“Conflicting Loyalties”

Matthew 22:15-22

22 October 2017

The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor

East Rochester & West Walworth: Zion United Methodist Churches

 

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 is 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.

 

 

Prayer.

 

The preacher’s dilemma for today is

How does one preach about traps

Without it becoming a trap in itself?

 

Your dilemma in experiencing this Gospel text in this sermon is

 

 

How far am I willing to walk with Jesus

Up Calvary’s slope

To his imminent crucifixion?

 

Blows had been exchanged numerous times

In our Lord’s confrontation with the Chief Priest and Temple authorities.

Both Jesus and his opponents had given and taken offense

That would, within hours,

Result in Jesus’ arrest, trial, abuse, crucifixion, and death.

 

 

Civil authority was clashing with kingdom authority.

 

Politics makes for strange bedfellows.

Imagine Sean Hannity and David Axelrod working together at a new network.

Image Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer holding their noses

And working together to introduce new legislation on taxes.

I hear Democrats and Republicans

Are working together on health care reform.

Have you heard that?

I don’t know.

I try to keep my politics out of preaching.

The Gospel is my politics.

That’s the way I like to think about it.

But, you know.

I hear things.

 

Politics makes for strange bedfellows

Kind of like the Chief Priest, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Herodians

All coming together to set a trap for Jesus.

The Chief Priest and Sadducees were leaders of organized Judaism.

Pharisees were righteous and well educated lay people.

The Herodians were Jews who were loyal to Rome (their occupiers).

Leaders, followers, and collaborators with the enemy;  

All holding their noses while working together to trap Jesus,

To destroy Jesus,

To remove Jesus and every memory and aspiration he created.

 

 

Get Jesus in trouble with Rome

And they’d crucify him.

Trap Jesus by getting him in trouble with the populist,

And a lynch mob would take care of business.

Blood was in the water,

And it drew every variety of shark in for the kill.

 

Civil authority clashing with kingdom authority.

 

On this, the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation,

 

 

It is good to remember Martin Luther

Who understood this titanic clash as being between

Civil righteousness and Spiritual righteousness.

Civil righteousness is something we work on,

Something we are accountable for,

Is achieved by how we act in society.

 

Spiritual righteousness, however, regards our relationship with God.

Spiritual righteousness is not determined by our actions

But by God’s love in Jesus Christ.

The contrast is between our dual citizenship:

We are citizens of the state and citizens of heaven.

(Thanks to Erick J. Thompson, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3450)

 

 

Jesus replies,

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (22:21)

This appeals deeply to those of us who’s cultural DNA

Is rooted in the western, American experience.

In fact, we are so fond of it, most are content to linger too long,

To become too acculturated to this initial Gospel point of view

That we become reluctant to walk with Jesus

Any further than the first station of the cross.

 

 

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,

Or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads.

The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause

Create a dualistic world separated by a wall,

Between “the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”

(Roger Williams, 1644)

 

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Pay your taxes.

Pay your tithe.

(That would be 10% of your gross income for those of us who like to be considered conservative, Bible believing Christians)

 

Pay your taxes.

Pay your tithe.

Our Lord’s adversaries must have been writhing in anguish;

Their trap failed to close.

 

 

(Much as many of us are doing right now,

writhing in anguish,

running through our minds our personal finances

and our financial contributions to the church)

 

No pressure.

 

 

Jesus is carrying his cross all the way up to Calvary,

Beyond this initial, first stop,

Where we would just as soon linger, lounge, and reside.

Come with me.

Exit your comfort zone and let us continue the journey with Jesus.

 

Every thoughtful, contemplative Christian

Can recognize the fact that the world isn’t black and white.

Despite our founding father’s best intent,

There are necessary intersections between church and state.

The wall separating the two is assailed

When we call for

and work for

civil justice;

Whether it is advocating for Palestinian rights,

Healthcare reform,

Gender equality,

Protecting the environment,

Or Black Lives Matter.

 

The wall separating civil righteousness and spiritual righteousness is assailed when the state elevates

Patriotism above faith,

Economic winners over losers,

The will of the powerful few over the powerless many.

 

Do we, as Jesus followers,

As people seeking spiritual righteousness,

Stay quiet in the civil realm?

 

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Our journey with Jesus from the Temple mount to Calvary’s mount

Opens our eyes to the conflicting loyalties that exist

Between Rome and Jerusalem,

Between Washington and this house of prayer.

 

Some of our Christian sisters and brothers find these conflicting loyalties

Easier to reconcile than others.

Some will swear to never swear an oath,

Vow never to bear arms, or

Join in million-man protests.

Some will

Even chain themselves to the doors of Capitol Hill.

 

Others will see no conflict in running for office

Trumpeting Judaic-Christian values,

Cite scripture from the stump,

Even erect monuments to the Ten Commandments in our court rooms.

 

 

Both often vilify each other.

 

The rest of us

 

 

are somewhere in-between,

With our heads spinning in a bog

Filled with fake news, social media, and 24-hour news channels,

All being stirred by the Devil himself.

I don’t know about you, but

I wonder all the time about

My conflicting loyalties between Caesar and God.

And I suspect you do, too.

 

Jesus stumbles,

Takes a knee under the weight of the cross,

As he ascends his earthly triumph.

 

Our epistle lesson encourages us to continue with Christ;

To stretch our spiritual canvas.

 

 

In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians

We are reminded of the expanse of humanity;

The need for the Word to go beyond Jerusalem,

Not only in Macedonia and Achaia,

But to the entire world.

 

The Good News of Jesus Christ comes personally, privately, and by individual re-birth,

Signed, signified, and eternally sealed by our baptism.

At the same time,

The Good News of Jesus Christ comes collectively, corporately, and to all of Creation,

By means of the Body of Christ, known as the Church.

 

Paul does not stop here.

He stretches us further.

 

The God who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ,

The God of Creation and re-creation,

Is the same God that loves us so much,

Individually, collectively, and without exception,

That He gives us His Holy Spirit,

That we can become an example to all believers,

To prepare ourselves for Jesus to return,

And for Him to rescue us from the wrath that is coming.

(I Thessalonians 1:1-10)

 

From before time to beyond the end of time.

Our God is our God.

 

 

From the individual to all of humanity,

From the private to the corporate,

Our God is our God.

And all is of God.

 

In the clash of civil authority and kingdom authority,

In the clash of Caesar and God,

When Jesus wisely proclaims,

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (22:21)

Jesus is running the table.

 

Everything is of God.

Everything is God’s.

Even Caesar.

So, in the end,

In the wrath that is to come?

Even that which is rendered to the state

Returns to the Lord, who first gave it.

Everything returns to God.

 

Elegant, don’t you agree?

Yeah, Jesus is that way.

Jesus is pretty awesome, in my book.

 

As one enters through the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher,

Which sits on top of the traditional location

of our Lord’s crucifixion and burial,

In the old city of Jerusalem,

 

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You turn right, climb rounded stairs,

Pass through a door way

Up a stone stairway; winding, crooked, and steep.

You are not yet to the top of Calvary, but near the end.

The way of the cross is nearly fully revealed.

 

“Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus commanded.

“And they brought him a denarius.” (22:19)

 

Interesting fact about the Temple economy,

When you look into the books of organized religion,

Both then and today,

There is much to be revealed.

 

 

Pilgrims coming into town to make their yearly visit would

Make their annual animal sacrifice to God.

They would also be required to make a once a year contribution,

Their tithe,  

To the unpopular poll tax.

 

Who likes paying taxes?

Pilgrims would pay up in their local script or currency,

Most commonly, but not always, Roman denarius.

Currency would be exchanged into Jewish shekels at usury rates.

This made the commoners,

The people in the pews

Seethe with anger.

 

The Roman denarius sported an image of Caesar

Together with the slogan,

 

 

Augusti Filius August Pontifex Maximus 

Which means

“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”

(Boring, Eugene, Matthew – Mark, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 420.)

 

Whose head?

Whose title?

 

Of course,

A righteous Jew was forbidden from

Worshipping another god,

Or sporting an idolatrous image of a god,

Especially right there in the Temple courtyard.

 

Let’s be clear,

It’s never a good idea to break the Ten Commandments.

It’s really bad when you do it right there in the Temple!

Yet, the Temple authorities had no trouble presenting Jesus with a denarius.

 

As soon as disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians

Presented a denarius,

Jesus exposed them as hypocrites

For all the world to see.

 

In the clash between civil righteousness and spiritual righteousness,

At the intersection of life and faith,

Loyalties are conflicted.

 

This once seemingly familiar Gospel narrative

Now presents itself as table tossing,

Revolutionary,

Like the world has been flipped upside down.

 

The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.

This newly plowed ground

Drives us to the foot of the cross

And begs each of us to inquire about the conflicting loyalties in each of our lives.

 

What are yours?

 

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What are the conflicting loyalties in your life? and

What do you do to justify the choices you make?

What sacrifices (yes, I said sacrifices) need to be made to place Christ first?

 

Like carrying around a few denarius in our pockets,

Or a few Abe Lincoln’s in our wallets and purses,

What idolatrous commitments do we make?

How are we complicit in the larger sins of the world, and

How is Christ calling you and I to respond?

 

Yes,

Jesus is asking us to re-examine the choices we make

Whether or not to let our kids play Sunday morning Pop Warner football

Or to cheer for the home team.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Jesus is much more serious than simply

Challenging us to a mundane conflicting loyalty.

 

 

His sacrifice nailed him to a cross

and dropped that cross into a hole.

What does our sacrifice look like?

Amen.