Sunday, October 30, 2011

"You're So Vain..."

I drew, as usual, from many sources for help in writing this sermon. First, my thanks to Rev. Barbara Vaughan for inspiration, to Kathryn Matthews Huey, the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, Lindy Black, "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary," and Robert Hamerton-Kelly for their research and writing. I am always humbled and honored to be able to draw upon the wisdom of so many in writing these sermons.

Joshua 3:7-17
The LORD said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’” Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the LORD your God.” Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”
When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

Matthew 23:1-12
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Back in 1972, Carly Simon released a song called, “You’re So Vain.” The chorus began, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” I bring this up because I think, all too often, we Christians tend to be so vain, we think this Gospel reading is not about us…

Oh, sure, Jesus is taking the Scribes and the Pharisees to task; in fact, this whole twenty-third chapter of Matthew is about the Scribes and Pharisees. And there was plenty to criticize, after all. The Pharisees had a reputation for being well-educated in the Law, and scrupulous about adhering to its letter. In Jesus’ day, synagogues had stone seats for the rabbi that was responsible for teaching and interpreting the Law. It is no accident that the person most often filling the seat was a Pharisee. Called “the chair of Moses,” it represented the lineage and authority of the most beloved prophet in Judaism.

And it’s interesting that Jesus does not dispute that authority; in fact, he encourages his Jewish listeners to “do whatever they teach you and follow it.” The problem he points out is that the Pharisees aren’t simply guilty of not practicing what they preach, they are guilty of practicing the things they do for the wrong reasons.

“…They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long...” – these were the symbols of a devout Jew: The phylacteries were little boxes containing passages of the Law that were to be tied to the arm or the forehead. The fringe Jesus referred to was actually a requirement of the Law, from Numbers 15:37-39: “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribbon of blue. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them…”

Their authority in the synagogue and the community meant that they could count on having a place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the worship services, deferential greetings in public places, and important titles. And this power, this recognition, this public honor became the center of their attention.

Now, I do not deny that it’s fun to pile on the Pharisees. They give us plenty of ammunition, after all, and there’s no doubt that they deserve every word Jesus fires off at them in this chapter. But it is a sad-but-true fact that, while Scripture can be, and often is, entertaining, the value of the Word of God is not in enjoying the narrative, but in finding the life-changing truth it contains.

With this in mind, the challenge becomes resisting the temptation to place ourselves in the text where we are naturally inclined to – right behind Jesus, cheering him on against those corrupt and evil Pharisees, those hypocrites! But, in the words of Huck Finn, “They been dead a considerable long time. . . .(and) I don’t take no stock in dead people.”

In other words, there’s little or no value in just being the Jesus Cheering Section here. As Robert Hamerton-Kelly suggests, we make a morally and spiritually fatal mistake by joining Jesus in excoriating the hypocrites, his fellow Jewish hypocrites, when we should be joining the hypocrites and listening to Jesus with fear and trembling, excoriating us. Jesus is speaking to us, to me and to you, in our own, present day, alive and well hypocrisy.

Think of it – we spend far too much time arguing over which essentially interchangeable political figure from whatever political party would be the best leader for the country while fifteen million children, in America, live in poverty. Famous religious leaders pontificate about moral issues affecting people other than themselves, while on the horn of Africa, millions of people face starvation due to drought and famine the likes of which haven’t been seen in a quarter century. Denominations argue publicly and privately over points of doctrine, often becoming so acrimonious that people who may have been curious about this God fellow are in the end repulsed, and never hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know which is harder to talk about in church, money or pride. This is Reformation Sunday, and it remembers the time when Martin Luther, fed up with the excesses of pride found in the Church, posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany, in hopes that his words would encourage self-reflection and change in the leadership.

The reaction he got from the church leadership, of course, wasn’t self-reflection but condemnation and eventually excommunication. And while I would like to say that the Protestant movement which resulted from the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses learned its lesson, and proceeded to develop in humility, always careful to provide leaders who were first and foremost servants, we all know that this has not been the case.

The arguments over which doctrine is purest, which theology is most flawless, what kind of piano to have in the sanctuary, what color the hymnbooks should be, whose preacher is better, who can and cannot serve in leadership capacities in congregations, all of these points of pride and contention have caused the Protestant Reformation to splinter, shatter, schism, and splinter yet again, until something more than thirty thousand denominations exist within that movement.

But with all of that, we must hold in tension the fact that the word “pride” is not always a bad word. That sense of worth we may find in our identity can be a source of strength without making us “too big for our britches.” The idea of “self-esteem” may have become overblown, to the point where we feel we are so special and unique and gifted, it’s hard to see where the needs and intrinsic value of others fit in. Yet at its most basic, self-esteem is not a bad thing, either.

There are many people in the Christian community who are at long last claiming their rightful place after being kept down as individuals or as a community. Feminist Theology and Liberation Theology are just two examples of ways that Christianity is seeking insight into the experience of people who have been traditionally excluded and minimized, especially in communities of faith, offering women in the first instance, and the poor in the second instance, an opportunity to recover their own sense of self, their own dignity.

And that's not what Jesus is criticizing in this passage. In fact, we might read this text as a kind of release from the pressures of our own Western culture, which too often encourages us into that vicious cycle of chasing after higher and higher positions, more and more recognition, bigger and better and newer stuff. This is an opportunity to break free from the tedium of “me first,” where the only reason to go to church is to “get something out of the service,” where the primary reason to follow Christ is to avoid going to Hell.

Molly Ivins once described people who wanted to be Texans, but aren’t, as “all hat and no cattle.” And that phrase would describe a Christian who does not take time to carefully examine the log in their own eye before pointing out the speck in another’s. Oh, make no mistake, we may admire people who “walk the walk and talk the talk,” but the fact is that our walk won’t ever match our talk, not when we are talking about the Kingdom of God. But that’s OK, you see… as long as we both know this fact, are uncomfortable enough with it to want to change it, and don’t exhaust ourselves spiritually by trying to hide it.

The fact that our talk will never match out walk doesn’t make us all hypocrites. The root of the word “hypocrite” actually comes from the Greek theater, and it’s a technical term used for someone who performs a dramatic text – someone who acts, pretends to be something they are not. But, as the eighteenth-century author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson pointed out, hypocrisy is not simply failing to practice those virtues that one preaches. He wrote, “Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.” True hypocrisy, like that practiced by the Pharisees, is found in pretending to have arrived at the end of that voyage without ever having actually set foot on the boat in the first place.

We are always traveling, and we are forever students, forever learning to live in this outrageous, egregiously extravagant grace of God. That’s why we call this a faith journey – both living in, and constantly traveling toward that now-and-coming Kingdom. And we do not undertake this glorious voyage alone. We are part of a community of saints, none better than another, but all called to serve one another in love, and in the humility which not only does not think of ourselves as better than another, but doesn’t think less of ourselves than we ought.

We are, all of us, children of the Most High God, each of us chosen vessels of the Holy Spirit, called and variously equipped on our journey to serve God, one another, and this world that Jesus died for.

Jesus says to us (and this is from today’s reading, in Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” translation, “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant...if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Not Optional...

Thanks to Lindy Black, Wayne Brouwer, Kathryn Matthews Huey, Clayton Schmit, and Christopher, "The Twisted Christian," for expertise and assistance in writing this sermon.

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain — that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees — as far as Zoar. The LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses.
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Matthew 22:34-46
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. and a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,  “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

This is the Word of the Lord.

This passage represents only a small part of an ongoing effort on the part of the religious and political elite to discredit Jesus, to make him contradict himself, perhaps even make him commit an act of treason. It’s said that “politics makes strange bedfellows,” and the fact that the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians, who didn’t agree about anything, ever, were working together against Jesus speaks volumes about the danger he posed to the powers that be, to the status quo.

With that said, this Pharisee, an expert in the law, who asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest, well, he must not have been having a good day.

I mean, think of it: The Law of Moses is not two, or ten, or even a hundred laws. There are, by some counts, over six hundred, and some of them can be pretty tricky. There are, of course, laws about eating: what food you can eat, what food you can’t eat; there are laws about harvesting and what kind of clothes to wear and about feasts and festivals and sacrifices and tithing and offerings and protecting against mildew, there are laws about everything! If this guy was really an expert in the Law of Moses, why, I bet he could have come up with some arcane, little-known law that hadn’t been used since King David was tending sheep!

Instead he tossed him a softball, almost as if all this lawyer wanted Jesus to do was to prove that he was Jewish. Or perhaps he wanted to see if Jesus would speak against the Law, thus committing heresy, or perhaps he expected Jesus to be the one to pull up some ancient law that no one alive had ever heard of, touting that as more important than the other six-hundred-and-change.

But when Jesus answers this legal expert, it isn’t with a clever turn of phrase; he doesn’t even really say anything new! He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and the last part of Leviticus 19:18. And most scholars agree that Jesus wasn’t even the first among teachers and rabbis one to put them together like that.

This answer isn’t even what shuts the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Herodians down. It’s what Jesus says next about the divine origin of the Messiah, the Christ.

So if he was only saying what every good Jewish male old enough to recite Scripture already knew, I have to wonder why Matthew – himself a good Jewish male – even bothered to put it in the Gospel as he wrote it.

And I hesitate to say this, because it almost sounds trite, or sentimentalized, and I tried to find a way to say it that didn’t go all Hallmark on us…

But I really think that this is here, in this specific context, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for us. And by “us,” I mean every human being on Earth who desires a closer relationship with their Creator, but who may not have been brought up in a strictly Jewish tradition, for whom “loving God and neighbor as yourself” would not have been a lifelong teaching, for whom Jesus’ answer to the lawyer wouldn’t have been a “duh” statement.

And I think it’s there, and in that context, and stated in that way, not only because the two points that Jesus make are important, but because those two points that Jesus makes are inseparable.

Loving God and loving your neighbor have a very specific meaning here. Remember that the Gospels were written in Greek, and ancient Greek had no less than three words for “love.”

The kind of love that we are perhaps most familiar with, the kind of love one feels, the kind of love that stirs our hearts and our passions, is “eros.” That word doesn’t show up in the New Testament.

Then there’s “philos,” which means a kind of brotherly love, friendship, comradeship. In the last chapter of the Gospel of John, when Jesus asked Peter three times “do you love me,” it’s how Peter kept responding. “Lord, you know I’m your friend.”

Both of those words indicate more of an emotion, a feeling, than anything else.

Emotions are complicated, of course. We are familiar with love as an emotion, but the way most Americans use the word is devoid of that kind of emotion. Much of the time, “love” is used as nothing more than an emotionally stronger word than “like.” With that kind of “love,” saying we love God, even believing that we love God, is pretty easy. I love to watch Kevin Spacey or Pauley Perrette act, I love buddy bars and coffee, I love college football and NASCAR, I love Jesus and God… you get the idea. If we can treat God as a concept, if we can make this idea of God into one where God is our buddy, a cosmic vending machine or a doting, slightly forgetful grandfather, then we can “love” God, meaning we derive as much pleasure from God as we do from a good football game or a nice cup of coffee.

Even if we acknowledge the emotional component of love – romantic or friendly kinds of love, the “eros” or the “philos,” we could still love God, to a degree. But to love God in the way that Jesus specifies in our reading today, with all our heart, mind, and soul? If we think of love as an emotion, that seems pretty much impossible. How does one conjure up feelings for something as remote, mysterious, and disembodied as the concept of God? We cannot look into God's eyes, wrap our arms around the Spirit, or even see the face of Jesus.  If we could, that might evoke in us a profound feeling of love. We might fall in love with Jesus' beauty and grace if we could know him as Mary and Martha did. But we can’t. Christ has risen, has ascended, is at the right hand of God, preparing a place for us, and we are left with the commandment to love an intangible God.

Is Jesus calling upon us to do the impossible?


The word that is used in our Gospel lesson today for how we love God and love our neighbor is “agape.” I’ve seen it described as a “passionless” kind of love, a kind of love separate from feelings, and I’m not sure I like that, but “agape” is certainly something that can, and often must, operate separate from, and sometimes counter to, our emotions.

Agape, you see, is active love. Love that is not necessarily felt, but love that is done. Love which is a verb.

English writer GK Chesterton once said of this Gospel lesson, “Jesus here tells us to love our neighbors.  Elsewhere the Bible tells Jesus said we should love our enemies.  This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.”

This love toward our neighbors is inseparable from love for God – with all our heart, soul, and mind – precisely because it is love lived-as-a-verb, an active reflection of the extravagant, abundant love God has shown for us in Jesus Christ.

This is not a surprise; in fact, the same book of Leviticus which Jesus drew from for the phrase, “love your neighbor as yourself” details for those who follow the Law of Moses just how loving your neighbor looks:

Leviticus 19:9-18 tells us that the person who loves his or her neighbor: will not reap the fields bare, but will leave some for the poor, will not steal, will not deal falsely, will not lie, will not swear falsely by God's name, will not defraud a neighbor, will not keep a laborer's wages overnight, will not “revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind,” will not render an unjust judgment, will not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, will judge the neighbor with justice, will not engage in slander, will not profit by the blood of the neighbor, will not hate the neighbor, and will not take vengeance or bear a grudge.

Yet with all of that, Jesus’ summarization of the Law is not intended to be a checklist. Rather, Jesus is laying out a worldview. The question becomes, how do we see ourselves, others, and God in this life? Jesus reminds us of the basics found in love.

I read an excerpt this week from Ernest Gordon's book, To End All Wars. It is the true account of what took place in the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp made famous by the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. The camp stood at the end of the Bataan death march that so few survived. These Allied soldiers, deep in the jungles of Asia, teamed up in pairs for survival, each watching out for a buddy.

One prisoner was six-foot-three, and built like a tower of iron. His fellow captives thought, if any could come out of this alive, he would. That was before his buddy got malaria. Their captors did not want to deal with anyone who was unable to work, so this man, like all the others who became sick, was confined in a “hot house” until he succumbed to heat exhaustion, dehydration, and the collapse of his bodily systems.

The sick man was locked into a hothouse and left to die, only he didn’t. You see, every mealtime his strong buddy went out to him, and shared his meager rations. Every night, his strong buddy sneaked from the prison barracks, and brought his own thin blanket to cover the sick man.

At the end of two weeks the sick man recovered well enough to be able to leave the hothouse and return to work. He survived captivity and lived to tell about it. His buddy, however – the strong man all thought invincible – died very shortly of malaria, exposure, and dysentery. He had given his life to save his friend.

The story does not end there. When Allied troops liberated that camp at the close of the war in the Pacific, virtually every prisoner was a Christian. There was a symphony orchestra in camp with instruments made of the crudest materials. There were worship services every Sunday and the death toll was far lower than any expected – and you can chalk all this up to the silent testimony made by a strong man toward his buddy facing death.

There is much that pretends to be wise in our world but nothing can match the profound wisdom and strength of true mercy. We have received, and continue to receive, mercy beyond measure from our loving Creator. It is not a treasure to be hoarded, but a gift to be shared. Can we love others without finding that love first in God, who loves us so deeply, so exuberantly, so egregiously? Can we love God without it coming to expression in our care for others, living the words of Matthew 25? “I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in, naked and you clothed me, I was sick, and you visited me, I was in prison, and you came to me.”

Love is not a feeling, it is not the stronger tense of the word “like.” Love is a verb.

And love – for God, for our neighbor –  is not optional.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Giving to Caesar is Easy...

In preparing this sermon, I am indebted to Clayton Schmit for his writings.

In life, in death, in life beyond death, we belong to God.

Exodus 33:12-23
Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?“ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
This is the Word of the Lord.

On its face, this is a pretty carefully thought out attempt by the Pharisees and Herodians to catch Jesus in a no-win situation. Obviously, if Jesus supports paying taxes to the occupying Roman forces, most of the people who follow him will turn on him. And to condemn the payment of taxes, well, that was an act of treason against Rome, punishable by death. You can just imagine the Pharisees giving each other a high-five right before the approach Jesus, right? “Yes! We’ve got him now!”

And of course Jesus has a real zinger that puts them in their place, leaves them speechless, offers them no room for a snappy comeback. And he gives us a saying that’s been repeated in and out of its context ever since: “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

Now, I have to tell you that the question of paying taxes was very much on everyone’s mind back then, and yes, I mean even more than it is today. The Romans imposed three separate taxes on the territories they had conquered. There was a ground tax, paid partly in kind and partly in money, at the rate of one-tenth of the grain and one-fifth of the oil and wine which someone produced; an income tax, one per cent of income; and what was called a poll tax, payable by every male from the age of fourteen to sixty-five and every female from twelve to sixty-five. The poll tax amounted to one denarius, or a full day’s wages. It was the coin used to pay this tax that Jesus asked to see. These taxes were a heavy burden on a population barely able to feed themselves and their families, and added insult to injury every day that the Jewish people had to see Roman soldiers occupying the lands that God had given to their forefathers so many centuries before!

But even though the trap is laid with taxes, and Jesus refers to taxes in his answer, this exchange was not about taxes at all. No, there is a deeper current running here, and a spiritual truth which speaks to the very core of our existence. And it has to do with “image.”

In ancient pagan cultures, when people worshipped at idols, none of them really believed that the god they were venerating was contained within the wood, clay, or marble they were kneeling or standing before. Rather, the idol was a tangible representation of something intangible, and because it represented a given god or goddess, it belonged to that divinity, and could be the focus of sacrifice and worship which that god or goddess required for continued favor.

To the most devout Jews, representations of any living creature, human or animal, were repugnant, strictly forbidden, especially when that image made reference to a person or thing worshipped as a god – for example, the emperor Tiberius Caesar. To the devout, an image was an idol, plain and simple. Now, only the most devout refused to look at a coin, so it may not have been as unusual as you might think for a Pharisee to have a tribute coin. And in any case, the Herodians, a political party loyal to Herod and, by extension, Rome, were right there and could have coughed up a coin as quickly as anyone.

In any case, in our Gospel reading, when Jesus asks whose “head” is on the coin that the Pharisees and Herodians produce, perhaps a better translation would be, “whose image is on that coin?” Who does that coin belong to? If it’s Caesar’s face and title, it belongs to him, so give it back (“give back” is the implication of the Greek “apodote,” which our reading translates as simply “give,” by the way).

“… and [give back] to God the things that are God’s.”

And there it is – the real crux of the matter, the real question laid before us today.

Jesus – and the Pharisees, and the Herodians – identify Caesar’s property by identifying the image of Caesar. And in determining the things which belong to God, we look for the image of God as well.

Sometimes it may feel like we belong to Caesar. Between taxes and politics and laws and, oh yeah, more taxes, it can feel like the government owns us. Sometimes it may feel like out jobs own us, with long hours and intense deadlines and high expectations. Sometimes, we may even feel like we are owned by our possessions, or by the desire to increase the amount or improve the quality of our possessions. What was it Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote? “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”

Sometimes any of these things may feel like the truth, but we all know the answer. We are made in the image of God, and, what’s more, every human being is made in the image of God. We are imprinted with God’s image, we belong to God!

Think of it – every human being who has ever existed, who exists now, who will ever exist, all of us are the living, moving image of God on this earth!

What does it mean, to belong to God? What does it mean, to give back to God the things that belong to God?

First, it means that God will never forsake us. God loves us – as Romans 5:8 assures us, even when we were our furthest from God, God demonstrated a deep, abiding and unstoppable love through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Christ died for us – all of us. Christ rose for us – all of us. And Christ lives and reigns and loves all of us, boldly, extravagantly, and without reservation.

Obviously, in giving ourselves back to God, we respond to the Good News by following that risen and triumphant Jesus, is to place our citizenship first and foremost in the Kingdom of God, to join in membership with the Body of Christ.

Giving ourselves back to God means, further, that we invest ourselves in a life of worship. While it is accurate to say that we are vessels, carrying within us the Holy Spirit, we are not lock-boxes, meant to horde God’s Spirit, protecting that Spirit from harm. We are much more like lanterns, meant to shine the warmth and love of God to all the dark corners of the world, inviting everyone to return themselves to their Creator God. In the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.”

Giving back what belongs to the emperor is the easy part. Giving ourselves to God is a lifelong learning process, a journey where we both walk with God, and draw ever closer to God, where we learn to be a people who have returned to God.

And what will it mean to the world around us as we learn to be people who have returned to God what belongs to God? Would the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger whom Christ mentions in Matthew 25 notice the difference?

Ultimately, all we do in the name of Christ must be an act of worship. Ultimately, giving ourselves to God means that we give ourselves to the world which God created, and to the people created in the image of God.

Giving back what belongs to the emperor is the easy part. Being wholly given over to God, whose possession we are, though, that’s what’s really important.