The Scripture texts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24 Year A, Track 1:
Exodus 33:12-23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 | Matthew 22:15-22
Tension continues to escalate between Jesus and those in authority. So much so that now there’s no question about their desire to entrap him—whether it is the Roman authority capturing him for treason or the people’s rejection of him, it doesn’t matter. He needs to be trapped or contained, stopped. The Pharisees and the Herodians are actually united in their anti-Jesus effort, and it makes it easy for us to delineate between the bad guys in their malice and hypocrisy and our pro-God hero Jesus. Because that’s how politics go. We are showered with political propaganda right now, so we are familiar with this. There’s the good and the bad, and we drop our coin into the campaign donation fund or ballot box of our choice. And, of course, we always choose Jesus, right?
Jesus navigates the politics, evading the trick question by going through and beyond it. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they ask him (Mtw 22:17). Jesus confounds them by saying, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mtw 22:21).
It seems as clear-cut as a church-state divide, as separate as the spiritual and physical realm. Many a political, economic, and religious interpretation is based on such a dualistic view. Being the faithful Christians we are, however, we remember who is speaking. Jesus is God incarnate, Word made flesh. What kind of line is Jesus drawing? What kind of answer is he giving them . . . and us?
Not an easy one.
First of all, Jesus is talking about money. I’ve already talked politics, and now I’m talking money. (I promise I won’t talk about late-night cable programming.) But economic issues run throughout the Bible. Particular to today’s reading, paying taxes, the tribute to Rome, was not a popular facet of life. Jesus saying to give to the emperor the coin that bears the emperor’s image might save him from treason, but it does not win him popular support. In fact, when it comes time for Pilate to save a prisoner from crucifixion, whom do the people vote for? Not Jesus Christ but Barabbas, who, incidentally, was a hero in the anti-Roman efforts.
Lest we too quickly judge the people harshly, let us remember the moment in the Passion narrative when we in the congregation play the role of the crowd shouting “Crucify him!” Maybe we can see where the people were coming from. They were paying tribute to their oppressors, funding their bondage, and they wanted a way out, a way to return to freedom. It was only a small percentage who believed in whom Jesus was and who anticipated the freedom promised in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus amazed the Pharisees and Herodians, and they left him—for the time being. Others present might have also been amazed and stuck around, wondering as we do now: “But what is God’s?” If we believe God is Creator, aren’t all things God’s? If we are to render to Caesar, where is the clear line? People make coins with the likeness of people, so it’s okay to pay taxes, to pay for our goods, and to participate in commerce. Ultimately, however, we the people bear God’s image.
In the beginning we are made in the image of God, male and female. Psalmists attribute God with creating our inmost being, of knitting each of us in our mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13). In Isaiah the Lord says, “I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (49.16). We ultimately belong to God. The compassion of God that we hear in the dialogue with Moses persists through to the Resurrection and beyond. Again and again we fail to render to God our whole selves, yet again and again, like a good mother, God knows us and claims us. God answers us with forgiveness, with mercy, and with compassion.
That clear line—if Jesus draws one at all—may very well be a circle, encompassing all who realize and recognize the responsibility of bearing God’s image. As God’s, we have a place in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus brings the kingdom here and now and asks not for a part of us. Just as he sent his disciples to go where he himself intended to go, so, too, does he ask us to give only that which he willingly gave.
And this is what is hard for us, my Christian brothers and sisters. Jesus gave everything. God gave God’s self, not in an act of dependence but of pure love, and we are invited to be united with God, to be a willing participant in the most mutually fulfilling relationship that ever can be.
As wonderful as that sounds, it’s hard.
We are given encouragement from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, who apparently got it right. Paul nearly sings their praises for their “work of faith,” “labor of love,” and “steadfastness of hope.” They must be a chosen people because they embody the power and Holy Spirit and conviction that enables them to imitate the apostles and Lord despite their persecution. They “received the word with joy . . . (and) became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” . . . and to us. I feel a bit like Paul is showing us a stellar progress report so we have a guide for our own assessment.
In a rather compassionate moment himself, I imagine Paul looking into the future ends of the earth and saying to us, “I know it’s hard to get how to give yourself to God. So, here are some basics.”
1.) You are chosen. You are a child of God, a bearer of God’s image. You receive the power of the Holy Spirit at your baptism.
2.) Your work of faith is to remember and proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection.
3.) You have a labor of love: to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.
4.) Your steadfastness of hope for the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven helps you to persevere all trials and tribulations.
If Paul were to write us a letter here at Christ Church, what might he say? How would we measure up to the Thessalonians? Do we reveal God’s image to all whom we encounter? Do our actions measure up to the faith we proclaim? How are we doing at loving God . . . loving our neighbors? How persistent is our hope in the kingdom of heaven?
This kind of Christian life doesn’t have room for duality, for separate realms. There is one God who has gifted us with this life, yet it is hard for us to comprehend, let alone navigate, an ordinary life that is struck through from our very core with the extraordinary. How much of what we give actually reflects our gratitude, thanksgiving, and love to and for God? How much reflects our love of our neighbors? Ourselves?
When I visited a mosque in Atlanta for my world religions course this summer, a Muslim gentleman explained the pillars of Islam to our group of seminarians. When he came to the pillar of alms or charity, he told us that Muslims are to give 2.5% of their assets each year. It is based basically on their savings, and it’s considered an asset if it is over the worth of 22 ounces of silver or 3 ounces of gold. (Three ounces of gold now is about $3,000.) Because they are already expected to be taking care of and giving to their family and place of worship, they are to give it to needy individuals, someone outside their immediate circle. If every Muslim observed this pillar of charity, he told us with all sincerity, there would be no poverty.
Naturally, I wondered if Christians can say the same. (Per 2012 research, there are about 2.2 billion Christians in the world and about 1.6 billion Muslims.) If we gave even 2.5% of our assets—not even 10%—could we eradicate poverty? What if we worked together?
There are some very concrete ways to influence the world for the better. Are we willing to make our church more accessible in every kind of way? Someone has gotten started with the fabulous sidewalk to the education building, for which I am extremely grateful! But how accessible are we to those who don’t look like us?
We can pay it forward to train future leaders. Sending kids to camp, teachers to trainings, and leaders to educational and spiritual retreats are tremendous gifts. My home diocese sponsored me for the recent Godly Play training and for the upcoming pre-ordination retreat, both important in my formation. I am just one person, but consider how many lives I might touch by sharing my experiences of being close to God, my experiences of discernment. We can teach and encourage each other to share and listen to our stories of faith that come from life itself, from living in community, from living in relationship with God to whom we belong.
We are gifted for this work. We are invited to receive the power of the Holy Spirit and become an active participant in kingdom building—not of short-lived Caesar’s empire but of God’s eternal kingdom, starting here and now. Our contributions and input are invaluable in answering these important questions.
If we live amazed at what God gave and continues to give to us, we are paying attention. If we accept our Christian responsibility and act and live generously, giving of whatever resources we can share—be that money, time, joyful perseverance, proclamation, or whatever gift you have—then we are participating in that loving relationship with God and one another.
Some days we shout “Crucify!” with the helpless crowd. We don’t choose Jesus. Some very special times we catch a fleeting glimpse of what it is to experience the ultimate belonging of being a child of God, one infinitely loved and filled with potential to help make manifest the kingdom of God, where no one lives in poverty. The power behind such belonging is threatening, disruptive of clear-cut distinctions and divides. But the power of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is not to be contained; it always has been and always will be our key to unity and freedom.