here is that some of those religiously pure leaders saw the use of Roman coins as a form of idol worship.

In reply, Jesus asks for a coing. "Whose image is on it?" he asks. The simple answer here is that the coin is stamped with the image of the emperor, but we are stamped with the image of God. Therefore it's not about paying taxes but returning that which is stamped to where it came from. Coins stamped with the emperor's likeness should be returned to the emperor. We, however, are stamped with the likeness of God and we should dedicate ourselves to working for him.

The complicated answer here is, where did the coin come from? He asks his accusers to give him a coin, which they do. If paying taxes, or using money that smacked of idol worship or submitting to the Roamn authority, was such an affront to their religious purity, why were they carrying around Roman money? They got so caught up on one issue, paying taxes, that they neglected to see the larger picture.

In today's world, this scenario and this question might looke like this: Are you pro-life? After all, the Bible says, "Thou shalt not kill;" yet abortionist are killing tens of thousands of innocent babies every year. And there are many Christian denominations and organizations that work hard to have abortion outlawed.

However, those same people who are adamant about preserving the life of an unborn child at any cost are often the same people who are adamantly in support of a war based on lies and non-existent links. Those same people don't bat an eye over how many civilians have died in Iraq because those other people are either evil terrorists or evil Muslims. And those same people pay equally little attention to the almost 4200 U.S. soldiers who have been killed since the war began. Maybe we all need to remember that life doesn't end after birth. We can get so caught up in the single issue of abortion that we neglect to see the larger picture of valuing life for all.

And this is the problem with this story -- the problem of compartmentalization. We hear the words of Jesus, "Give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and give to God that which is God's," and we begin to focus on the single issue of separation. We start to try to figure out who is Caesar in our lives and give to it that which it claims, while at the same time trying to figure out what's left that belongs to God.

With all due respect, we have gotten it wrong. We need to not compartmentalize this story. We need to stop focusing on the single, narrow issue of what we pay to Caesar and God, and we need to widen our focus. We need to realize that, ultimately, everything belongs to God.

In the beginning, God created . . .
And God said, "Let us make humans in our own image."
And God brought forth Adam and placed him in the garden.
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your soul."

As we approach that time of year when I ask how you can best contribute to the life of our parish, and that time of year when our vestries work on the budget, I would ask you to widen your focus. I would ask you to not compartmentalize God. I would ask you to start from the position that everything belongs to God and that we should do our best to return to him that which he has given us.

Give to God that which is God's; for only by giving of ourselves will we be filled.


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