Thursday, October 20, 2011

Raising Our Sights

Scripture for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 33:12-23; I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Treachery seeps out from these few verses of today’s Gospel. The Pharisees represent the established church of their day. They claimed to be champions of God, but if you’ve read this far in Matthew you know that the Pharisees have already decided that Jesus must be put to death. All the nice things they say as they cozy up to Jesus cannot hide the truth; they are remembered as being agents of evil. They appear to seek our Lord’s wisdom and to welcome dialogue with him, but in fact they are spiders weaving webs of words to trap Jesus into making unfortunate public statements that will be used against him.

The issue they pick is just as controversial today as it was twenty centuries ago: taxes. Specifically, a census tax, a head tax imposed by the Roman emperor in the year 6 of the Common Era, when Judea became a Roman province. Over the next sixty years, this tax—insidious because it taxed a person simply for being, for breathing, for walking the earth in a certain place—this tax fanned the flames of nationalism that would erupt in the Zealot movement that ignited the disastrous war of the years 66-70, when the Roman army sacked Jerusalem, obliterated the great Temple, viciously stamped out resistance, reoriented Judaism from the sacrificial cult of the Temple to a religion observed in the safety of the home, and dispersed the early Christians to the four points of the compass.

As Matthew sets the scene, there are Pharisees and Herodians present in this encounter with Jesus. Herodians were open supporters of the Roman rule of Judea, and paid the tax willingly. Pharisees were crowd-pleasers, in principle resenting and resisting the tax—but not to the extent of public resistance like that of the radical nationalists, the Zealots. By having two of these three parties present, Matthew sets the stage for doubling the likelihood that Jesus will put his foot into quicksand. By having the Herodian tax-advocates present, we may hear the suspicion that Jesus would put his foot down in the camp of the Zealots and urge tax-resistance. He surprises them all.

The Roman tax could be paid only with Roman coin. That’s where the rub came for the Pharisees: on that coin was the image of the emperor, and an inscription that made the emperor sound as if he were divine. Pharisees and Zealots found that blasphemous.

Jesus seems coolly detached from all the hubbub about images and inscriptions. He asks for a Roman coin because he doesn’t have one. Look who does: one of the Pharisees. There is the moment of truth, and we might miss it. It’s the Pharisees who make a public pitch bemoaning this tax and that blasphemous tax coinage, but it is the Pharisees who have the coins in their pockets. They are part of the establishment. They are on the take, supported by state sponsorship. Jesus calls them hypocrites and in that instant proves his point when he asks them to show him the money.

Jesus doesn’t have a coin like this in his pocket. He’s holding a foreign object as he asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” “The emperor’s,” they answer.

“Well, then, it’s already his, so let him have it.”


“And let God have the things that belong to God.” Already they belong to God, so let God have them. In the words of a hymn, “All things are thine, no gifts have we, Lord of all gifts, to offer thee; and yet with grateful hearts today thine own before thy feet we lay.”

The Pharisees and Herodians want to weave their web out of talk about taxes. Jesus uses their fixation as a springboard to higher, deeper, keener stewardship. Just as Jesus proves himself master of this situation of malicious encounter, so he teaches us not to be victims of circumstance, but to aim higher and deeper, determine our allegiance to what we do believe and value, not sink in the mire of blame and criticism and complaint.

What is it we say, There are only two sure things, death and taxes? But isn’t it clear that Jesus calls us not to live down to the lowest common standard of what we’re obligated to give, but to live up to our own best standard of what we want to give?

No, he doesn’t offer clearcut guidance. He raises our sights. He sets us free to decide, beyond what we’re against, what we’re for-- and to behave in keeping with what matters most.

What are they not protesting? That question has been asked about demonstrators in scores of locations around our country in the movement known as Occupying Wall Street.

At the corner of Wall and Broadway in Manhattan stands Trinity Church. The Rev. Daniel Simons, priest for liturgy, hospitality, and pilgrimage at that parish, has walked through the protestors’ encampment daily. Listen to his comments: The protestors “are choosing extreme action to make a point. They are the injured knee with torn ligaments that is screaming in unbearable, inarticulate pain. The knee doesn’t know how to fix its tear, but it knows how to draw attention to a problem that affects the whole (body). They have drawn attention by the means they have.”

Every so often, thanks to social networking, larger demonstrations happen. If the encamped protestors appear a bit raggedly disorganized and drifty, Simons observes how normal the participants appear in these larger demonstrations. “There are students and teachers and priests and ironworkers and office workers. They actually have a pretty clear and focused message: There are deep but resolvable cracks in our system of governance, which has artificially rigged the possibility of extreme profit at the expense of the greater good. The most articulate spokesmen identify a single, most pressing need for action…” which is federal regulation to restore firewall between investment banks and commercial banks, preventing investment banks in the future from gambling with their depositors’ money held in commercial banks created by those investment firms.

Wherever is this sermon going, you may wonder. The screaming knee that Fr. Simons observes daily in his neighborhood is drawing attention to what we’re all aware of, what we’re all affected by, and what most of us are waiting for Someone to do something about—and the bottom line is that we have as a society abdicated responsibility which we must reclaim. This reminds me of what we see in today’s Gospel: Jesus raising our sights, calling us to decide what we are for, modeling for us how spiritual clarity lets flow the energy by which evil may be mastered.

Remember how sharply divided the people are in that Gospel: divisions among Herodians, Pharisees, nationalists, and Jesus-followers appear headed toward explosive controversy.

In many American parks and public squares, a them-and-us kind of thinking appears in the protestors’ chant, “We are the 99 percent!” If that’s “us”, then “they” are the profiteering one percent whom we can blame for making us suffer. And where will that approach get us?

Not very far, says Fr. Simons. “We are all complicit in creating (and resolving) what ails us… We are the 100 percent.”

Jesus reveals how God sees in human beings their radical equality. Though the Pharisees are hypocrites and flatterers, they are right when they say that Jesus teaches the way of God in accordance with truth, shows deference to no one, and does not regard people with partiality. They discover how right their estimation of him is only when they are sent away shaking their heads in amazement.

One last word from Fr. Simons: “I write and preach regularly that in God's economy there is only an ‘us,’ and whenever we fall back to us-and-them thinking, we are contributing to a powerful but failed system that Jesus came to tip into collapse. Jesus in his Resurrection, steps beyond death and creates a new dimension. There is no retribution for his killers, how could there be? – he has just stepped into larger life where the only message can be: ‘Come on, join in the party.’ Any act of scapegoating-- it's their fault; this one is to blame -- feeds the old death-bound beast. Making something new is making something together - receiving something together from a God who gives all.

And one last word from me. Jesus does not explain how to draw a line between our allegiance (our trust, our support) that we are obliged to give to civil government and our allegiance to God. Jesus does not explain how we are to distinguish between what belongs to Washington and Boston, and what belongs to God. Jesus expects us to give to God in ways that bear the likeness of God: generously, freely, sacrificially, without complaint, and for the good of the whole “us” loved radically by God.

(I found M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew helpful in preparing this sermon; it’s found in volume 8 of “The New Interpreter’s Bible. Fr. Daniel Simons’s comments were published by Episcopal News Service.)