Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Year A)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on October 16, 2005. 
Based on Matthew 22:15-22 (Proper 24, Year A).

Rain, rummage and render. It’s been the theme of my week: The three “R’s”. Rain, because for awhile there I didn’t think we’d ever see the sun again. Rummage, because we were inundated all week. And render because of this morning’s gospel passage — “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” The “render” language is actually the old King James Version but I can’t hear this passage without hearing the “r word.” Our version of Matthew’s gospel gives us, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” A little less majestic but we still get the point: Jesus is highlighting the great divide between things temporal and things divine.

But the story is more complex than Jesus just holding up a coin and coming up with a clever line. It’s helpful to examine it in a bit more depth; to see the historical background and context in which this exchange took place. The Pharisees begin this conversation with great flattery, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God.” But their true motives are revealed in the first sentence. “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.” Matthew doesn’t leave much to the imagination here. So this conversation about paying taxes to the emperor was not intended for spiritual enlightenment. The Pharisees were hoping to accuse Jesus of treason. They were baiting him. But Jesus, of course, wouldn’t play. He rises above their pettiness, as he always does, and shifts the conversation to a greater context; the context of salvation. In fact, the whole conversation shows Jesus in complete control as the master of the situation. Jesus is aware of their malice, not taken in by their insincere flattery. He draws them in with a question, and then smacks them with that brilliant response that renders them speechless. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

But of course, Jesus isn’t just speaking with the Pharisees. His overriding point speaks to all of humanity across the ages. We can reasonably discern what is the emperor’s – worldly goods, money. Things that are not inherently evil, but are often used idolatrously; as when we place love for such objects above the love of God.

But we now need to go back and remember the Pharisees’ specific question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor of not?” The tax in question was not abstract of hypothetical. It was a very real issue for Jews of the day. When Judea became a Roman province in the year 6 AD, a Roman tax was instituted. The tax was controversial for many Jews because it was only payable in Roman coin, which contained an image of the emperor, considered blasphemous idolatry to many. Radical Jews, known as the Zealots, refused to pay the tax. And these nationalists triggered the war of 66-70 that ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple. So the entire issue was highly charged. If Jesus answered “yes” to the question about whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, the nationalists would be alienated. If he answered “no” he would be subject to arrest by the Romans for treason. Jesus implicitly answers that it is lawful – indeed paying taxes to a secular authority was not forbidden by the Torah, the final arbiter of lawfulness. And the Pharisees themselves participated in the Roman economic system in their running of the Temple. But more importantly, Jesus’ answer defuses the political question. He’s not concerned about images on coins. He’s concerned with the power the coins have over those who possess them. So, again, his answer reminds us of what is truly important – love of God and neighbor. Jesus successfully gets to the very heart of the issue and brushes aside the Pharisees’ smaller, human concerns.

His answer transcends the entire question at hand. It’s not about paying taxes. But when we put Jesus’ words into a modern context, it’s also not a solution to the Church and State debate, as some would claim. It’s not a simple dualistic approach to life where two realms of sacred and secular seek to coexist. In our world of complex competing loyalties, Jesus affirms that loyalty to God is primary. It must transcend all else. Which is an important reminder for us all as we juggle the often competing demands of work, school, family, and faith. We talk incessantly about the separation between church and state but the real issue may be the separation of God from our lives. We can’t compartmentalize God or relegate God to Sunday morning. God doesn’t fit in a neat box that we can take out and open whenever it’s convenient. Because God encompasses all things. God transcends church, state, school, parenthood, relationships, life and even soccer.

Which brings us to the issue of God’s “things.” “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” What exactly are these things that belong to God? And how do we go about giving to God these things that are God’s? Well, I know for a fact that these things aren’t rummage. But some light is shed on this in a subsequent exchange with another Pharisee. This time a lawyer tries to test Jesus by asking him which commandment is the greatest. And Jesus responds with the well-known summary of the law, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” So these “things” are simply love of God and love of neighbor. We give back to God the love that God showed us in sending his only son to live among us. Love is the thing we give back to God. Simple really. And we live this out by returning this love through our discipleship in following Jesus.

I think we’re all glad it’s no longer raining. There’s nothing like losing the sun for an extended period of time to make us fully appreciate it. And it’s amazing to know just how much rummage has been through here in the last 7 days. Like Caesar the rummage came, we saw a lot of it, and we conquered it (I think). But I hope you will remember the last “r,” render. And continue to render unto God the love that is surely God’s.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2005

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