Sermon for October 19th, 2014 || Proper 24, Year A || Isaiah 45: 1-7; Psalm 96:1-9; 1 Thes. 1: 1-10; Matthew 22: 15-22|| The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
This is a very different sermon than the one I thought I would be preaching this morning. It’s amazing how differently the scriptures speak to us depending on what’s going on in our world when we hear them, such a grace that we can hear them with new ears depending on the circumstances of our lives.
On Friday afternoon I had a call from a 54-year-old gentlemen here in Cohasset whose wife had died that morning, leaving behind not only the broken heart of a devoted husband who spoke of her like a teen-aged boy who’d just fallen in love for the first time, but leaving behind also their three, way-too-young-for-this children, ages 18, 16, and 12.
Then we got the news I pray you’ve all heard by now, that our much loved former Bishop, Tom Shaw, had completed his earthly pilgrimage after a year-and-a-half-long ordeal with brain cancer.
And as we gather here this morning to worship together, we do so in the knowledge that at least three of our beloved parishioners are living with the word “terminal” stamped on their medical files and burned into their psyches, each too young to face such a verdict. One of them, the 53- year old father of five children– the youngest of whom is ten years old—is not expected to survive the week.
We at St. Stephens know all to well, as we hear in our final blessing each week, that life is short. And we don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us—or to gladden the heart of God.
In this morning’s gospel, Jesus knows it too. In this morning’s gospel, Jesus is but a few days away from his death on the cross. Somehow, in the sermon I thought I was going to preach today, I’d not even noticed that suddenly significant bit of context. It may not be Holy Week in the liturgical life of the church, but in Matthew’s gospel we’re smack dab in the middle of Holy Week. Death is all too imminent for Jesus and he knows it. And death does have a way of “focusing the mind” as the saying goes. Death puts things in perspective.
So when the Pharisees and the Herodians try to play Jesus for the fool, he’ll have none of it. In a textbook illustration of the adage, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” those loyal to Judaism and those loyal to their Roman enemies gang up to trick Jesus. They address him with saccharine sweetness and fatuous flattery, then slither in for the kill: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?”
Jesus is in no mood for playing games. Life is short, and he hasn’t much time to gladden—or enlighten—the hearts of those who walk the way with him. So “aware of their malice,” as the gospel says, Jesus seemingly snaps back impatiently, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” He might just as well have said, “Why are you wasting my time with this nonsense when I’ve got so much yet to do and my time is running out?”
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” The “right” answer, of course, would depend on whose law one was referring to. Under Judaic law, it was unlawful to even carry a Roman coin because of the idolatrous image of Caesar it bore and the inscription proclaiming him divine. Paying tribute to him was out of the question. Under Roman law, it was unlawful to refuse to pay taxes, much less to advise others against doing so. There is no good answer to such a crafty question—unless you happen to be Jesus.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus asks.
It’s a harmless enough question to the Roman loyalists, but consider that no Jew within hearing distance could have escaped the moment of crisis that question engendered. To be forced to look at that coin and the image and inscription etched on its surface– whether as it lay flat in one’s hand or as it imposed itself on the eye of one’s imagination—just to see that coin was to be forced to confront the horrifying blasphemy, the outrageous offense against God, that it represented.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” Jesus finished, “and to God the things that are God’s.” Again, a harmless enough word for the Herodians; they can walk away placated. But for the Pharisees? The other Jews in the crowd? Not so much! Images… idols…inscriptions? Their ears would have been ringing with echoes of the holy scripture in which they were so steeped:
“So God created humankind* in his image, in the image of God he created them…”
“I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol… You shall not bow down to them or worship them…”
“I will put my law within them, and I will inscribe it on their hearts…”
In one deceptively simple but elegant response, Jesus had both indicted the Pharisees for idolatry (what were they doing with a Roman denarius anyway?), and offered to those with ears to hear the redemption of remembering whose divine image they bore and whose law was inscribed on their hearts.
“You are better than this,” Jesus seemed to be saying. “Remember who you are, and whose you are. Never mind the meaningless image on imperial coins; you bear the image of the Holy One; the One God; the God of creation, compassion, and mercy; the God of redemption, righteousness, and power; the God of gentleness, generosity, and love; the God of humility, hope and grace. The God of all that is. Even Caesar. Even Caesar’s silly coins.”
So at this time, when the lives of so many of seem shrouded with death, this gospel can re-focus our minds and restore our perspective. We can hear in this gospel not just as an indictment against our false idols, but a life-giving reminder of our absolute beloved-ness before the God who made us and calls us each by name; the God in whose sight each and every one of us is precious.
This is who we are and who we belong to. His word is inscribed on our hearts. So be quick to love and make haste to be kind. Because life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us—But by the power of Christ working in us, know that we have all we need to gladden the heart of God. Amen.