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.

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