16 October 2011, Chilmark Community Church, Matthew 22:15-22
Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is a privilege to be worshiping with you this morning. I want to thank Pam for giving me a second chance to preach here. The first time I had another commitment. So this is a first for me. This is such a wonderful room for worship; it seems filled with serenity.
Pam said it would be exciting to have a Lutheran preach. Exciting may not be the right adjective, at least for a Swedish Lutheran. (Marilyn knows Swedes.) Exciting not. Maybe you heard about the old Swede who loved his wife so dearly he nearly told her.
This will not be the type of sermon I was schooled to preach in seminary 55 years ago. It doesn’t have three points.
I do hope there is something in today’s gospel passage that has caught your attention. These words of Jesus caught enough attention to be remembered and included in the gospels according to Mark, Matthew and Luke. Those were his followers. As are we who have been rereading and repreaching on this text for nearly 2000 years.By the way, I feel that the fact that the Bible still catches our attention after all these centuries is part of why we call it the God’s Word. And that includes the Hebrew Bible from which we read every Sunday. It’s something like the phenomenon that Marshall McLuhan described when he said, “The medium is the message.”But it was not only Jesus’ followers who were caught by Jesus’ words. It was his adversaries. They were amazed. Or as Eugene Peterson renders it, “The Pharisees were speechless. They went off shaking their heads.” (I commend his translation as a source for your Bible study,)Is there anything more for us in this passage than giving a high-5 to Jesus for pulling a gotchya on those who were out to get him? I learned earlier in my ministry from Krister Stendahl that not every biblical passage, not even every recorded word of Jesus is relevant to my situation 2000 years later.In other words, I resist using this passage to counter the Tea Party by arguing that Jesus said, “Pay the tax!” Jesus did say that in that situation. And if that was all he had said, the Pharisees would have gone off saying “Gotchya.”
They would have succeeded in trapping him. Trapping Jesus was their aim one way or the other. The Pharisees stance was that Jews should not pay the tax to the Roman occupiers.
However Jesus added something that turned the tables, turned the tables until the stunned adversaries got their act together a few days later (this happened during what we call Holy Week) when they persuaded Pontius Pilate to have Jesus executed. And what Jesus added is the link between his words and his crucifixion.It’s also the link between then and now. I dare to say this because the gospels go on to report that the crucifixion was not the last act, the ultimate Gotchya in Jesus’ life. As we say in the Creed, “And on the third day he was raised from the dead.” If his followers had not experienced that we wouldn’t be here this morning recalling the words of Jesus.Jesus answered, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” I choose “render” rather than “give” because it carries the sense of giving back. I think that’s part of the relationship with Caesar and with God. First we have received, we have been given to. And it’s in light of that reality that we respond.I know I’m playing with words, responsibly I hope. That’s what preachers do. We don’t know what word Jesus used. He spoke Aramaic and the gospel writers chose a Greek word to render what the Aramaic oral version used. And the Greek word has at least four definitions; you could look it up.A fascinating aspect of this encounter is that the Pharisees who resented the Jews’ forced subjection to Roman rule had the coin with Caesar’s image engraved on it. Jesus needed to ask to see it. He didn’t carry money. Or to put it another way he didn’t have the need to respond to Caesar; he didn’t benefit from the Roman economy. Could we say that he and his followers were “dropouts”? In this regard the Pharisees, for all their opposition to Caesar, were still participating to a degree.They had tried to catch Jesus in an either/or. “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus responded by saying, “You use Caesar’s currency; pay the tax.” Not so bad. They thought they at least could use that answer to disenchant the camp followers who leaned on Jesus’ every word, even if they couldn’t use it to bring Pilate’s law-enforcers down on Jesus.And it was what Jesus said next that never ceases to amaze both his adversaries and his followers. “Render unto God what is God’s.” This may sound like an imperative, a command to drop out. It’s more than that. It’s an invitation to drop in on the amazing reality of our being alive.There are imperatives in living, laws to obey, taxes to pay. And all of that was true then and is true now. It’s sometimes vexing, sometimes rewarding. And beneath it, above it, all around it, at the center of it is what is God’s– the gift of my life and our life together.
Imperatives were close to central for a Swedish-American kid in Confirmation Class for two years in the mid-40s. I memorized Luther’s Small Catechism and later, as a pastor, I expected the next generation of kids to do the same. With one change which had helped change my life and I hope the lives of the kids. They were being prepared to reaffirm or not their baptism as infants. As infants they hadn’t had a choice. Now each of them did.
Heard as a grateful response accounts for our being here this morning. In gratitude for what we’ve been given, we’re singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving, we’re praying for ourselves and for others, we’re dropping Caesar’s currency in the offering plate for the benefit of others.
One more thing about Jesus’ answer. Like many self-important religious types, the Pharisees’ question shows that they saw life in terms of either/or, Caesar or God.
As I said at the beginning, it’s a privilege to be worshiping with you this morning. It’s a blessing. And the blessing follows us, accompanies us, goes before us, as we go out to encounter life’s either/ors. There is more to life. Amen.