Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reflections from the Pastor - Matthew 22:15-21

Read the text here: Matthew 22:15-22
Our texts for today give us the opportunity to explore 3 stories.  Two of these stories come from our texts for this morning, the final one from our own experience.
The first comes from our Isaiah 45 lesson for today and it is the story of a captive people - a people who had not only lost their identity as a community, but who had also lost their hope of ever being able to cast off the Babylonian yoke and return to their land.  To this hopeless people, in the midst of the darkness of their captivity comes a new word from God through the prophet.  And this new word is a word of hope, a word of promise, a word of salvation.  The Lord God of Israel has chosen a deliverer, the Lord God has chosen someone to free the captives - the Lord God has chosen Cyrus, the Persian King, to overcome the Babylonians and set the people of God free from their oppression.  And just who is this Cyrus?  Is he an Israelite?  Is he a man who fears and reveres the God of the Israelites?  Is he a man who believes in the God of Israel?  Has he ever even heard of the God of Israel?  No!  The person whom God has chosen to be God's agent is a person who has never even heard of the God of Israel.  But yet, Cyrus was chosen by God.  And Cyrus succeeds in freeing the people of Israel. He even allowed them to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem.
God sometimes chooses unlikely people to carry out God's will.  God sometimes chooses people who may not even be aware of this choice - but God still works through them.  Because God is involved in the lives of God's people.  God is an active player in the events of our lives.  Sometimes things happen during the course of our lives that are contrary to God's desires for us, but yet God does not abandon us, God will never leave us.  God is involved with us, because we have been chosen by a God who loves us and is committed to us.
The second story, which comes from our Gospel lesson for today, is also a story of oppressed people.  A people who, 540 or so years after being liberated from the Babylonians now find themselves under the yoke of the Roman Empire.  And within the nation of Israel there is much diversity of opinion about how to deal with all of this.  There are on the one hand the collaborators - those who would try to get along with the Romans.  People like the tax-collectors, many of the priests, and the Sadducees have all taken the position that the way to handle this situation is just to accept it, and try to make the best of it.  Besides, there are many benefits that come from being under Roman rule: highways, police protection from thieves and highwaymen, increased trade and consequently a stronger economy. All of this translates to personal benefits in terms of money, position and power for the individual supporters.  Then there was the group on the other side of the political spectrum - the Zealots, the Essenes and the Sicarii - the revolutionaries.  These are the folks who felt that the only good Roman is a dead Roman and who embarked on a variety of terrorist resistance tactics in order to force the Romans out.  It was this group who eventually grew strong enough to spark the Jewish revolution which resulted in the entire destruction of the nation of Israel, the temple, the city of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Judeans throughout the world.
The tension between these groups was great.  The collaborators considered the Zealots to be fanatic terrorists, while the Zealots considered the collaborators to be traitors.  Caught in the middle was the middle of the road group.  This group was perhaps the majority of the population who, on the one hand, did not approve of the Roman occupation, and so would refuse to do anything to support it (like paying Imperial taxes), but who also refused to pick up arms and join in the violence.  This group is perhaps best represented by the Pharisees.  They became the scholarly group, studying the scriptures round the clock trying to discern God's will in the belief that if they, or the majority of the people of Israel would just keep the Torah, the law of God, then God would intervene and wipe out the Romans for them.
It is into the midst of this uncertain and volatile world that Jesus appears with a new way: a way that is neither collaboration nor revolution.  But it is a different way - the way of active love.  A way which called the people to love and care for others, even the hated Romans; it was a way which called the people back to consider God's will and God's law, but not with the idea of bribing God to intervene, but of acting in love because that was God's will for all the world and would in and of itself bring about a transformation of the society and the individual.  The result of this ministry was that Jesus was rejected and hated by both the sides since he refused to join one or another but rather had forged an alternative to them.
This division is all on display in our text for today as the questioners attempt to trick Jesus.  And what a trick it is.  These questioners were trying to trick Jesus into indirectly declaring for one side or the other.  If he had said yes pay the tax he would have been accused of being a collaborator - if he had said no don't pay the tax he would have been accused of being a revolutionary.  For the leaders – this was a win/win no matter how he answered! But Jesus again reveals a new and different way of being, a new way of thinking about the world which is neither yes or no, or black and white, or right or left, or conservative or liberal.  This coin belongs to Caesar since it has his image on it, so if Caesar wants it give it to him. BUT we must also recognize and ascribe to God all that is God's.  Caesar in this instance happens to own the coins. But what belongs to God? What is under God's divine ownership?  EVERYTHING!  EVERYTHING is accountable to God - even Caesar.  "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof," writes the Psalmist.  God is creator, and the creation belongs to the creator.
The last story is the story of our own time.  It is set in time like the others where people are divided, a time which is pervaded with a sense of hopelessness and fear and a sense of that we have to circle the wagons and look after ourselves.  But the oppression under which we live is not so much a political oppression such as Israel experienced under the Babylonians and the Romans, but rather it is a different kind of oppression.  It is an oppression that is born of a human desire and struggle to master the environment, to master the universe and it is an oppression where the threat under which we live is the threat that we will destroy ourselves and our environment through global warming, violence or rampant disease. I suppose that many of us would just as soon ignore all of this stuff and pretend it doesn't exist. 
But there is hope.  Into the midst of the darkness the prophet speaks God's word of promise - God continues to be involved in our world, and in our lives. Just as God delivered the Israelites from their captivity by the hand of the Persian king Cyrus, so will God deliver us from our bondage.  One of the great promises of Baptism is that we are chosen by God to be a part of God's plan.  And God never abandons God's people.  Through Jesus we are grafted at Baptism into the tree of life and given the promise of God's abiding presence with us now and always.
But most importantly Jesus directly addresses our own situations in his words to the Pharisees – “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God's.”  We belong to God.  No matter how messed up they may seem to us at times, no matter how many things we do of which we are ashamed, our lives are lived in God, through Jesus.  We are loved and we belong to God.  In fact everything belongs to God.  All that we have, and all that we are, are gifts to us from God.  The earth and this nation are gifts to us to care for, not to abuse.
When we think of stewardship I suspect that most of us think about money.  But our Gospel text calls us this morning to think about stewardship in a different way.  We are called and chosen by God to care for the creation, we are given gifts by God throughout our lives - all that we have and all that we are.  Everything is God's, even Caesar is God's, nothing is outside of God's realm. God is involved with every aspect of our lives; God cares for and about us.  We and all that we claim as ours are all God's, and part of our call to be Christians is a call to be good stewards of these gifts.
How do we care for these gifts?  How do we care for the earth and our environment?  How do we use the gifts of time, talent and possessions that God has given us?  In what ways do we give away our gifts for the sake of others?

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