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Pentecost 20 October 22, 2017 - The Rev. Janet Campbell
PENTECOST 20 Proper 24 Year A
Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-13; 1 Thess. 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, October 22, 2017
The Rev. Janet Campbell
PENTECOST 20 Proper 24 Year A
Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-13; 1 Thess. 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, October 22, 2017
The Rev. Janet Campbell
The parables of Jesus
we’ve heard the past three Sundays
were all part of his teaching
during his last days in Jerusalem.
His enemies had been closing in
and he had no doubt
that arrest was imminent,
          and a death sentence almost certain.
Yet he continued to preach and to teach
in the most provocative place of all,
          the temple itself,
the very center
          of Jewish religious practice and life.
It was the Passover,
a time of heightened religious energy
          and tension.
Crowds of pilgrims
gathered around Jesus
in the temple courtyard
to hear him.

The temple authorities
sought to discredit him
with a trick question
about his authority.
The parables he told in response
were acutely embarrassing to them,
a public challenge
          to their power and influence,
exposing their failure
to practice what they preached
          in the exercise of their own authority . . .
The Pharisees
then plotted to entrap him
with their own trick question . . .
sending some of their disciples
          along with the Herodians
                   to ask it:
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
The Pharisees were one of
several Jewish religious factions,
          which differed in their
          theology, emphases, and practice.
(The Judaism of Jesus’ time
was not homogeneous,     
just like Christianity in our own day.)

To the Pharisees,  
obedience to God
maintaining ritual purity
and adhering to religious law
          in everyday life.
The Herodians,
their allies in the attack on Jesus,
were a political group,
supporters of Herod,
the Roman puppet ruler
          of Galilee.
First they attempted to
put Jesus off his guard
with their smiling
(and obviously insincere) flattery.
Then followed
the question:
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
meaning in accord
with the teachings of the Torah,
          with religious law.)

If Jesus answered yes,
he could be accused
of condoning allegiance to a false god,
          for the Roman emperors
                   claimed to be gods.
If he answered no,
he could be accused
of advocating insurrection against Rome.
The Herodians
would make sure of that.
But Jesus was so quick, so clever,
so adept
          at deflecting trick questions.
“Show me the coin
used for the tax,”
he said.
The Pharisees had fallen
into their own trap.

The coin used for the tax,
a denarius,
was a profane object . . .
not because it was money,
but because it bore the image
of Caesar
and the inscription
"Caesar Augustus Tiberius,
son of the Divine Augustus.”
                                                        ["Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs"]
To the Pharisees
owning, even handling, a denarius,
          was blasphemy.
How could you claim
to worship the one true God
when you were carrying around
a graven image
of the Emperor of Rome
stamped with his claim to divinity –
in effect, an idol?
They had cleverly worked out ways
to comply with the tax
without themselves
ever having to touch the coin.
Now they were being challenged
to produce one.

If they did,
they would show themselves
to be the hypocrites they were,
          and be publicly shamed.
If the Herodians produced the coin,
the Pharisees would still be shamed,
          by association.
But it would also be humiliating
to back down . . .
And so they produced a denarius,
hoping they might still
          redeem the situation.
“Hmmm,” said Jesus,
examining the coin.
“Whose head is this?
And whose title?”
“Whose coin is this?”
“The emperor’s,”
they answered . . .
And now he had them.
“Give therefore to the emperor
          the things that are the emperor’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.”

He hadn’t actually
answered their question
but he had put an end
          to the discussion –
They went away,
amazed and thwarted.
The Pharisees often engaged one another
in questions and debate
about religious law and practice –
friendly, if heated, disputation
not as disagreement
          but as a way of homing in on truth.
But Jesus had rightly seen
their attempt to draw him into debate
          as a stealth attack
and turned them away
          with their own tactics.
The story raises and leaves unanswered
its own questions
and has generated its own debate
from the time of its telling
to now.
Is the story a directive
to respect the authority of the state
by paying the taxes imposed by the state?

The Roman denarius,
with its picture of Caesar
and its claim to his divinity
was both symbol and means
of Roman domination
          of a conquered people,
and exploitation
          of the poorest among
                    that people.
Roman taxation
was for the benefit of Rome,
not of those being taxed.
Does the story permit or even advocate
resisting the payment of taxes
if there is objection on religious grounds
          to the purpose of the tax?
"We are war tax resisters,”
Mennonite pastor John Stoner
told a Congressional subcommittee in 1993,
“because we have discovered some doubt
as to what belongs to Caesar
          and what belongs to God,
and have decided to give the benefit of the doubt to God." *        

Money and taxes . . .
potential servant of the common good:
                    for health care,
                    assistance to the poor and struggling,
                    scientific research,
                    reversal of climate change . . .
The questions raised by the story
might cause us to consider
how money’s power is at work today
in our own society
          and in our own lives . . .
in wealth increasingly accumulated
by the few
          for the few,
and a tax code
          that burdens the poor
and favors the wealthy,
          who could well afford to pay more . . .
in the outsize influence
of huge corporations
          for the sake of ever-increasing profit . . .

in the so-called war chests
of lobbyists
          pressuring legislation
                   favoring special interests
in the obscene amounts
raised and spent
on political campaigns.
What belongs to the emperor?
And what belongs to God?
Asked in that order,
the implication is that
          God gets the leftovers.
Better to ask first,
what belongs to God?
“The earth is the Lord’s,
and all that is in it,”
says the Psalmist,
“the world and all who dwell therein.”     [Psalm 24.1, BCP p. 613]
God did not give away the Creation
          to humankind,
but entrusted the Creation to humankind
          to cherish and care for.

Not given away, but entrusted . . .
so how, then, could anything
belong to Caesar,
or to me,
or to you?
We might say
it is all on loan
for the sake of the gospel.
Money and its power
can be for us
tools of holy purpose,
held lightly, in trust,
          used for taking care of ourselves
          and for sharing with others
                    for the common good,
money can become
          an end in itself,
a possession, or the means to other possessions,
a temptation
          to greed and acquisitiveness,
a measure of self-worth
          as in “What is she worth?”

Jesus was a keen observer
of how money’s power
manifested in his society . . .
and how love of money
          rather than appreciation
                   for its potential for good,
would inevitably come into conflict
with love of God
          and love of neighbor.
“Give to God the things that are God’s.”
The power of our money
can and will accomplish many things . . .
which of those things
will serve and further
God’s purpose in Creation?
* Found on Wikipedia page “Render Unto Caesar” en.wikipedia.org. Footnote 13: “Taxpayers Who Fail to File Federal Income Tax Returns: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight of the Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives, One Hundred Third Congress, First Session, October 26, 1993. United States Government Printing Office. !994. p. 154. ISBN 0160440769.”