The Problem Of Not Having A Problem

Matthew 22.15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head it this, and whose title?” 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.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. 

The Pharisees weren’t on board with Jesus. His fame had already spread through Galilee, rumor of a Transfiguration was weaving its way through the hoi polloi, and he entered Jerusalem, rather dramatically, on the back of a donkey.

Which is to say nothing of his table turning, religion rebuking, or demon demolishing.

And the Pharisees find themselves in a situation where they could no longer stand for the man who was upending all the powers and principalities which benefitted them the most. So they come up with some schemes to trap Jesus in his words and, hopefully, turn his would-be crowds of disciples against them. 

They begin with flattery, of all things: “Hey Jesus! We know that you’re kind and charming and sincere and faithful and loving and caring and, and, and…” It’s as true as a description as anyone could ever hope for. And, weirdly enough, the Pharisees speak a truth about the Lord without know exactly what they’re saying.

They build him up and butter him up in order to bring him down.

“And because, Teacher, you are all these wonderful things, we have a question: It is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

This is a remarkably clever question for the Pharisees to ask because there’s no good answer – Jesus is put into an impossible situation. 

If Jesus says that taxes shouldn’t be paid, it would make him a rebel against the empire and the target already on his back would only grow larger. 

If Jesus says that taxes should be paid, he will appear to be a collaborator with Rome and would quickly lose his credibility as a prophet.

But Jesus doesn’t answer their question. At least, not directly. Instead Jesus does what he has done so many times before – he answers the question with a question of his own.

“Why are you putting me to the test you hypocrites? Give me one of the coins for the tax…” 

Someone reaches into a pocket and presents the denarius which results in one of the best known sentences from the Gospels: Jesus says to them, “Whose head is this on the coin?” And they say, “The emperor’s.” So Jesus replies, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they hear this, they are amazed and they leave.

Unfortunately, through much of Christian history, we Christians have not been amazed by Jesus’ answer and we have misappropriated it in all sorts of ways. For, more often than not, we have tricked ourselves into believing we know exactly what Jesus meant with his rather inexplicable response.

For example: Many of us today, that is Christians, assume that we can, and have, two loyalties: to God and to Country. We are told, of course, to never let our loyalty to the state infringe upon our loyalty to God, but its never clear when or if such a conflict will ever happen. So we keep on doing the things we do and saying the things we say such that, today, many of us Christians are usually Pharisees but don’t recognize ourselves as such.

Which is just another way of saying that a whole lot of us American Christians are more American than we are Christian.

But, back to the passage at hand…

Notice: Jesus, himself, doesn’t carry the coin used for the tax and he has to ask someone else to provide it for his little teachable moment. 

He does so, in all likelihood, precisely because the coin carried the image of Caesar, and to carry it and use it was in violation of the 2nd of the 10 commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down and worship them” (Exodus 20.4-5). 

Jesus’ response, then, seems to be done to call into question the carriers of the coins for having them in the first place. And, to make matters even more contentious, the Pharisees in question were known for their stark and zealous observance of the Law!

But we, more often than not, treat this little moment as a way to ease our consciences when it comes to the relationship between church and state. Countless pastors have stood in places like this and used Jesus’ words to say some version of, “You have to pay your taxes to the government and you have to tithe to the church because Jesus says so.”

And yet, Jesus’ use of symbolic irony does not convey a recommendation to those with eyes to see and ears to hear that we should all learn to live with divided loyalties. Instead, he is saying to the religious elites that the idolatrous coins should be sent back to Caesar, where they belong

Just as Jesus knows and sees no distinction between politics and religion, between church and state, neither does he know any distinction between government, economics, and the worship of God.

The people who seek to trap Jesus with this question about whether or not to pay taxes are revealed by Jesus to be the emperor’s faithful servants by the money they possess. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says earlier in the gospel, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

And here Jesus reminds the Pharisees and the crowds that you cannot serve God and the emperor.

Sure, we think, that’s fine for Jesus to say to the people way back then, but we don’t have an emperor today so this doesn’t really apply to us anymore. We, after all, have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

And yet, it doesn’t take long to look through the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or evening news to be bombarded with the truth: The people, whoever they may be, often turn out to be hungrier for power and loyalty than emperors. Emperors can just get rid of the people who disagree with the them. People in democracies have to convince others to be on their side, by any means necessary.

Okay, sure, we think, even if the people who rule the land are indeed sinners and lust for power, this still doesn’t really apply to us because we have a separation of church and state. In fact, Jesus is the one who came up with it in the first place right here in this passage!

And yet, there really isn’t a separation here, that is to say, in the United States. Take a look at a dollar bill (In God We Trust), or go through the Pledge of Allegiance (One Nation, Under God), or consider that, since 1973, the majority of Presidential Speeches have ended with a religious phrase (God Bless America).

Here in this country the so-called separation of church and state often leads to a legitimization of what the state is doing while simultaneously sequestering the church in the mythical realm of the private.

It’s why so many pastors have stood up in pulpits telling their congregations how to vote (even though we’re not really allowed to) and have encouraged a political way of being that has far more to do with a Donkey or an Elephant than it does with the Lamb of God.

I don’t know if any of you have noticed this but, to me, it feels like a whole lot of us are currently living on the edge. Between the pandemic and economic insecurity and cultural unrest and a seemingly never-ending presidential election season, there’s just a whole lot of tension. And then, to ramp up the anxiety, we stick the signs in our yards or on our bumper stickers, we scroll through different social media platforms to like the political posts we agree with and to respond, rather negatively, to those that run counter to our political way of thinking.

We’ve drawn our lines in the sand about where we stand.

And yet, for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, we seem to care a whole lot more about the Kingdom of America than the Kingdom of God.

And that’s not to say we can’t care about what’s happening in country, or that we shouldn’t get involved in decisions and campaigns and votes. 

Jesus commands us to love God and neighbor.

Its just that we do all of that so easily without considering that our truest citizenship doesn’t come from an old document signed by some men in 1776, but from God Almighty; that we live not under the banner of Red, White, and Blue, but under the cross upon which Jesus died for me and you. 

And this isn’t unique to the US of A – for two thousand years, we Christians have tried our best to make sense of having a king who rules from that aforementioned cross. And so we have twisted his words and actions to make Jesus an acceptable king for the likes of us and others. We’ve even claimed that he is “on our side” all while accruing power in whatever ways we can.

Yet, whenever we try to make Jesus fit into our image of what the world should look like, or, more specifically, what this country should look like, we lose sight of his call to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Because, behind Jesus’ brief and immensely important sentence is the fact that, as Christians, we believe everything already belongs to God! 

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees creates a problem for them, and for all of us. We might not want our lives to be further problematized at a time like this, but Jesus loves creating problems – and to recognize that we have a problem is to begin to follow the Lord. 

We might believe that we’ve got this all sorted out in our lives and in our culture but, as Christians, we know we have a problem when we do not have a problem. 

One of the deepest problems with idolatry, and any sin for that matter, is our presumption that we will know it when we see it. We believe that we have the faculties and the power to know, on our own, what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is faithful and unfaithful.

But most of the time what we really need is a Savior who can stand in front of us, dangle the truth right in front of our eyes, and leave us amazed. Amen. 

The Politics of Easter: A Reflection

Matthew 28.3-5

His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.”
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A few weeks ago I told the church I serve about my experience of voting during the Virginia Primary. When I arrived at my voting location I was disappointed with the limited number of participants. But by the time I left, the parking lot was starting to fill rapidly.

When I got into the building I went over to the table to receive my instructions and eventually got set up with a machine to cast my vote. While my wife finished registering and voting I stood off to the side.

I really try not to eavesdrop, but sometimes it feels impossible. When people walk into a building and starting shouting things, it’s hard not to notice.

The first man came in wearing bib overalls, dirt all over his boots, with his hair going every direction. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” The man stared blankly back and then declared, “Well, I ain’t no socialist so I’ll be voting Republican.

The second man came in wearing a perfectly pressed suit, with a tie clip, and an expensive looking watch on his wrist. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” Without taking time to think about his answer he said, “I can’t trust Hillary but I’m still voting Democrat.

The first woman came in wearing a completely coordinated outfit, her hair and makeup looked perfect, and her heels were so high they started giving me vertigo. When she arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” I don’t think the woman was really paying attention because she filled the next few minutes trying to convince the volunteer that our country is in a mess and the only good option we have left is the Christian Ted Cruz.

The next woman came in wearing a sweat suit, with spit-up on her shoulder, while making a comment about her baby waiting in the car. She was clearly in a rush so when the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting…” She interrupted and yelled, “Anyone but Trump!

It didn’t take long for me to notice that all of the people coming in to vote were doing so out of fear. None of them were particularly satisfied with any of the candidates, they represented different walks of life, and the one thing that united them was fear.

The two most well known stories of the New Testament bookend Jesus’ life. The two most well attended church services in the year similarly reflect these bookends: Christmas and Easter. As a pastor, I’ll be the first to admit that there are some of the hardest services to plan and preside over. And honestly, I feel guilty about how much they stress me out. They’re supposed to be the most joyful and incredible worship services in the year, and they leave me feeling anxious.

Part of the problem is the fact that a whole lot of people show up on Christmas and Easter who otherwise never attend church. That means that we’ve got one hour to show them how powerful regular worship can be in the hope of getting them to attend worship between the major holidays.

The other problem is the fact that most of the people who attend on Christmas and Easter already know the story. It has been told for two millennia and a 15-minute sermon from a pulpit is unlikely to shine a new light on either narrative.

But the biggest problem with Christmas and Easter is the fact that many of us read ourselves into the story as the wrong characters.

On Christmas Eve we hear about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and Joseph to share with them the Good News that they will be bring God in the flesh into the world. They, of course, are terrified by this news but the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” We like to stop the story there because it fits well with our sensibilities. We like to think about being afraid of starting something new and God showing up to reassure us.

But the story goes on to talk about Herod’s fear. Herod heard about a messiah possibly being born in Bethlehem. Out of fear that this child will one day usurp his power, he ordered all of the babies born in Bethlehem to be murdered. Obviously, this is not a popular topic for Christmas Eve. But it is important. It is important because most of us have never, nor will we ever be in a position like a Mary and Joseph. We have families and a government that support our way of life. We know we have people to count on, we know that there is money in our bank accounts. Many of us will never know the fear that Mary and Joseph experienced on that Christmas Eve.

But many of us can connect with Herod’s fear about people in a faraway place whose existence threaten our power and way of life. (Think Syrian Refugees or ISIS)

On Easter we hear about Mary Magdalene and the other Mary going to the tomb expecting to find Jesus’ dead body, and instead they experience an earthquake and an angelic presence. The angel says to the women, “Do not be afraid.” But he scares the Roman guards nearly to the point of death. We like the story to focus on God’s power over death and Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. We like to hear about how Jesus’ victory over death opens up the gates of heaven for people like us.

But the story specifically sets up a distinction between the women at the tomb, and the guards at the tomb. And if we’re honest, most of us are like the guards in the story; we’re Caesar’s people. We might know about loss and suffering, we might’ve experienced the awful power of death in a loved one or friend, but we’ve never had to tread lightly for fear that our political system will murder us for speaking out, we’ve never known what it’s like to watch someone die on a cross and then be placed in a grave, we’ve never had to guard our political opinions because we live in the land of freedom.

But what we do know is that most of our lives are pretty good. Many of us have the right skin color, the right passport, the right education, the right sexual orientation, and the right amount of wealth to be rewarded in our society.

And Jesus, the guy Christians claim to worship on Christmas, Easter, and every Sunday in between, came to make the first last and the last first.

So maybe we should be afraid. We should be afraid because God raised his Son from the dead and calls us to sacrifice our own lives for people who betray us. Maybe we should be afraid because we’re told to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Maybe we should be afraid because Jesus tells us to love our enemies, whether they support Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.

When angels show up in scripture, but in particular at Christmas and Easter, they come to people who have every reason to be afraid and they bring words of comfort: Your Son will be God in the flesh; Jesus has been raised from the dead. God speaks to the outcasts, to the last, least, and lost and brings them Good News.

We, who have nothing to fear, we who are so comfortable and content in our lives… Maybe it’s time to recognize that following Jesus’ will disrupt the comfort and the contentment we feel. Maybe it’s time to start praying for and acting on behalf of people who are belittled and broken by our political system. Maybe it’s time for us to stop ignoring everyone with a different way of life, particularly if have a different skin color, a different passport, a different education, a different sexual orientation, or a different socio-economic status. Maybe it’s time to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and let it shake our lives.

 

 

(with thanks to Jason Micheli for inspiring parts of this reflection)