Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pentecost 19A

You can almost feel the tension rising. The way Matthew tells the story is that time after 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 after time, Jesus humiliates them.

This morning’s reading was probably the encounter that was the straw that broke the camel’s back - for both of them.

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 knows what they’re up to.  He sees right through them. And uses some pretty strong language,” Why are you trying to trip me up, you hypocrites?”

Hypocrites? Why was he calling them 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 into theirs.

“The emperor’s - Caesar’s” they respond.

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

On surface, Jesus seems to be giving a non-answer - a politician’s answer that doesn’t really answer the question - 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 at their own game. But I’m not sure they fully 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.

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.

So, the shrewd observer who noticed that Jesus didn’t have a coin on him, but the religious leaders did, probably said, “We know where your allegiances really lie.”

That’s why Jesus was calling them “hypocrites.”

It appears that Jesus is 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 leftover to give to God.

The religious leaders stormed off, angry that they’d been beat, insulted, and exposed. Now they knew their enemy. And they respected him the way you respect any worthy adversary. But this adversary needed to be crushed before he could do even more damage than he already had.

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.

The Roman Emperor 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 out the vitality of the early Christian movement; and in the twinkling of an eye, or a sprinkling of water, we became the Christian Institution.

Some might say that, with Constantine's conversation, Christians moved from adolescence into adulthood. That we finally grew up and took our seat at the political grown-up’s table. 

Others might say that we gained the whole world, yet forfeited our soul.

And 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 after the Berlin Wall fell. 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. 

Churches had enough distance between them and the powerful rulers, that people could look to Christians for guidance and support without worrying that they might be betrayed into government hands.

And we can learn today from our sisters and brothers in other parts of the globe. The fastest growing churches in the world are in places where Christians are being persecuted. It’s been noted that, in China, a new church is being planted every seven minutes. In some places in Africa, it is reported that someone comes to faith in Jesus every three minutes.

But here in Alberta, where Christians are culturally coddled, where we have historic institutional credibility, where we have everything we need to thrive, churches are suffering dwindling memberships and are closing their doors.

I think that’s a powerful lesson for us. The closer we get to worldly power, the weaker is our proclamation. Christianity thrives when it is in the minority. Churches spiritually stagnate when we achieve institutional credibility.

Does this mean that there is no place for Christians in the public sphere? Not at all. We need Christians in public office. But not to protect our own interests, not to look out for ourselves; but to be the voice for those who cannot be heard, to be the power for those who have been shut out of society, 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 defining 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 voices of justice, as living contradictions to the prevailing powers of Caesar that rules through might and force and conflict.

Jesus says to speak with another power; the power of the cross of Jesus and the power of his resurrection; the power of suffering for the sake of another; the power of self-giving love for neighbour as well as enemy. The power of God’s promises of good news to the poor. 

The power of life and salvation for everything God has created.

This is the power that creates. This is power that gives life. This is the power that the Caesar’s of the world don’t understand because it’s a power that is not about them, it’s not a power that dominates, that sees the worldly activity as a zero-sum game; but a power that comes from God for US - for YOU, a power that rules with love, a power that governs with mercy, a power that transforms with peace.

So give to Caesar the things are Caesar's, because all he has will one day pass away. And give to God the things that are God’s, for everything that comes from God lasts forever.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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