Sermon 18 Oct
Exod 13 12-23
1 Thess 1 1-10
Today’s Gospel has another instance of the Pharisees trying to trick Jesus. They were living in an occupied country, and many prophets had already come, claiming to be the Messiah, saying that they would lead the people to freedom. So the Pharisees wanted to see what Jesus really stood for. Was he just another flash-in-the-pan, another hothead who would call for revolution but fizzle out? If so, was he a danger to the shaky peace they lived in under Rome? The Pharisees knew that if there was any insurrection, the Romans would be quick and ruthless in stamping it out – the countryside was littered with crosses from other wannabe revolutionaries who had been made an example of for disturbing the so-called peace.
So the Pharisees come to Jesus with a trick question. They begin their question by establishing what they know of Jesus – this is a bit like a political debate where the compere sets up the scene, hoping to find a way in which the politician can be made to squirm as they get caught out.
“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.’
This would be the statement that would lull Jesus into a sense of security, they probably thought. Then they could come in with the sharp question and catch him unawares!
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’”
This was a very loaded question. First, they raised the idea of Jesus treating everyone with impartiality. He was known for his love of the outcast and the sinner, that he would not treat them as lesser. But here he was being challenged about how he regarded the high-ups, the leaders and rulers. Would he kowtow to them? Would he be subservient to the upper levels of society?
This is an interesting question for us to ponder about – we know that following Jesus means that we treat everyone as if they were Christ himself in our midst – that we are called to love the alcoholic, the mentally ill, the prostitute, the annoying person next door who steals all our lemons. But we are also challenged to treat the upper ranks of society with impartiality too, not to be subservient and greasey towards them, and not to see ourselves as of little worth compared to them. So what if they have the latest boat in their yard? Or the biggest house in the block? Jesus was known for showing no partiality, and treating everyone as if they were beloved by God. Perhaps people who have a lot of stuff and wealth and power are used to be seen as a meal-ticket by those around them, but they may not feel loved for who they are, not what they have. It’s like someone who wins Lotto suddenly finding that they have a whole lot of relatives they’ve never heard of!
Jesus didn’t fall for the Pharisees’ trick question. He took a coin, and asked them about it.
Let’s have a think about the coin that Jesus took. It was the hated coin, the very one used to pay tax. Just imagine if another country marched in to Christchurch and demanded that we paid them our own money, using their horrible currency! It’s just a coin, you might say. But for the Jews it meant something. Remember that there is a commandment about not making graven images? For the Jews, having the likeness of the emperor on the coin was against their religion, and handling the coin was distasteful for them. Unclean, really. And not only the image, but written on the coins were the words: son of God, high priest. These words were referring to the emperor. Yuk! Can you see how the Jews would have hated these coins and all they stood for? Caesar, the Roman ruler, was claiming to be God over them!
Perhaps the Pharisees were trying to goad Jesus into saying something revolutionary, something inflammatory that would cause the Romans to arrest him and get rid of him and the potential nuisance he would cause to the city.
But Jesus sees through their trick, and gives a surprising answer.
‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ he asked. 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.’
So often Jesus gives answers that are not yes or no, not black and white, and need further thinking about.
What on earth could he mean? Pay back Caesar in the coin he used, and pay back God in God’s own coin.
Or give Caesar what he gave, but give God what belongs to God.
What does this mean for us?
What does God give us, and what do we need to pay back to God?
God gives us everything we need – life, health, existence. We would not be here without God. God most importantly gives us love, and that love is seen in his sacrifice of his first-born son.
In our reading from Exodus, we heard that the first-born son is to be dedicated to God, and maybe that sits a bit odd these days, especially for those of us with no children, or a daughter born first. But God gave his own first born son for us, so that we ned never be separated from God’s love. God gave his most precious for us, so we can be his most precious too.
We need to hold lightly to that which is most precious, offering it up to God, asking God to bless it for God’s service.
Some people hold too tightly to their children, wanting to control them, not only as they are growing up, but when they are adults. Set them free, let them learn. Keep loving them, but hold lightly. Some people try to control their partner – again, love means holding lightly, letting God use what we hold most dear.
Jesus is showing us that we might have to follow the world-structure and pay our taxes, but this needs to be done alongside paying God what is God’s, and keeping the priorities of our life in balance.
This week, let’s ask God to show us how we can set free that which we are holding too tightly, so that God can bless it. Let’s pay back God in God’s own currency, which is love without partiality.