Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Father Riley's sermon from October 22, 2017

20 PENTECOST - PROPER XXIV - A - 17   MATTHEW 22. 15-22

Today’s gospel passage follows three parables in succession in which Jesus has basically condemned the religious leaders of his day for failing to carry out their divine mission of being the light of God to the world. In doing so Christ implies that God was about to take the mission away from them and give it to the Gentiles unless they repented and recommitted themselves to the divine task that had been entrusted to them.

By the end of the second parable, the one of the vineyard, the Pharisees and scribes were conspiring against Jesus for they perceived that he was directing the parables towards them. The parable of the wedding feast, in last week’s gospel reading, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In today’s reading Matthew has the Pharisees and the Herodians, and unlikely duo, coming together to try and entrap Jesus into saying or doing something that they can use against him in a trail before the Sanhedrin or better yet before the Roman governor himself.

They begin the encounter with a compliment: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show difference to no one…” They then proceed to ask their question whether one should pay the Roman tax hoping to trap him with his answer.

However, Jesus knows what is in their heart and avoids the trap. He calls them hypocrites. They are carrying around in their pockets the hated coinage of a self-proclaimed god. The coin was hated by the Jews because of what was on it. It was stamped with the image of Caesar and the wording proclaiming him as “son of god…high priest.”

Any self- respecting first century Jew would have shuttered at the thought. Hundreds of years before, the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed to God’s anointed, King Cyrus, that there was only one true god. “I am the Lord, and there is no other: besides me there is no god…”

Rome, since 6 A.D., had imposed a head tax of about 25 cents per person on the population of Judea. It was regarded as a badge of servitude to Rome. The Pharisees objected to having to pay the tax. The Herodians favored the tax, for they were sympathetic with the family of Herod, who ruled the Jews as Rome’s puppet.

For Jesus to have sided with the Herodians would have alienated all who longed for Israel’s freedom; to have sided with the Pharisees would have laid Jesus open to charges of subversion. Jesus asks to see the coin and they produce it.

He out flanks them with his response. His answer has the effect of thrusting his answer back to his interrogators, for one must determine what is rightfully Caesar’s and what can be claimed by God alone.

Of course, the Pharisees answer the obvious when asked whose image is on the coin - Caesar’s. “Then you had better pay Caesar back in his own coin hadn’t you?” Meaning they should pay the tax. Then to their astonishment, he adds “and you had better pay God back in his own coin too!” More astonishment. What did Jesus really mean?

Was he saying that the kingdom of God is more important than the kingdom of Caesar?  He was not trying to give an answer for all time on the relationship between God and political authority. That wasn’t the point. He was countering the Pharisee’s challenge to him with a sharp challenge in return.

We can only fully understand what Jesus was doing when we see his answer in the light of the whole story. The kingdom of God would defeat the kingdom of Caesar, not by conventional means, but by the victory of God’s love and power over the even greater empire of death itself. However, that day was yet to come.

What Jesus is revealing in his response to us is who we are, what we are, and what we can be. Israel was chosen by God and entrusted with a divine mission. However, she had become corrupt and had lost focus. Maintaining the status quo was more important than proclaiming God’s kingdom and teaching how one is to enter it.

Thus, Jesus’ first sermon/ teaching was to echo John Baptist - “Repent, for the kingdom is near.” But they turned a deaf ear to his cry as they had done to John. The more Jesus taught, preached, healed and proclaimed the kingdom, the more they knew they had failed.

Instead of turning back to God and resuming the mission, they rejected him and sought a way to rid themselves of him so that things could go on as before. But God would have none of that, even if it meant His Son would have to die on the cross.

The coin, then, is symbolic. It is the symbol of what some work for, even slave for. The world has come to believe that the coin is a measure of our value, the symbol of our worth. However, the true measure of our value has to do with the likeness and the inscription born on our bodies and souls.

As Caesar has cast the denarius in his image, God has cast each of us in His own image. Our souls have been stamped with the divine image and inscribed with God’s name. At our baptisms we were reminded of this as the sign of the cross was traced on our foreheads with the words “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

We may not be able to see that indelible mark as we stand before a mirror, but God sees it. It is there for all eternity. Neither can the world see the outline of the cross we bear. Our works testify to it. It is the things we say and do that are in accordance with God’s will that witness to the fact that we belong to Him and that our allegiance is to God and God alone.

The important word in Jesus’ response is “render,” it means more than just to give, but give back. Our dues to God and to man are alike for values received. To God we owe all and must pay all; though there are many things which are not Caesar’s, there are none which are not God’s. AMEN+

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