Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Putting First Things First

Scripture for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 33:12-23; I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

There are moments in life when it comes crystal clear what matters most.

When your house is burning to the ground, but you’ve gotten your children out and they’re safely in your arms.

When your path report comes back positive, and you’re faced with having to decide how best to treat an illness that seems to reframe your life.

This theme of discerning what matters most is heard also in a story from years ago when an oppressive regime held a missionary family in house arrest. Word came that in 24 hours they must be packed, and must limit themselves to two hundred pounds of belongings. Father and mother and two children gathered what most mattered and packed it, set to go. When soldiers arrived, the captain looked at the baggage, shook his head, then turned to the parents and asked, “The children. Have you weighed the children?”

There are three vignettes suggesting that adversity may sharpen our recognizing and appreciating what matters most. But why wait for adversity to motivate us?

Our 2015 stewardship appeal invites us to ask ourselves, What do we most need—and what do we most need to let go of—as we walk the path of new life in Christ? Each colored paper stone represents someone’s answer to those questions. Help us build that path by laying a stone today. Don’t limit yourself to one stone. Help move us forward on our journey.

I traveled to East Longmeadow on Tuesday to attend the Bishop’s Fall Clergy Day. This time, that was Bishops plural, s’, as Episcopal Bishop Doug Fisher was joined by Bishop James Hazelwood of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Joining Episcopal clergy that day were many of the Lutheran pastors from across Western Massachusetts. In small groups comprising both traditions we bit into today’s Gospel, the next episode in St. Matthew’s unfolding narrative of escalating hostility towards Jesus, from religious leaders who felt threatened by his teaching. In these encounters, as we saw last Sunday, Jesus does not retreat into protective self-isolation. He sends a return volley. He fulfills the divine trait expressed in Psalm 18, “With the pure you show yourself pure, but with the crooked you are wily.”

“Wily” isn’t a bad description of Jesus’s answer to the Pharisees and the Herodians, is it?
Catch the collusion going on here. The Pharisees organize this lynching party. Chapters back in Matthew, we’re told that the Pharisees had decided that Jesus must die: He was that much of a threat to their status quo. Who are these people?

Tax payers, all of them. The Pharisees, however, were resistant tax payers. They weren’t as radical in their resistance as the Zealots we hear about in the New Testament; they were more grumblers than activists. But because they could deliver a sharp political commercial, the Pharisees were popular. Grumbling is often intriguing in its own dark way—election season is always full of it, and often little else—but of course in the first century no one ran for office, no one got elected. This did not stop the Pharisees from stirring up popular protest against the regime of imperial Rome, in particular the costly census tax, imposed in the year 6 in the common era, when Judea became a Roman province. (Remember how the story of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ begins, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered… while Quirinius was governor of Syria…”? That was not being registered to vote. It was for enrolling tax payers.

Thirty some years have passed, and that heavy imperial hand has kept reaching into the pockets of Judea. The Herodians in our story today represent the overt supporters of the Roman Empire: they had no problem paying the tax, for ultimately it lined the nest of their own prosperity as collaborators and quislings of the emperor. Their role in this story is to show how the Pharisees’ lynching party is truly a piece of bipartisan cooperation. They’ve crossed the aisle to join forces and make doubly sure this Jesus gets what’s coming to him.

They think they’ve set the perfect mouse trap by asking Jesus to decide just what the emperor has coming to him. By asking “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”, clearly they don’t mean to ask about imperial law, but about Israel’s religious law: does it allow unquestioning allegiance to Rome?

Here’s where a commentary comes in handy. By Roman law, the tax could be paid only in Roman coins, most of which contained an image of Caesar and words that were blasphemous to Jews, declaring Caesar divine, and calling him “high priest”. The coin itself became a symbol of the deeper problem, the idolatry that Caesar mattered more than the living God of Israel.

They were in the temple precincts, where custom forebade carrying the imperial coins. Money-changers, as we know from another famous story, exchanged currency. But look who has this unholy change rattling in their pockets. When Jesus asks, “show me the coin used for the tax,” it’s the Pharisees who have it! They talk the talk; they do not walk the walk.

Not surprised, Jesus aims his words like a laser beam: “Whose head is this? Whose title?” They answer as they must, “The emperor’s.”

In his words spoken next, does Jesus mean, “It’s his already, so let him have it…”? Is he saying, “The emperor now owns the economic system of Judea: You Herodians are making sure of that, and you Pharisees are complicit. Despite your grumbling about oppression and idolatry, look whose coins you carry here in the temple, where they should not be.

Their lynching party has turned into his chess match. As he declares Checkmate, he changes the terms of this confrontation by yoking to their civic duty (“Pay taxes”) their spiritual duty (“Pay attention to the claims of God”, “Pay homage to the one and only God”, “Pay forward with the generosity that God shows you.” Jesus redirects this confrontation to be about what God has coming to God.

They were amazed (says the New Revised Standard Version). They were astonished (says the New International Version). They were in shock (according to The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Hear what one commentator says. “The kingdom of God represented by Jesus embraces all of life. Indeed, Matthew could hardly advocate the separation of religion and politics. He pictures Jesus and the Christian community as belonging to the series of Israel’s prophets, who never made a split between religion and the political aspects of life.

“While Matthew is clear that loyalty to God is a different and higher category than loyalty to Caesar, this text is not instruction on how people who live in a complex world of competing loyalties may determine what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. It simply declares that the distinction between what belongs to Caesar (as some things do) and what belongs to God (the ultimate loyalty) must be made, and he leaves it to readers in their own situations to be ‘Jesus theologians’ who, in the light of his own life and teachings, actualize the distinction.”

In one of his many letters, C. S. Lewis wrote,

"Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things."

Today, we baptize Claire and Ruby. We join their parents, Pete and Rachaele, and their Godparents, Jan and Eric, committing ourselves to encouraging and supporting these girls in their discerning what matters most, and in their practice of putting first things first.

We pledge our time and talent and treasure to make sure Ruby and Claire discover the divine image imprinted on them and on all people, and we pledge our readiness to help them feel and know and claim the titles inscribed on their hearts and minds today: Children of God, members of Christ’s Body, and heirs of the kingdom of God.

(The Gospel commentary quoted here is M. Eugene Boring’s, found on pp. 420-421 in Volume VIII of “The New Interpreter’s Bible”. C. S. Lewis’s words come from a letter dated 23 April 1951. I'm grateful to The Very Rev. Jim Munroe for introducing me to Lewis's letter and the story of the missionary family.)