The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 22:15-22

Did you ever hear of “but compliments”? A “but compliment” goes something like this. “Steve, I really enjoy your sermons BUT they sometimes run a little long.” Or, “Honey, I really appreciate what you do around the house, BUT I really wish you would do them the way I told you to do them.”

You get the idea. The first part of the compliment is flattering BUT you know something else is coming that is not going to make you feel quite as good.

Well, that’s kind of what Jesus is experiencing in today’s Gospel lesson–some “but compliments” from the Pharisees and the Herodians. Matthew, the Gospel writer, is quite direct in setting the scenario in the first sentence: “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.”

So the Pharisees sent some of their disciples–(they sent disciples, I suppose, because they couldn’t bring themselves to even fake complimenting Jesus)–and along with these disciples, the Herodians, followers of the ruling party whose policy was loyalty to Rome (and therefore to the collection of taxes)–and this group began to “sing praises” to Jesus.

“Oh, Jesus, you’re such a great teacher. We could sit and listen to you all day. You’re such a man of integrity and sincerity. And that’s why, Jesus, we’re coming to you with this unresolved theological problem.”
[& Here comes the “but” part.]
“We’ve been having this debate with our friends, the Herodians, and we wonder if a wise man like yourself could help us resolve this. What do you say, Jesus–What is your opinion–on whether we should pay taxes to the emperor?”

Well, Jesus wasn’t fooled for a minute. And he answers, “You hypocrites! You bunch of Phonies! Do you think I don’t know what you’re up to? That you’re trying to entrap me with a trick question? But I’ll answer your question. I’ll play along. Show the coin used for the tax.”

Now, don’t think for a moment this wasn’t a well laid, well thought out plan by the Pharisees and the Herodians. It was a clever question and it probably took hours of deliberation and discussion to set it up just right. It was perfectly stated–perfectly phrased–in a way that was guaranteed to put Jesus, as we would say around here, between a rock and a hard place. No matter how he answered, it was a no win situation.

You see, if Jesus answered, “Yes, it is lawful and proper to pay taxes,” then he was in trouble with the Pharisees, who would paint Jesus to the people as a supporter of the hated and oppressive Roman rule. On the other hand, if he answered, “No, it is not right to pay taxes to the emperor (that is, to Rome),” then the Herodians would run straight to the Roman authorities and report Jesus as a rebel and an insurrectionist, which would likely land him in jail.
Got Him! Caught between a rock and a hard place. A no win situation. Or so they thought.

When they handed Jesus the coin, he asked them, “Who’s head is on this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s, of course.” Then Jesus gave them an answer that completely blew their minds. He said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” They are stunned! Speechless! The scripture says, “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left Jesus and went away” (no doubt mumbling to themselves and scratching their heads as they went.)

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and the Herodians holds a profound truth for us Christians of today. It reminds us that we are a part of two kingdoms, an earthly kingdom and a heavenly kingdom. Martin Luther used the analogy of the left hand and the right hand. He suggested that God rules with his left hand through civil government and with his right hand in the kingdom of grace. Ultimately then, God rules through both.

In my mind, the church has always had difficulty keeping those two kingdoms in balance. Let me give you a couple of examples. The Columbus, Ga church where I was vicar fresh out of seminary was a multiracial parish–60 percent black, 40 percent white, eight different nationalities represented. A unique and wonderful place in that regard.

And one of the parishioners of that church was the president of the Columbus chapter of the NAACP. This was a very volatile time in Columbus. Columbus is a deep south, old south town. Racial tensions were at their peak, -and it was a time, because of the make-up of our parish, that we had to be extremely careful with our actions and responses, and pay careful attention to what was going on around us. Just because we got along with each other didn’t mean that the rest of the city could or would seek that kind of community.

And I felt this was a time when our parish needed to be focused on prayer and on maintaining an inward solidarity as an outward witness to rest of the city.

As I said, one of my parishioners was the president of the NAACP and he didn’t see things that way. He was a wonderful man, a good man, who had tried hard for years to peacefully bring about change in Columbus, and who suddenly–almost overnight–adopted what was practically an anti-white attitude. A man can only take so much abuse. His life and the life of his family members had been threatened; he had received bomb threats to his house and his office; he had been physically beaten–more than once.

He was fed up and he wanted to take action and he wanted his priest and his church to follow and support him in that action. And one of the things he wanted us to do was to bring Lewis Feracon to Columbus (via the church). And when I refused to do that and suggested instead that we focus our efforts toward prayer and peace and God’s intervention, he told me that if I (and the church) couldn’t live our faith in action and get out into the streets and fight for justice, then he had no use for me or the church. And he left the church, feeling deserted by his priest and his parish and the Church as a whole.

Right-Wrong? I don’t know. But it appears to me when we lose our Christian focus in those situations and become almost exclusively focused on political and civil means for the change and ends we want to achieve, we lose the primary purpose and focus of the church.

The other extreme is where churches and individual Christians seemingly have no concern at all for what happens in civil government. The old saying is true. Sometimes churches and Christians become so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.

There’s a poem by an unknown author whose words I don’t remember exactly, but it goes something like this.

I was hungry, and you formed a humanities club to discuss my hunger.
I was imprisoned, and you crept off quietly to your chapel in the cellar and prayed for my release.
I was naked, and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance.
I was sick, and you knelt and thanked God for your health.
I was homeless, and you preached to me of the spiritual shelter of God.
I was lonely, and you left me alone to pray for me.
You seem so holy; so close to God. But I’m still very hungry, and lonely, and cold.

When Bible study and prayer and church become an end in themselves without any regard for people who are poor or discriminated against, this, too, is a mis-focus of who and what the church ought to be.

Jesus put it well in our Gospel. He reminds us that we are citizens of two kingdoms. And that we have responsibilities to both. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and…[but]…to God the things that are God’s.”

Let us pray that the Lord will give us the wisdom to keep those responsibilities in balance. It is, after all, in the end, not about why or what we should withhold, is it? But about why and what and to whom we give.

Which is a nice thought to hold on to with our stewardship commitments only a few weeks away. Something to think about. Something to pray about.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.