Getting Whose What StraightOctober 16, 2005, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
No, it is not a typo in the sermon title. And no, it is not a grammatical mistake--I've been asked that more than once this week. This is not about "Getting Who is What Straight." It is about getting straight whose what. The "whose" in the sermon title is not a contraction of "who is," it is the possessive pronoun of "who." To whom does the what of our lives belong?
Jesus has just been confronted by the Pharisees and the Herodians about what belongs to whom--in this case, the choices are between the Emperor and God. The confrontation takes place in Jerusalem as Jesus is teaching in the Temple. The controversy surrounding him has escalated significantly; increasingly, the crowd thinks Jesus a prophet, while the religious leaders are becoming more and more angered and frightened by him as a threat to their privileged status, and the stability of their balanced relationship with Rome. In a series of three parables, which we have heard read on the last three successive Sundays, Jesus tells the chief priests, elders and other religious leaders that the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of them.1 God is about to take the kingdom away from the religious establishment, and give it to those producing fruits of the kingdom.2 No wonder the Pharisees have cooked up a plot to entrap Jesus with his own words. Taking some members of a Jewish party that supported the rule of Herod--appropriately named the Herodians--the Pharisees approach Jesus with flattering words and ask him a no-win question: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
It is a no-win question because, regardless of what Jesus says--"yes" or "no"--he will be in trouble. A "yes" will discredit him with the crowd, as there was great animosity among the people concerning Roman taxes. The taxation policy Rome instituted in 6 AD had sparked many a Jewish revolt, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 AD.3 Many Jews of the day considered paying the tax to Rome an act of treason. Even handling the coin with Caesar's image on it--a violation of the second commandment--was considered an act of unfaithfulness, for it bore an inscription declaring Caesar divine; it was not only idolatrous, it was blasphemous. On the other hand, if Jesus said "no" to the tax, he would be guilty of treason against Rome, with the Herodians standing nearby, ready to act as witnesses against him. They had Jesus just where they wanted him, and knew it. He was in a real double bind.
Matthew tells us that Jesus is aware of their malice. One commentator points out that the word translated here as "malice" is equally translatable "evil," as in "deliver us from evil" in the Lord's Prayer. Similarly, Jesus' question to them: "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?" uses the same word for "test" that is the word for "temptation" in the Lord's Prayer. In fact these two words are used earlier in this gospel to describe the work of Satan and the devil.4 In other words, Jesus knows that this is more than a clash between him and religious leaders: he is again grappling with the one he encountered in the wilderness temptations, working in and through these religious leaders to draw him into a religious power struggle that will ultimately bring about his death.5
quot;Show me the coin used for the tax." Notice, Jesus doesn't have one. He has not made such accommodation to Rome. But also notice who does: the very people questioning him about the legality of paying the tax, the religious leaders. Producing the coin in the sacred precincts of the Temple, they unwittingly reveal their own complicity in yielding their religious convictions to the necessity of political realities. It is the situation the church frequently finds itself confronting in the world of real-politik as we struggle to balance life between God and Caesar. As New Testament scholar Fred B. Craddock has observed, in Matthew's world, Caesar was still Caesar, the tax was still due, and Christians were still struggling with the place of Caesar in life when Christ was Lord.6 That has not changed much. You and I still struggle with such questions. How do we live out Christ's lordship in our lives when dealing with the powers and principalities of political life, whether that is about going to war, building affordable housing, responding to famine in Africa, or the mundane of the incessant parades and activated parking meters on Sundays? We remember the Apostle Paul's words to us from several Sundays ago, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling."7 The issue has not changed in 2,000 years, only the circumstances.
quot;Whose image and inscription is on it?" They answered: "The emperor's." "Then give it to him! Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are God's." The Pharisees and Herodians are astounded; they walk away closed-mouthed, once again outwitted. But Jesus has done more than outwit his antagonists. With the addition of the second phrase, "give to God the things that are God's," Jesus has not only stepped out of the trap, he has upped the entire stakes of the confrontation. This is about more than Roman taxes, coins with idolatrous images and inscriptions stamped upon them, or giving government what it is due. This is about whose image is stamped upon us. Whose what are you?
What does it mean that God not only made you and me in God's image, but, after we had sullied and warped that image, came among us in Jesus Christ to restore it? What does it mean that God not only died for us in Jesus Christ, but more, has taken up residence in each of us as we put on the risen Christ in baptism in order to restore us? What does it look like to bear Christ--be Christ's stuff--in this city, not simply in this sanctuary, but as we leave it and go to our homes, go to our buildings with the struggles between tenants, go to our workplaces with the vortex of those compromising questions and challenges, the clubs, service organizations, volunteer opportunities--any of those arenas which place lord-like demands upon us?
Hear this good news: you and I belong to the One who is Lord of all life, who is sovereign, and at work in and through us as we bear him faithfully, and even at work in our moments of unfaithfulness, to bring them into conformity with his purposes. Jesus has taken a question about taxes and transformed it into a lesson on stewardship. Giving to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's is about stewardship--what you and I do with the life God has given us.
The theme of this year's stewardship campaign is "Abundant Living, Abundant Giving." Looking at the theme with the materials the committee has sent to us, it occurred to me that the words "living" and "giving" can be transposed, yet say the same thing: abundant living leads to abundant giving when you and I are straight about whose what, when it is done for Christ's sake. You will hear more about this in the coming weeks. Today, let me say only this, when you and I are straight about whose we are, a shift takes place in life. We are lifted out of preoccupation with the penultimates of life that so often preoccupy us, and find ourselves centered in the ultimate: the presence of God in us and the assurance and purpose that brings to life.
quot;Whose what" are we? Whose mark and inscription are on you? Getting straight about that raises life to a level that is more than existence, more than eking out a living, more than politics, more than business, more than art, more than career, more than family, more than--you fill in the blank with those other penultimate things in life that try to lord it over you. Getting whose what straight reminds us that we are more than ourselves, and more than the sum total of our gene pool. We belong to God in Christ; as we bear Christ, he bears each one of us within himself. That means Christ goes before us. Christ comes behind us. Christ walks with us in our daily activities, relationships and endeavors, empowering us to see all of life as an abundant gift, and all of living as an opportunity to serve him. He promises that as we do, life will become abundant.
Abundant living, abundant giving: whose what are you?
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.
- Matthew 21:31b.
- Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year A, (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), p. 483. See also Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching, A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year A, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 533. The Roman tax triggered the nationalism that finally grew into what was called the Zealot movement--a rebellion that only ended with the disastrous war of 66-70, when Titus burned Jerusalem to the ground and destroyed the Temple, leaving not one stone upon another.
- Matthew 4:1,3; 6:13. Cf. Craddock, op cit., p. 483.
- Matthew 4:1-11.
- Craddock, 483.
- Philippians 2:12-13.
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