The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Pastor George Pejakovich
Matthew 22:15-22

 

WHEN SOMEONE COMES UP TO YOU AND SAYS SOMETHING ABOUT HOW GREAT THEY THINK YOU ARE, IT’S BEST TO WATCH YOUR BACK FOR THE KNIFE THEY ARE GOING TO PUT THERE. TRYING TO TRIP UP JESUS, THE DISCIPLES OF THE PHARISEES, ALONG WITH THE HERODIANS, COME TO HIM AND SAY, IN THE SMARMIEST WAY, “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.” WELL, THEY DO NOT BELIEVE ANY OF THAT, AND TRY TO SET JESUS UP WITH A FLATTERING LIE. THEY WANT TO PUT HIM IN A BIND, SO THAT HE WILL BE EXPOSED FOR THE FAKER THEY THINK HE IS. THEIR QUESTION OF, “IS IT LAWFUL TO PAY TAXES TO THE EMPEROR, OR NOT,” IS A TRAP.

NOW, THE JUDEANS PAID A LOT OF TAXES; ON LAND, ON BUSINESS, THE TEMPLE TAX, ETC. THE TAX IN QUESTION WAS PARTICULARY HATED. IT WAS A HEAD TAX OF A DAYS WAGE EACH YEAR; THE PURPOSE OF WHICH WAS TO FUND THE ROMAN OCCUPATION OF JUDEA. THEY HAD TO PAY FOR THEIR OWN OPRESSION. IF JESUS SAID “YES,” HE WOULD BE SUPPORTING THE ROMAN OPRESSION; IF HE SAID “NO,” HE WOULD BE IN OPPOSITION TO ROME, AND PROBABLY CAUSE A RIOT DURING PASSOVER, THE CELEBRATION OF ISRAEL’S FREEDOM FROM EGYPT. HE RESPONDS BY CALLING THEM HYPOCRITES, AND DEMANDS TO SEE THE COIN USED TO PAY THE TAX.

THEY HAD NO PROBLEM COMING UP WITH A DENARIUS, WHICH, IN ITSELF, IS TELLING. THEY WERE IN THE COURTYARD OF THE TEMPLE, THEIR POCKETS FULL OF ROMAN COINS ENGRAVED WITH THE IMAGE OF CAESAR ON ONE SIDE, PROCLAIMING HIM DIVINE, AND HIS TITLE OF PONTIFEX MAXIMUS, THE HIGH PRIEST, ON THE OTHER. JUST HAVING THE COIN IN THE TEMPLE PRECINCT WAS A VIOLATION OF THE FIRST TWO COMMANDMENTS. WHEN JESUS ASKED, “WHOSE HEAD IS THIS, AND WHOSE TITLE,” THEY HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO SAY, “THE EMPREOR’S.” THAT, ALONE, SETTLED THE QUESTION, AND JESUS HAD DEFEATED THE CHALLENGE; BUT, AS THEY SAY, THERE WAS MORE. HE WENT ON TO SAY SOME OF THE MOST COMMONLY CITED WORDS OF SCRIPTURE, AND THE MOST COMMONLY MISUNDERSTOOD; “GIVE, THEREFORE TO THE EMPEROR THE THINGS THAT ARE THE EMPEROR’S, AND TO GOD THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD’S.”

IT SOUNDS AS IF JESUS MAKES A DISTINCTION BETWEEN OUR CIVIL RESPONSIBILIES AND OUR RELIGIOUS FAITH, AND MOST PEOPLE THINK OF WHAT HE SAID IN THIS WAY. EVEN MARTIN LUTHER, DARE I SAY THIS A WEEK BEFORE THE 500TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE START OF THE REFORMATION, GOT IT WRONG. IN HIS SERMON ON THIS TEXT, LUTHER POSITED A CIVIL RIGHTEOUSNESS, AT WHICH WE MUST WORK FOR THE BENEFIT OF SOCIETY, AND THE RIGHTEOUSNESS THAT COMES FROM GOD’S GRACE, FOR WHICH WE CAN NOT WORK. THIS HE LATER EXPOUNDED IN HIS DISCUSSION OF THE KINGDOM OF THE LEFT, THE WORLD, AND THE KINGDOM OF THE RIGHT, GOD’S KINGDOM. EVENTUALLY, THIS LED TO THE ENLIGHTENMENT CONCEPT OF THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE. THE CONCEPT OF THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE, OR FAITH AND CIVIL LIFE, WOULD HAVE BEEN INCONCEIVABLE TO THE PEOPLE OF THE FIRST CENTURY, ESPECIALLY TO THOSE LISTENING TO JESUS. THE EARLY CHRISTIANS WERE PERSECUTED BECAUSE THEY WOULD NOT WORSHIP THE EMPEROR AS GOD, BECAUSE THE ROMAN RELIGION WAS AN INTRINSIC PART OF ROMAN CIVIC ORDER.

WHAT JESUS SAID, RATHER THAN AN ACCOMADATION BETWEEN CIVIL REPSONSIBILITES AND FAITH, IS IN FACT, A PROFOUNDLY RADICAL STATEMENT. AS THE PSALMIST DECLARED, “THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S, AND THE FULNESS THEREOF.” WHEN JESUS SAID TO GIVE TO THE EMPEROR WHAT IS HIS AND TO GOD WHAT IS GOD’S, HE QUESTIONED THE VALIDITY OF ANYTHING TRULY BELONGING TO THE EMPEROR. IF EVERYTHING COMES FROM AND BELONGS TO GOD, AS THOSE WHO LISTENED TO HIM WOULD CERTAINLY HAVE BELIEVED, WHAT, THEN, WOULD TRULY BELONG TO CAESAR? THIS UNASKED AND UNANSWERED QUESTION IMPLIED IN WHAT JESUS SAID IS WHY THE PHARISEES AND HERODIANS WERE AMAZED, AND WHY THEY WENT AWAY IN SILENCE.

THIS IS THE RADICAL AND LIBERATING SWORD OF THE PROCLAMATION THAT “JESUS IS LORD.” IF JESUS IS LORD, THE INCARNATION OF THE LIVING GOD, THEN NO ONE AND NOTHING ELSE CAN LAY CLAIM TO LORDSHIP OVER OUR LIVES. THE SWORD OF THE GOSPEL OF OUR LORD SEVERS THE CHAINS OF THAT OTHERS WOULD USE TO BIND US. CAESAR PROCLAIMED HIS LORDSHIP BY THE SWORDS OF HIS LEGIONS; OUR GOD PROCLAIMS HIS LORDSHIP BY THE LIFE, DEATH, AND RESURRECTION OF HIS SON. ULTIMATELY, WHAT JESUS WAS SAYING IS THAT YOUR LORD IS GOD, OR THE STATE, OR WHATEVER YOU PLACE ABOVE GOD, BUT NOT BOTH. LUTHER DID GET IT RIGHT WHEN HE SAID, “SHOW ME WHAT YOU LOVE ABOVE ALL ELSE IN THIS LIFE, AND I WILL SHOW YOU YOUR GOD.”

WITH JESUS AS OUR LORD, WE MUST STILL LIVE IN THIS WORLD AS CITIZENS OF GOD’S KINGDOM, AND THIS WILL ALWAYS LEAD TO CONFLICT BETWEEN OUR LOYALTY TO OUR LORD AND THE DEMANDS PLACED ON US BY THE KINGDOMS OF THIS WORLD. HOW THEN, CAN WE LIVE WITH THIS CONFLICT; ESPECIALLY IN THESE TIMES WHEN EVEN WHAT SHOULD BE A REASONED DIFFERENCE IN POLITICAL IDEALS DEVOLVES INTO A DEMAND FOR ABSOLUTE LOYALY TO ONE POSITION OR THE OTHER? THE ANSWER IS TO LIVE OUR LIVES LIKE THE THESSALONIANS.

AS PAUL WROTE IN HIS FIRST LETTER TO THEM, A PART OF WHICH WE HEARD THIS MORNING, THEIR FAITH WAS SO WELL KNOWN TO ALL THE REGION THAT THERE WAS NO NEED FOR PAUL TO EVEN SPEAK ABOUT IT. THEY LIVED OUT THEIR FAITH IN THE LORDSHIP OF CHRIST WITH INTEGRITY AND CONSTANCY. THEY DIDN’T PROUDLY PROCLAIM HOW THEY NO LONGER WORSHIP IDOLS, BUT LIVED AS FAITHFUL SUBJECTS OF THE LORD JESUS, AND RECEIVED THE GOSPEL OF THE LORD WITH JOY, EVEN AS THEY WERE PERSECUTED FOR NOT KNEELING BEFORE THE IMAGE OF THE EMPEROR. THERE IS NOT MUCH DANGER OF OUR BEING PERSECUTED FOR OUR PROCLAMATION THAT JESUS IS LORD, AT LEAST NOT IN THIS COUNTRY AT THIS TIME, BUT WE ARE STILL CALLED TO REJECT THE DEMAND TO PLACE ANYONE OR ANYTHING ABOVE THE LORDSHIP OF CHRIST; AND THIS INCLUDES OUR TIME, TREASURE, TALENTS, LABOR, AND EVEN OUR RELATIONSHIPS.

I READ OF A LUTHERAN PASTOR WHO PLACED MAJIC MARKERS IN THE COLLECTION PLATES ONE SUNDAY. I CAN’T REMEMBER IF IS WAS IN THE CONTEXT OF THIS GOSPEL PASSAGE, BUT IT WOULD BE FITTING. SHE ASKED HER CONGREGATION TO MARK ALL THEIR CASH AND CREDIT CARDS WITH THE SIGN OF THE CROSS, SO THAT WHEN THEY WOULD SPEND THEIR CASH OR SWIPED THEIR CARDS THEY WOULD ASK THEMSELVES THE QUESTION, “HOW DOES WHAT I AM DOING REFLECT THAT JESUS IS LORD?” NOW THAT WOULD BE AN INTERESTING EXPERIMENT.

AS THE PSALMIST WROTE IN PSALM 99, “THE LORD IS KING; LET THE PEOPLES TREMBLE! HE SITS ENTHRONED UPON THE CHERUBIM; LET THE EARTH QUAKE! THE LORD IS GREAT IN ZION; HE IS EXAULTED OVER ALL THE PEOPLES. LET THEM PRAISE YOUR GREAT AND AWESOME NAME. HOLY IS HE!” THERE IS NO OTHER LORD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, AND THIS WE PROCLAIM WHENEVER WE SAY THAT JESUS IS LORD.

AMEN

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