Sunday, October 16, 2005

Pentecost 22 - Year A

You can almost feel the tension rising. The way Matthew tells the story is that time after time, Jesus encounters these religious leaders who were trying to trap him, condemn him, and reveal him as a fraud. And time after time Jesus humiliates them. He slights them. He accuses them.

This morning’s reading was probably the encounter that broke the camel’s back.

The religious leaders probably thought they were going to trap him once and for all. They start by buttering him up, “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 don’t show favouritism. Tell us then, what do you think, Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

But Jesus sees right through them. And uses some pretty strong language,” Why are you trying to trip me up, you hypocrites?”

Then he asks, “Who has one of those idolatrous coins on them, the ones that taxes are paid with?” One of the religious leaders fumbles in his pocket and pulls out a coin.

“Whose head is on this coin and what’s his title?” Jesus asks holding the coin to their noses and his eyes lazar-beamed in theirs.

“The emperor’s” they respond.

“The give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and the give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus blasted throwing the coin back at them.

On surface it, Jesus seems to be giving a non-answer - a politician’s answer - when backed into a corner.

But the subtext might not be totally clear, at least not to these religious leaders. They know they’ve been beat. But I’m not sure they get the insult lying underneath Jesus’ answer.

When Jesus asked for the idolatrous coin, the astute observer probably noticed that Jesus didn’t have one on him, but the religious leaders did. The shrewd observer probably said, “We know where your allegiances lie.”

You need to remember that Roman coins, adorned with Caesar’s likeness, wasn’t just as instrument of exchange, it was an object of worship. The Romans worshipped Caesar as a god. For good and faithful Jews, to carry a coin with a pagan god was to be in direct violation of the first and second commandments.

It appears that Jesus is also condemning these religious leaders for being too cozy with worldly power. It looks like to Jesus, and probably to those listening in, that these keepers of the faith owed too much to Caesar – their livelihoods, their social status, their wealth – that there was nothing left over to give to God.

They stormed off, angry that they’d been beat, insulted, exposed. Now they knew their enemy. But they respected him the way you respect any worthy adversary. But this adversary needed to be crushed before more damage was done.

Matthew says that the religious leaders were “amazed” at Jesus. Amazed at what? That some nobody from the middle of nowhere could out argue these learned men of God?

For Jesus, this was the beginning of the end. He stepped over the line. He angered the wrong people.

That day, at that hour, Jesus’ fate was sealed. And so began the church’s uneasy relationship with worldly power.

Constantine’s baptism by Pope Sylvester in the year 326 inaugurated a new era for the church when the Christian religion came out of hiding to reside in the official palaces of empire.

Most theologians point to that event as the church’s One Big Mistake. By becoming too close to power Christians lost their voice; their dynamism; their passion for the good news of Jesus Christ. And we settled into a comfortablity that snuffed the vitality of the early Christian movement; and in the twinkling of an eye, we became the Christian institution.

Some might say we moved from adolescence into adulthood. Others might say that we gained the whole world, yet forfeited our soul.

But history tells us that church does its best work from the sidelines, far from the corridors of power, on the fringes.

In the late 1980's, it was the churches in East Germany that largely prevented the revolt against the Marxist-Leninist regimes from turning violent. The churches were among the only people in the country who had the moral credibility to stop the crowds because the churches were NOT part of the establishment. They had enough distance between them and the power brokers that people could look to them for guidance without worrying that they might be betrayed into government hands.

I think that’s a powerful lesson for us.

The political doctrine of the separation of church and state arises from within the church itself. When the Baptists fled England in search of home where they could worship freely and teach their children according to their own beliefs, they wanted to make sure that the government would not have control over people’s faith. The separation of church and state was not designed to protect government from intrusion from the churches, but to protect the churches from the government meddling in church affairs, freeing the church to be the church.

Those of us in the church who are politically active often believe that if we elect the right party, if we put the right people in the right offices, if we pass the right laws, than – at last – the Kingdom of God can arrive through legislation.

I know this because it happens to me all the time when I forget that the kingdom of God is not a political agenda – although it does affect politics – and I get mixed up in partisan brawls. And I forget that my first allegiance is not to any party or political viewpoint, but to Jesus who died to gather the whole world to God.

When faith and politics collide, it isn’t a partisan struggle. While I have deeply held political beliefs, I can’t ally myself too strongly, as a follower of Jesus, with any partisan agenda. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; the measure of righteousness: justice, mercy, peace, self-giving, suffering love.

The collision of faith and politics happens in deeply intimate human relationships. Public policy happens best when the faces and stories of real human beings are seen and heard, celebrated and cherished. It means leaving aside partisan blinders and working for the common good, beginning with the least and the last and the lowest in our world

Does this mean that there is no place for Christians in the public sphere? Not at all. We need Christians in public office, not to protect our own interests, not to look out for ourselves; but be the voice for the voiceless, to be the power for the powerless, to be the strength for the weak. To be the servant people that God has called us to be. To bear witness to a different way of being in the world, where opposition and enemy become friend and neighbour, where the values of life, freedom, forgiveness, mercy, servanthood, and peace are the features of the public face of the church.

What I think this passage is about, is Jesus telling his followers to live in the world as beacons of light, as living contradictions to the prevailing powers of might and force and conflict, and speak with the power of the cross of Jesus, the power of suffering, self-giving love.

When we give to God the things that are God, we send Caesar a very clear message: Jesus is Lord.

Amen.

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