What is God’s?
The sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Oct. 22 2017
Pastor Will Rose
Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96:1-9(10-13), 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
(In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)
Pop Quiz for all my Geeky friends out there…
What character in what movie screamed out, “It’s a trap!”
Answer = Admiral Akbar from The Return of the Jedi
Yep, a memorable quote from a memorable movie.
A movie and story where the rebels feel like they are going to surprise attack the Galactic Empire BUT the Empire was all too ready for them.
Today as I read our Gospel lesson from Matthew…
I want to scream out to Rabbi Jesus (who is leading a small band of rebels against a huge Empire), “It’s a trap!”
In the gospel of Matthew, here is the story in its context.
Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Passover.
He is only a few days away from his last supper with his disciples.
While in Jerusalem he made a scene in the Temple driving out the money changers and turning over tables.
He has been teaching his followers and onlookers using his favorite tool – the Parable.
Now these Parables of late have had quite a bite to them.
These parables have turned peoples understanding of the Kingdom of God upside down, while at the same time calling out the religious establishment.
All of this did not sit well with those with power and in charge.
And so they thought, it’s time to get rid of Jesus.
But here is the problem.
He’s too popular to have him arrested or assassinated.
So they come up with a plan.
In a public setting they will catch him off guard and use his own rebellious teachings and words against him.
They want Jesus to walk into a sound bite that gets him in trouble with those who follow him or with the government who can have him put away.
So what topic to they pick… TAXES!
(some things never change, taxes were just as controversial then as they are now)
You see, like us, the Hebrews of Jesus’ day were strapped with many onerous taxes…
There was the Temple Tax, a tax given to the religious establishment.
There was also the custom tax and tax on the land.
And for this week’s tension and controversy there arose yet another tax, an annual tribute tax paid to Rome…
Hence, the loaded question, “Is it right to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
As might expect, there were lots of different opinions, and many different ways to answer this question.
There were those who you might call “realists” who collaborated and co-operated with Rome and paid the tax, no questions asked.
Perhaps out of affiliation but most likely as a survival strategy…. the Romans did have this torture and killing devise called the cross to help change minds.
Then there were the “idealists”, these were those who were more zealous for their independence, freedom and tradition.
They saw the Roman occupation and taxation as exploitation and as a form of idolatry.
The Pharisees despised Rome.
The Herodians sided with Rome.
Two different world views and on different sides of the issue who didn’t get a long at all… but, it took the threat of Jesus to pull them together.
So they approach Jesus, they butter him up a bit –
“Rabbi, we know you are a sincere teacher in the ways of God,
and you love everyone, you don’t pick favorites…
So tell us, should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Up pops Admiral Akbar! “It’s a trap!”
If Jesus says “Yes” it means he sides with Rome and his following would turn on him and label him a false prophet.
If Jesus says “No” this would label him a tax-dodger.
Rome would come rushing in and would handle the dirty work of those who want him arrested, or better yet, killed.
They had Jesus right where they wanted.
So what is it Jesus? Tell us…
Yes or No? Either, Or? Black or White?
But with most things in life, it’s not as easy as yes or no,
either – or, black or white.
Jesus doesn’t let you put him in a box. He is not easily trapped or domesticated.
Jesus asks for a coin. They give him a denarius. (a coin worth a day’s pay)
The coin most likely has the picture or engraved image of the emperor Tiberius, who ruled Rome during that time.
Under his image it most likely says, “Tiberius, son of the Divine August” declaring the emperor a god.
On the other side of the coin it declares Emperor Tiberius “pontifex maximus”, that is the chief priest of Roman polytheism.
So the two sides of the coin declare and celebrate that this emperor has absolute religious and civil authority.
(If that sounds scary, it should)
For the Hebrew who held on to a monotheistic world view and who believes what we heard from the Prophet Isaiah this morning, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.”
This coin, this graven image was blasphemy and offensive.
And so Jesus answers there well planned question with a question.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?”
Easy, “the emperor…” It bears the image of Caesar.
“Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.”
Along with the original audience we give a sigh of relief…
Close call Jesus.
You are right, it’s only money.
The government can do its thing over here and we will do our God thing over there.
But is that what Jesus is saying?
This past weekend we hosted our annual Fall Confirmation Retreat.
Our theme, our Faith and Pop-Culture or Our Faith and daily living.
On the first night on chart paper we listed everything we do with and in Church, on Sunday – pray, sing, read, listen, sit, stand… count window’s, doodle and draw on the bulletin… admire the shine on Pastor Will head. Nothing surprising.
And then on another piece of chart paper we listed everything we do the rest of the week – eat, sleep, go to school, read, listen, doodle on our paper in class, social media, watch Netflix, and so on.
We then looked at the similarities and how often faith and our daily lives intersect. Faith isn’t just a Sunday thing.
God moves and flows in all aspects of our lives.
In our relationships, in our education, in our entertainment, in our politics, in our lives.
It is a “trap” to think we can compartmentalize our lives.
God over here.
School over there.
Government over here.
Family and friends over there.
Our lives are more fluid than that.
Our lives are more complicated and messy than that.
Rob Bell in his talk “Everything is Spiritual” shares that there isn’t a Hebrew word for “spiritual”. That Jesus didn’t have a phrase in his vocabulary for the “the spiritual life.” (I encourage you to watch Bell’s Everything is Spiritual on Youtube)
Everything IS spiritual… even how we use our money.
Yes, those wanting to trap Jesus were amazed and they left him and went away…
But Jesus leaves us with a nagging question…
“If we are to give to God what is God’s… what does that mean?”
What is God’s?
Oh boy, now we can really get controversial.
What is God’s?
When studying this gospel lesson for today the youth on the confirmation retreat… said “everything”.
God owns everything.
Do we owe God a mere temple tax, or do we owe God everything.
At the core of this story is not the issue of our economic relationship to a government, although that too is a spiritual matter, but rather this story challenges the many idols competing for our allegiance and about our relationship with God.
On that ancient denarius was an image of Caesar,
But every human being bears the image of God.
This was proclaimed from the very beginning.
And in our faith tradition, in our Lutheranism… in our catholicity, we proclaim in your baptism you are marked and sealed with the cross of Christ forever.
On your forehead and on your heart you bear the image of Christ.
This shapes how we see ourselves and how we see others.
This impacts how we see and treat every person we come in contact with.
And as we begin to see that all things belong to God,
including me and all that makes me… me,
this shapes our stewardship and our discipleship.
I do hope and pray that you grow in your understanding that you are created in the image of God and nothing can take that away from you.
I hope and pray that you reflect and pray on what you render to God and how you see and treat your fellow human beings who are created in the image of God.
This isn’t a trap or a trick.
This is good news that the one who lived, died and rose again for us calls and claims us as his own.
So now go and give to God what is God’s.