(A sermon for Proper 24A — October 16, 2011 — 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22)
It always seems to happen at dinnertime. Politics intrude. This week it was a 5:30 phone poll, asking me to rank the candidates to be Portland’s first elected mayor. There are lots, 15, but the poll asked about six. I recognized most of their names, which actually surprised me, but I was hard-pressed to rank them. After listening to the list over and over, I picked the one woman as my first choice, but it wasn’t actually because I care about having her be mayor. I messed with the pollsters.
You see, I’m undecided.
During the last Presidential election, Lucy wandered into the kitchen, where we have a small TV on the counter, and she heard a report about undecided voters. How, she asked, can people be undecided? For her this seemed to be a mysterious concept. If presented with a candidate or an issue, why don’t you just use your tools—your thinking, your values, your feelings, your intuition—to help you reach a determination?
Well, I told her, some people don’t start with a strong party affiliation. Some people, in fact, place a value on being independent and therefore don’t associate themselves immediately with one side or the other. Some people either don’t like to choose, or they enjoy the process of choosing enough to savor it. I don’t imagine, I told her, that most people just get to the voting booth and flip a coin. Heads? Or tails?
On the other hand, maybe they do. I can think of times I got to that crucial moment and had no idea who or what I wanted to support, especially on those ballot issues I didn’t take the time to read about carefully. That same night, Peter, who had was turning 18 just in time to vote, called home for help with his absentee ballot, and I have to tell you, I didn’t know we had ballot issues in Portland that year, much less what they were about! I looked them up on my laptop, one-handed, while juggling dinner preparations. Using my ability to read complex and sometimes misleading English sentences, which those ballot measures and bond issues almost always are, I did the best I could to figure out the issues and my point of view and to help both of us draw a conclusion.
When we read stories about the questions addressed to Jesus in Matthew 22, we would do well to remember how we feel standing in the voting booth reading about Question Z or Bond Issue 732.
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?” (Matthew 22:15-17, NRSV)
Some propositions are worded to confuse us, to turn our brains around and make us question what we know to be true. Jesus, of course, understood, but let’s place ourselves in the position of the disciples, not the cleverest group of fellows ever, standing by and listening to Jesus get this question from disciples of the Pharisees. The Pharisees felt threatened by Jesus as a matter of faith; he called their practices into question and threatened the religious status quo.
The party of King Herod, that monarch propped up by the invading Romans, had another set of interests. They had power because they supported Rome. If they heard Jesus speak against paying taxes to the emperor, they would have to prosecute him. So the Pharisees cleverly brought them along, certain that one way or the other they could discredit Jesus. If he supported taxes, he would let down his followers, who hailed from an area known for revolutionary feelings toward Rome. If he didn’t support taxes, he might wind up in jail.
If I’m a disciple, standing by and listening, I am surely wondering how my teacher will get himself out of this one.
And then he asks to see a coin.
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?” (Matthew 22:18-20, NRSV)
Ah, the disciples must have thought with relief. He can’t be tricked so easily!!
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. (Matthew 22:21-22, NRSV)
That’s “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” for those of us who remember the old school version. Render unto Caesar, heard the disciples, and they thought, “Phew! He told them!!”
Jesus gave an unexpected answer to the Pharisees. Pay the taxes, he said, with the money designed by Caesar. Give God what is God’s.
It sounds simple, but it’s not. Caesar, the emperor, occupied Jerusalem. His troops held the city. People lived as if under house arrest. You could live your life as long as you capitulated to the authority of the Romans and their puppets. To shop in the marketplace, to pay taxes, you had to use Caesar’s coins.
And it wasn’t much better at the Temple. Remember the moneychangers whose tables Jesus overturned? To participate in religious life, to make the appropriate sacrifices, you had to pay the “right” way, exchanging one kind of coin for the other, to the profit of those who changed the money. No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites.
Jesus asked 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.”
What could they really have that wasn’t the Emperor’s? What could they give to God?
There was only one thing the invading Romans and the capitulating authorities couldn’t own: people’s hearts. They could still choose to give their hearts to God.
Some people enter the voting booth undecided. That may be me on Election Day this year.
Some people arrive at church with no clear idea of where their deepest commitments lie. It’s easy for us to do that, because we don’t have a lot at stake, in the world’s terms, when we come to church. Today we don’t have to fear that somewhere out in the parking lot a government spy is writing down our license plate numbers to report us for practicing our faith. We don’t have to worry about losing our jobs or our place in the community because we are following a strange new way, a new and revolutionary version of God. In the public arena, our faith is low stakes.
But it was high stakes for the Pharisees asking Jesus their trick question, and it would be high stakes for the early generations of Christians, as faith in Jesus Christ spread beyond Galilee and Jerusalem and into the Roman world. The Thessalonians risked just such things because Christianity violated the civil religion of the Roman Empire. You could not worship one God. You were expected to worship the appropriate gods, instead. To choose otherwise could be seen as an act of political rebellion.
You would not stand and flip a coin with Caesar’s head to decide whether to be a Christian in first century Corinth or Thessalonika or Rome. You had to want it so much you couldn’t help yourself. You had to give yourself to God, the self that was God’s in the first place. You had to choose love over fear: an awareness of God’s love for you, and a love you expressed in return, to God and to your community in Christ.
When I think of Jesus, standing there with the Pharisees and the Herodians, I remember that he was one of us, a person, using his tools to draw a conclusion. He recalled recent history, considered current events, then answered the question with a question before driving the point home.
I remind myself that his pocket did not hold even one coin.
You and I, each one of us, has a choice about whose people to be. In times of hardship and worry, we can choose to stay home and watch the Sunday morning news shows, or we can gather in our faith community, looking at things from another point of view. We can hear the bad news and give into it, or we can remember that we are God’s people and seek the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ, in every time and place.
Heads or tails, which will it be?
May we remember whose we are, no coin-toss required. Amen.