October 18, 2020 Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 22: 15-22
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, juand whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In this morning’s Gospel we encounter something that doesn’t happen very often; two vastly divergent groups joining together in an attempt to outwit what they perceive as a common enemy. The Pharisees and Herodians join forces to challenge Jesus, in an attempt to entrap him. These two groups of people couldn’t be more different in their ideologies or their purpose. The Pharisees were the Jewish religious leaders of the day, distinguished by their strict observance of the Law as found in the Torah. And this was the group that was most fervently opposed to Jesus. The Pharisees generally aligned themselves in opposition to the Roman occupation of Israel, and they were not fans of Herod Antipas, the erstwhile Jewish king who was installed by the Romans as tetrarch of Judea. They viewed him as a puppet of Rome and felt that he didn’t serve the interests of the Jews he ruled over.
The Pharisees main purpose was the observance of Jewish Law; they were interested in politics only as it intersected with their religious observance.
On the other hand, the Herodians were a purely political group; they were supporters of Herod (hence the name), and submitted to his rule to secure civic peace and to foster their own political power. It’s likely that their resistance to Jesus was purely out of a desire to maintain political and civil tranquility and to appear to appease Herod. They probably didn’t really have much of an understanding of what it was that Jesus was preaching to the crowds; but Herod was against Jesus, and that was good enough for the Herodians.
It still remains that these two very different groups saw fit to join together to plot to trap Jesus, whom they perceived as a common threat to both of them. It would be rather like Coke and Pepsi joining together to try to put root beer out of business. So, these two groups encounter Jesus, at first flattering him for his sincerity, truth, and impartiality. Then they pose the question that they are sure will trip him up. They figure that either way Jesus answers, one group or the other will be offended. If he states that it’s not lawful to pay taxes, the Pharisees will be happy, but the supporters of the Roman Empire, the Herodians will now have a political case against Jesus. If he answers that the payment of taxes to an occupying force is valid, the Herodians won’t have a quarrel with him; but the Pharisees, the ones keeping strict observance of Jewish law, they would then label him a heretic. You will remember that the recurring issue they had with Jesus was his proclivity to associate with, ”sinners and tax collectors”.
Instead of being trapped, Jesus points out that Caesar’s image is on the coin; he actually asks if someone in the audience has the prop he intends to use to discredit both groups of accusers. Then, “give the Emperor his due”. And then the admonition to render what is appropriate to God. In essence, he deflects the question by stating that we all dwell in two distinct kingdoms; separate, but co-existing.
The temporal world and the heavenly kingdom of God. This concept of life in in two kingdoms was expressed by Luther; referred to as, “the kingdom on the Left” and “the kingdom on the Right”. We must live in the one on the left, the temporal, secular one and all that entails. We are to act within the boundaries that govern civil society, doing those things that are required to make our way in deference to laws, governments, and societal norms. And, as Jesus reminds his Herodian questioners, this includes paying taxes to help this “kingdom on the Left”, to fill its role in the world.
The irony is, that Jesus doesn’t need a prop to explain the second half of his answer; no coin with an image or a title. Simply, “give to God the things that are God’s”. With this, the Pharisees and the Herodians, we’re told, “were amazed” and the made their retreat. We can assume that they, like us understood exactly what Jesus meant by, “render to God what is God’s”. Everything! If the Emperor needs tax revenue to keep the country up and running, so be it. But the truth is that all of Creation belongs to the God who brought it into being; this is “the kingdom on the Right”. God’s empire, consisting of everything and everyone. We may owe tribute to the earthly kingdom, but to God we owe all that we have and all that we are. Everything we have ever been blessed with, including our very existence is a gift from the God who provides it.
And through the work of Christ on the cross, the kingdom of God is manifested in the here and now. God has claimed us as God’s own; once we acknowledge this, we recognize the truth in Jesus’ admonition to “give to God what is God’s”, means that we owe everything to God. And as residents of God’s kingdom we translate our faith and actions to determine how we live our lives in the earthly, secular one. We function in the world as we must, remembering that we ultimately identify as God’s people. It’s imperative that we employ the tenets of our faith to influence how we act in the world; being ever watchful not to fall prey to any of the “isms” that would detract from our desire to seek to thrive in God’s kingdom.
Materialism, consumerism, nationalism; those ideologies that would cause us to be drawn away from God and toward the other kingdom; the one where any of these distractions threaten to supplant God’s true position in our lives.
The best place for us to reaffirm our place in God’s kingdom is within the body of Christ, surrounded by our sisters and brothers in the faith. That happens primarily in God’s church; within these walls and beyond them. Connected to one another by the Spirit, determined to care for “the least of these”, those whom Christ calls us to feed, clothe, and shelter. Emanuel has been faithfully living into this command of Christ by providing food support for families served by the Guild of St. Agnes and students at Quinsigamond Elementary School. We have welcomed Rescatando Vidas to share our worship space. Emanuel’s Closet Thrift Store allows our neighbors to shop for their families with dignity. Our youth have been engaged in service projects through the LIPY group (Lutheran Inter-Parish Youth). Pre-covid and when it becomes safe to do so God’s church in this place provides meeting space for various groups of people in our community.
Each year, Lutheran congregations are asked to make a financial commitment for the work of the church. A letter from the leadership of the church was mailed to every member and friend of Emanuel earlier this week. You are not being asked to pledge in order to earn God’s love; God’s love is a free gift through grace. You are asked to give in response to God’s gift to you through the saving work of Jesus Christ. Especially in these uncertain times, we know that it can be challenging to make a pledge of giving to the church, since the way forward is cloudy at best. All we ask is that you prayerfully consider your ability to share a portion of God’s gifts to you with your church. Please return the pledge card by October 28; your offerings will determine how Emanuel responds to Christ’s command to serve our neighbors. Without faithful giving the mission and ministries we are engaged in will not be viable. As Jesus told the Pharisees and Herodians this morning, we are tasked to “give to God what is God’s”. Blessings to you as discern your response to this declaration from Jesus. Amen. God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.