The collect and readings for today, the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24A, may be found here. The following sermon is based on Matthew 22:15-22.
There’s a saying you may know. “Paybacks are hell.” I don’t know if the Pharisees of Jesus’ day knew that saying but they are counting on it being true. They are angry, fearful, and perhaps a bit embarrassed. They are looking for some Jesus payback. What they aren’t counting on is getting paid back.
Jesus has been whacking pretty hard on the establishment, the religious leaders. It’s Holy Week in today’s gospel. Jesus rides into town and goes to the temple where he drives out the merchants and overthrows the money changers’ tables. Then he calls everyone a bunch of thieves. To make matters worse he heals the lame and blind. That really makes the chief priests and scribes angry. “Who do you think you are?” “By what authority are you doing these things,” they ask him. He doesn’t answer them. Instead he says that they are like a disobedient kid, worse than the very people they judge and condemn as disobedient. But he doesn’t stop there.
He tells them a story about tenants of a vineyard who steal from the landlord and murder his son. They realize he is not talking about tenants of a vineyard. He is talking about them. They decide to get him but they are scared of the crowds. Jesus is on a roll so he tells them another story. This one is about a wedding banquet, the kind they would be invited to. But the story doesn’t end the way they expect. One of the guests gets tied up and thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Enough is enough. The religious leaders about whom Jesus is speaking plot how they can trap Jesus. Things are so bad that they bring in the Herodians as co-conspirators. They join forces with the party that supports Rome’s domination of their own people. Politics, anger, and fear are a dangerous combination that makes for unlikely alliances.
They start with flattery. “We know that you are true, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth; and show deference to know one.” They are buttering him up; hoping Jesus will let down his guard. “What do you think,” they ask.“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
I have to say that the former trial lawyer in me admires their question. If Jesus says yes, he risks offending and losing his followers and all those for whom Roman taxation is a daily reminder that they are dominated by a foreign power in their own land. If he says no, he risks being charged with insurrection and treason. Rome’s supporters, the Herodians, are there as witnesses.
We’ve got to understand that this question is not about taxes, the government, Roman occupation of the Jews, or the separation of church and state. It’s about an agenda. The Pharisees and Herodians don’t care what the answer is. Either way they’ve got him.
The questions may be different but the Pharisaic-Herodian conspiracy is still a part of our world today. It’s played out every time we over simplify complex issues, categorize people, pigeon hole parts of our lives, and try to manipulate Jesus.
Is homosexuality lawful? Say yes and you will be labeled a revisionist, a progressive who denies the authority of Holy Scripture. Say no and you will be accused of being homophobic, prejudiced, and denying the gospel’s message of love and inclusivity.
Is abortion permissible? Say yes and you will be seen as supporting the killing of babies, one who ignores the commandment against murder. Say no and you contradict a woman’s constitutional right as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.
Do you support America’s wars? Say no and you will be seen as unpatriotic and failing to support our troops. Say yes and you have to answer for the violence, death, and destruction that seem so contrary to Jesus’ life and teaching.
In whatever form it takes, the Pharisaic-Herodian conspiracy is about power, manipulation, and agendas. That always destroys relationships and undermines faith. Sadly, that is all too evident today in our political and economic systems as well as in our churches.
Jesus, however, will not allow himself to be used, manipulated, or co-opted by anyone: the Pharisees, the Herodians, or us. He asks them whose image is on the tax coin. “The emperor’s,” they answer. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That former trial lawyer in me wants to stand up and say, “Objection, your honor. The answer is unresponsive. The question calls for a yes or no answer.”
Jesus refuses to play the game. He doesn’t answer their question; at least not in the way they want. Instead he deepens the question and turns it into a question of faith and life. If the coin belongs to the emperor then the human being belongs to God. Each has been marked with the image of its owner. We have been coined in the image of God. As the Book of Common Prayer says, we have been “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
Knowing this, what does faithfulness look like in the issues with which you struggle? It’s a hard question, one that is answered neither easily nor quickly. For most of us it is the work of a lifetime. Jesus does not offer simple yes or no type answers. So why should we? Faithfulness demands more than that. It means we are continually learning to pay back, surrender, and render to God ourselves and one another. How will you do that for yourselves, those you love, your neighbor, your enemy? The key it seems is knowing to whom we belong. It’s one of those answers, however, that cannot be told or taught, only experienced and learned. Faithfulness is more about struggle and practice than it is the answer. It is done at the depths of our image. Get the image right and most everything else will follow.
There will always be issues to address: taxes, economics, church-state relationships, war, homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, personal finances, marriage, children. The list will go on and on. Some are global while others are more local and personal. The danger is that in dealing with the issues we sometimes deny, confuse, or forget in whose image we and “the other” have been coined.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus is not separating the secular and the sacred, spirit and matter, divine and human. He is inviting us to hold them in tension; to unite the two and in so doing become the currency of God’s life in the world.