|The Pharisees Question Jesus by James Tisson|
Did you hear that final sentence in our gospel this morning? “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” What was it about what Jesus said that amazed these disciples of the Pharisees who had been sent to Jesus to try to trap him? Was it that he saw through their thinly veiled guise, through their conniving and treachery? Was it the way that Jesus turned their words and intent around, in fact ensnaring them in a trap of their own making? Or was it simply the authority with which Jesus spoke?
As we seek to answer these questions and those others that we might add, it is important to place this reading in its appropriate context. This story occurs during what we know of as Holy Week. The shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David” have all but faded away as Jesus enters the divine space of these few days between his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his tragic crucifixion.
The temple leaders are trying in earnest to trap Jesus and fulfill their mission to destroy him. They have one goal in mind – to be rid of this man who is causing so much trouble with his cross-cultural message. But they have also been taking great care in planning his downfall, because they fear the crowds.
The 1st century Jews and everyone living in the Roman territories are required to pay an Imperial tax, the one being referred to here. Of all the taxes that they must pay, and there were many, this tax is without a doubt the most despised because this is the tax with which the people of Israel pay their oppressors to do the very work of oppressing them.
Jesus avoids the trap that has been laid for him by his questioners, by asking a question of his own, “whose head is this, and whose title?” Someone pulls a coin from his tunic. They answer, “the emperor’s. Perhaps it is at that moment they realize their folly. And they are amazed. Because Jesus knew. He knew they would reveal their divided loyalties by carrying this Roman coinage into this holy place, the temple. They knew that this money was idolatrous, bearing on it not only the face of the emperor but also an inscription that declares him divine or the son of a god.
Jesus’ response must have cut them to the quick. “Give, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. Jesus doesn’t accuse them. Rather, he calls them to a higher fidelity than they had ever imagined; he calls them to live in a relationship to God that bears evidence of their faith and understanding, that everything belongs to the one true God, the Holy One of Israel.
We, too are called to a higher fidelity than we can ever truly understand. Our gospel text raises questions for those who surrounded Jesus in the temple that day. It raises questions for us today. While Jesus raises these questions, he doesn’t give us pat answers.
Instead, Jesus issues an invitation to another kind of life, where we acknowledge that although we do have responsibility to render certain elements of our lives to the world order within which we live, we also identify our deepest self as belonging to God. Jesus has made the amazing promise that no matter what we do or say, regardless of where we go, no matter what may befall us, we belong to God. We are and will always be, first and foremost, God’s own beloved children. Therefore, the simple truth found within this text has profound implications for how we live in the world, for the choices we make, and for how we value and conduct the various parts and parcels of our lives.
One day, when I was about five or six years old, I got mad. I don’t really remember what was wrong, but on that day I decided to run away.
I carefully and selectively packed my bag. Into my little suitcase I placed my favorite pajamas and a frilly dress my mother had just bought for me. I packed a sweater and my favorite stuffed animal, Andy the Panda Bear. Then I set out on my own.
One of my neighbors must have seen me and ratted me out because I didn’t get very far before one of my parents caught up with me. I returned home for “The Inquisition.”
“What were you doing?” I was asked. “Running away from home,” came my reply. “Oh, I see,” my parent responded. We may or may not have discussed the reason for my flight away from our home and family. I don’t really remember. But what happened next is forever etched in my memory. “So, what do you have there?” they asked, pointing to my suitcase. I opened up and revealed the few treasures I had taken with me.
Well, my parents told me. They would be really sad to see me go, they had really gotten used to having me around. But if I must go, I must. However, the suitcase would have to stay. In fact, they said, everything would have to remain here, because as my parents so eloquently told me, “you arrived in your birthday suit, and if you leave, you will have to leave in your birthday suit.” I guess it was our own, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” kind of moment.
I got their point. I elected to stay.
You might say that my parents strong-armed me that day. Perhaps they did. They certainly shocked me. And sometimes that is what we need in order for us to see the truth. Perhaps, sly fox that he can sometimes be, that is what Jesus did that day as well.
Remember the final sentence of our text, “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” Perhaps that conversation with Jesus was a sort of watershed moment for those men. We don’t really know. We don’t know for sure where they went afterward, or what they did.
But I wonder, might hearing those words and considering the import of them for our lives today be a watershed moment for us?
We reflect on those words of Jesus: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Exactly what is God’s?
We’re going to take just a few moments now, and I am going to ask the ushers to give each of you a dollar bill. This dollar bill is a gift. It is a gift from me to you. It may seem like a crazy thing to do, for the pastor to give each of you a dollar bill, and out of her own pocket, no less! But you know what? That dollar bill really was a gift to me in the first place.
The ability to earn it is a gift. In fact that dollar bill, multiplied by however many people worship here today pales in significance as only the tiniest portion of all that God has given me. Like the belongings that I placed into my suitcase that day when I was five, none of these dollars is truly mine except by the grace of God. As a precious gift to me, I am called to care for them, to use them wisely and appropriately. My use of them should bear out the fact that I belong to Christ.
And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, once you get your dollar bill, I invite you to take just a moment and look at it. Examine it closely, and then talk for just a moment or two with your neighbor. Tell your neighbor what you see in the dollar bill. What symbols are drawn on it? What words written upon it? What do they mean to you? What does this dollar bill represent for you?
Next, I invite you to imagine what this dollar bill might buy. What kind of work might it do for you, either alone or combined with other money you have in your possession?
I invite you then to do with this dollar bill what you see fit. There were no strings attached when you received it. If you need it, keep it. You can choose to give it away to a worthy cause. You can decide to put a portion of it or combine it with other dollar bills and place them in the collection plate. You can take a pen and mark it with a cross, then tape it to your bathroom mirror or carry it in your wallet to remind you that you are a child of God and everything you possess, from every moment of your day, to the very body you were given, your loved ones, to your last dollar, and finally your very salvation is a gift from God, given for you through God’s everlasting love and mercy. It is, quite simply, amazing!
What would it mean then to see everything as coming from God and belonging to God? It means that you fulfill certain civic responsibilities because God made you a citizen with a homeland. It might mean that you see your role in creation through new eyes, and determine to become a better steward of the environment. It might be that the concept of the tithe takes on new meaning for you.
How hard is it to see everything as belonging to God?
|Christ on the Cross by Carl Heinrich Bloch|
May the grace of God call us to the kind of amazement that stays with us when we leave this place today, and colors all the rest of our days.