Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What Belongs to God (Matthew 22:15-22)

The Pharisees plotted. They wanted to figure out a way to entrap Jesus, to trick him into saying something blasphemous or seditious, something against God or against the emperor. Saying something against God or against the emperor would get Jesus in big trouble, which is what the Pharisees wanted.

I’m sure you never did such a thing. I know I didn’t. Not at all. I was the oldest of three siblings, and let me tell you, it’s always the younger siblings who get the older one in trouble. Who here is an oldest child? Am I right? Of course I am.

The Pharisees – these highly respected leaders of the faith – wanted to get Jesus in trouble because he had been telling stories. More specifically, he had been telling parables, in the temple, about the kingdom of God; and every parable made the Pharisees look bad. Every parable turned the world upside down. Every parable lifted up the lowly, and brought down the mighty. Every parable demonstrated God’s compassion for the poor, the outcast, the oppressed. Every parable condemned those who did little to alleviate their suffering.

The parables revealed that the Pharisees were more concerned with temple rituals, proper protocol, and maintaining their reputation than with acts of justice and compassion.

Don’t judge the Pharisees too harshly. They just wanted to see the Temple they loved so much taken care of. 90% of our churches today do the same thing. They spend more time worrying about the building than they do the ministry. They devote more energy to maintaining the institution than they do to making disciples. Most churches, and most church leaders, are guilty of that at least once in awhile. I won’t even exclude myself from that generalization. So please, don’t judge the Pharisees too harshly.

After all, it’s not easy being a spiritual role model. Maintaining a reputation for holiness and perfection is no easy task. To have someone come along and say you’re not as good as you pretend to be, that’s difficult.

It’s happened in our own church, our own denomination. People began to realize some time ago that even though we talked an awful lot about racial equality, we had far too few people of racial and ethnic minorities in top leadership positions.

We didn’t think we were racist. We talked about not being racist. And yet, somehow, most of our ministers and leaders were white.

It took awhile, but we finally realized that somehow, subconsciously perhaps, racism was still present, systemically, in the church.

This wasn’t news we wanted to hear. The temptation to argue it or deny it was strong. But fortunately we instead began to focus on being a pro-reconciliation, anti-racist church.

This has become one of the top priorities of our church. That’s why, once a year, we take up a special offering for our reconciliation ministry. That’s what the envelope in your bulletin is for. When we collect the offering later in a little while, we will actually be collecting two different offerings: our regular collection for the ministry of our congregation, and this special offering for reconciliation, to help us overcome the sin of racism.

So don’t judge the Pharisees too harshly. Our own experience with racism shows that it’s not easy to have one’s sins and deficiencies exposed. It is tempting to want to turn the tables, and get into trouble the one who is bringing those sins to light.

Jesus was bringing to light the sins of the Pharisees, so they tried to get Jesus in trouble by tricking him into saying something against God or against the emperor.

So they asked him: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” By “lawful” they meant Jewish law: Did the teachings of their faith allow one to pay taxes to the emperor?

Some things you need to know:

1. The emperor considered himself a god. Paying taxes is a form of tribute, is it not? Is it proper to offer tribute to a false god?

2. Many coins – not all, but many – bore the emperor’s image. Many Jews believed that using such coins was against the teachings of their faith, since they bore a graven image. The mere possession of such a coin was, for them, a sin.

So, for Jesus to say, “Yes, it’s okay to pay taxes to the emperor,” he would get in trouble with the strict teachings of many, including the Pharisees themselves.

On the other hand, if Jesus were to say, “No, it’s not okay to pay taxes to the emperor,” then he would get in trouble with Rome. He’d be accused of sedition, labeled a traitor. That would, in fact, happen to Jesus eventually, but this was not yet the time.

So how could Jesus safely answer the question?

Jesus said: “Show me a coin used for the tax.” Who has a coin? Did the Pharisees have a coin? Of course they did, because in addition to the tax for the emperor, there was also a temple tax that everyone was required to pay.

The Pharisees brought to Jesus a coin called a denarius. It was worth quite a bit. A hired worker could expect to receive one denarius for a full day of labor.

They handed the denarius to Jesus. He held it up so they could see it. He said to them, “Whose head is this on the coin? Whose title is this?”

Now remember: this is a graven image. And where did Jesus get it? From the Pharisees! Without even saying anything, Jesus had once again exposed the hypocrisy of this group of Pharisees, by showing that they themselves did not always follow the strict, burdensome rules that they imposed upon everyone else. How could they? No one could!

They answered his question: “It is the emperor’s image and title.”

Jesus replied, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

We are familiar with that statement. Maybe we’ve heard a slightly different version – “render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar,” perhaps – but we are familiar with the saying. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we know what to do with it.

Some think it provides a justification for the separation of church and state. I personally think our separation of church and state is a good thing, generally speaking, but I don’t think one can really justify it by using this particular saying.

Some think this saying provides a justification for the compartmentalization of our lives. No one compartmentalizes their lives better than modern-day Christians. We divide our lives into work and home, public and private, religious and non-religious. We go to church on Sunday mornings and we party it up on Friday night. We live for God at certain hours, and live for ourselves at other hours. We talk about God with our church friends, but never mention God to our work colleagues. We dedicate a portion of our money to God, and see nothing holy or sacred about the rest of what we have or how we spend it.

However, the earliest Christians saw their faith not as a religion that could be compartmentalized, but as a way of life. And scripture affirms that everything is sacred and holy.

Therefore the statement “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and give to God what belongs to God,” cannot be used to justify the compartmentalization and fragmentation and lack of integrity and wholeness of this modern way of living, dividing up one’s life into what’s holy and what is not. That’s not what this saying means.

Here is what I think Jesus meant. He held up the coin. He showed it to them. He asked them who’s image is on it. When they replied, “the emperor’s,” he said, “give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and give to God the things that belong to God.”

I think what Jesus was saying is this: “this coin is made in the image of the emperor. So why are you asking me about it? My concern, and the concern of the One who sent me, is with those who are made in the image of God. My concern is with those whom you have oppressed with your harsh demands, your burdensome requirements, and your lack of compassion.

“They are made in the image of God, and they belong to God, even though you erect barriers that keep them from God. In the same way, you yourselves are created in the image of God. Everything about you is holy. Everything. So why do you ask me a question which presumes that some things are holy and some are not?”

The other day, I happened to read about a group called the Beguines. The Beguines formed in the 1100s, almost a thousand years ago. They were a loosely-connected, grassroots movement of laywomen devoted to prayer, simplicity, and service. They were not monastics, they did not live in convents, although they did live together in community.

In a book on church history by Diana Butler Bass, I read that “some of the Beguines blamed the social order for medieval problems. They connected an increase in poverty and suffering to the growth of a moneyed class, new consumerism, and a tepid church.”

Reading that, I wondered: how can the church be “tepid” in a world of injustice? How can the church fail to see the suffering of the poor, the oppressed, much less fail to work for justice? Could it be that the church in the 12th century believed that maintaining the institution was more important than working on behalf of the poor? Had the work of maintaining the institution blinded the church to the image of God present in every person, particularly the “least of these?”

When I read about the Beguines, I thought: Wow. That sounds a lot like 2011. An increase in poverty. The growth of a moneyed class. New consumerism. And a tepid church that is mostly unconcerned by such things.

And I wonder if we have just as hard a time today seeing the image of God in all people, as the church leaders in the 12th century had, or as the Pharisees in Jesus’ time had. We talk about the image of God, but are we more concerned with the images of Caesar that we carry around in our wallets and purses?

The Pharisees believed that it was more important to get the poor to follow their standards of proper living than it was to actually help them. They thought that they could make people into God’s image by making them more like themselves. They didn’t see that God’s image was already there, in the poor, the suffering, the oppressed.

The trial and death of Jesus should make it very clear that the image of God is found among the suffering poor, and not among the centers of power and wealth.

The image of God is more likely to be found among those who march through the streets of Jerusalem than it is among those who sit on seats of power and authority.

The image of God is more likely to be found among the persecuted than it is among those who are doing the persecuting.

It’s everywhere, the image of God, in every person, but it’s easier to find in some than it is in others.

And for some people… for some who have been beat down, bullied, harassed, cast out of the temple, forced out into the streets, and denied a place at the banquet table… for some people, the hardest place to find the image of God, the hardest place to find anything holy … is within. For some people, who have been told over and over that they just aren’t good enough, the holiness within is very hard to see.

And yet, God is there. God is present. You have been created in the image of God. You belong to God. You belong to God.

Give to God what belongs to God.

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