St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Trinity 19, Oct. 18, 2020 Canon Claude Schroeder
Sermon on Matt.22. 15-22.
I think we have all learned from bitter experience that when it comes to preserving relationships with friends and family, there are two subjects you must never bring up: the one is religion and the other is politics, and never, ever bring these two subjects up at the same time.
That’s a recipe for disaster.
But it’s election time here in Saskatchewan and elsewhere, and our Gospel lesson is all about the intersection between religion and politics as it relates to Jesus Christ.
How could we not talk about religion and politics?
So here we go…
Jesus has just been drawn into what we might regard as a 1st century leaders debate. If you have been watching the leaders debates here and elsewhere, you will know that besides giving the leaders a platform to debate the issues at hand, it also an opportunity for leaders to catch their rival in something they have said, to trip them up verbally, and take them down. This is what we see happening in today’s Gospel lesson.
So who were the parties involved?
One the one hand we have the Pharisees, whom we might describe as ‘religious nationalists.’ For the Pharisees, the law of Moses was the law of land, which could not be comprised since it was by means of law that God exercised his reign and rule over the people in the land which he had given them.
Then we have the Herodians, so named after King Herod, who, as you remember, had all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2 murdered, when he heard the news of the birth of the one who was the King the Jews. The Herodians cared nothing for religion. They were secularists, concerned only to advance their own political and economic interests.
There was a third party which had not been invited to the debate, and that was the Romans. They wouldn’t have come even if they had been asked, because in the year 6 B.C. they had put the land of Israel under military occupation under the rule of a governor appointed by the Roman Emperor, who levied a poll tax on the population to pay for the privilege of being occupied by a foreign power.
You think we have political problems.
The Pharisees objected mightily to the presence of the Romans on Jewish soil. God had given them this land to live on, and they, the colonial power had no business here. Sound familiar?
The Herodians weren’t especially happy having the Romans around either, and since power, and not religion, was the name of their game, they were willing to collaborate and work alongside the Romans as circumstances dictated.
Then we have Jesus, who a few days earlier had arrived in Jerusalem, where on Palm Sunday, He was given a wild reception by the crowds who hailed Him as their coming King, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”
The plot thickens.
Now the Pharisees and the Herodians had absolutely nothing in common, religiously or politically. But they were agreed on one point: Jesus is a threat and has got to go, according to the motto, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Isn’t that just how things often work in politics?
So it was that the Pharisees joined forces with the Herodians in a leaders’ debate with Jesus in an attempt to trap Jesus in something he said, that would cause Him problems either with the electorate or with the Roman government.
The question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” was the great political issue of the day, and the perfect trap. If Jesus says, “No, it is not right to pay taxes to the Emperor, siding with the Pharisees, He could be accused of fermenting rebellion and revolution against the Romans. If Jesus says, “Yes” it is lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor, siding with the Herodians, He will be seen to have denied a fundamental article of Israel’s faith, that the land belongs to God.
It was the perfect trap, all the more so because it was prefaced by a flattering reminder that Jesus had a reputation for fearless truth telling, and not political maneuvering.
How did Jesus handle the trap?
Matthew tells us that Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”
I thought at the leaders’ debate you were supposed to keep things polite, and not call your opponent any names?
I guess Jesus’ didn’t the memo.
Hypocrisy. That’s saying and giving an appearance of one thing, but saying and doing something completely different. Hypocrisy is a form of dishonesty and deceit that Jesus had no time for. It’s something that has been institutionalized in our culture by social media. The Pharisees and the Herodians give the appearance of wanting to engage Jesus in a frank discussion about a very problematic issue, but in reality they just want to take him down.
But Jesus has no problem publically calling them out on their hypocrisy, and more than that, sets out to prove it.
He asked them, “Show me a coin used for the tax.” And they brought to Him a denarius.
Well, now isn’t that interesting. The fact that they produced a coin so quickly exposes the fact their minds had already been made up. They were paying the poll tax to the Emperor and had been doing so for years, showing themselves to be pawns in the game of power politics of the Roman Emperor.
That perhaps should have ended the debate.
But Jesus isn’t finished yet.
In fact, He is just getting started.
Looking at the coin Jesus said, “Whose head is this, and whose image?’ They answered Him, “The Emperor’s.”
Sure enough on the “heads up” side of the coin was a portrait of Tiberius along with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Augustus, as in King Tiberius, Son of God. On the tails side of the coin was the image of a woman depicting peace with the words, “High Priest.”
So how do you like that? Right there in their very pockets, in the shadow of God’s Temple in Jerusalem, where they were to worship only God in spirit and in truth, they had a coin with an image of a false god with a statement of faith that contradicted the faith of Israel, which said, “The Lord our God is the only Lord.”
Here Jesus exposes not just their hypocrisy, but their idolatry, their false worship.
That I think is the heart of the issue here.
Martin Luther in his Large Catechism, wrote, “Idolatry does not consist merely of erecting an image and praying to it, but it is primarily a matter of the heart, and it is putting your faith and trust in the wrong thing, in something other than God.”
In other words, it’s not atheism, it’s not believing in God that is the problem. It is idolatry, believing in a false god. Why do you think it was that in the first of the 10 Commandments, God declared, “You shall have no other gods but me? “Idolatry: it is the root of all sin.
So, what is the solution to this problem of idolatry and false worship?
The answer is to be found in cleansing the heart of idols.
How do we do that? We do that by turning in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ.
Jesus said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Matthew tells us when they heard this, their jaws dropped…they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Question we need to ask ourselves this morning is, “Why did our jaws not drop when we heard these words of Jesus? Why were we not similarly amazed?’
Could it be that we have misunderstood what Jesus meant? We think Jesus is saying, “Look we have this thing something called politics and economics over here. Then we have this thing called God and religion over here. Each sphere, the emperor and God, the political and the religious have a claim on our lives. The first thing we need to do is keep these two things separate. We can’t politicians telling people what to believe and how to worship, and we can’t have religious people telling the politicians how to run the country. And so the challenge in life is to learn how to live with divided loyalties, give to Caesar what is Caesar, which politics and economics, and give to God what is God, that is going to church on Sunday. It’s a line that has been used by the right and the left to silence the voice from the pulpit.
But that can’t be right because as we heard in our reading from Isaiah today, God takes a keen interest in politics and economics. At the time of his death in 530 B.C. King Cyrus of Persia reigned and ruled over the largest Empire the world had ever seen, spanning an area of 5.5 million kilometers from the Balkans in Eastern Europe in the West to the Indus Valley in India in the East. His full regal titles were: “Cyrus, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World.
But what does Isaiah say? It was the Lord whose right hand grasped hold of Cyrus to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes. It was the Lord who went ahead to level mountains, break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut the bars of iron, and to give him treasurers of darkness and riches hidden in secret places that you may know that it is I the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name…” (Isaiah 45. 1-3)
In the Scriptures, there is no distinguishing between politics and economics and the worship of God. When it comes to the competing claims between the Emperor and God on your life, they are so far apart as to make any competition or comparison between the two absolutely meaningless.
If God is the One who has made and given us everything, then to give to God the things that are God’s, means that we hold nothing back. As we sing at the offering of the bread and wine and the money in the Communion Service,
“Blessed be thou Lord God of Israel for ever and ever. All that is in the heaven and earth is thine, all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee.”
And after partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, we pray, “And here we offer unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls, and bodies to be a holy, reasonable, and living sacrifice unto thee.” (BCP, 85)
Jesus Christ is Lord of all, or not at all…
So what does that mean for us who like the Pharisees and the Herodians have come to church this morning with not only coins in our pockets, debit cards and credit cards in our wallets bearing the image of some false god?
I would say we have a problem, an insoluble problem. Is Jesus really asking us to hand back our cheque books, debit and credit cards to the banker, and so be set free for the worship of God alone? It would seem so. The reign and rule of the Emperor, by which we mean the political and economic system in which we live, and the reign and rule of God cannot be reconciled. The Emperor rules by means of political and economic policies. Jesus Christ rules by self-emptying love.
Recognizing that we have a problem, is the beginning of discipleship. As Stanley Hauerwas put it, “You know you have a problem, at least when you are a disciple of Jesus, when you do not have a problem.”
Unlike today’s politicians Jesus did not come with some proposals to solve our social, political, and economic problems, that would relieve us of the necessity of suffering. He certainly did not ask our vote.
Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of God, and has called us to take up our Cross and follow Him, to lay down our lives in self emptying love for His sake and the sake of Gospel, to suffer and die with Him, by means of which God’s kingdom comes, and His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.