A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, OCTOBER 22nd, 2017
Another stinker of a gospel reading today, and I can guarantee that there will be many a preacher who has looked at the readings appointed for today and though to themselves, “Well, you know, it’s been a while since I preached on the Old Testament reading…” cleverly sidestepping the awkwardness of the gospel reading.
I was tempted, too, because this is such a difficult gospel reading to deal with, but I’m not one to shy away from a challenge.
Let’s put today’s gospel reading into context. The setting is Jerusalem, in the last week of Jesus’ life.
As we already know, Jesus has spent his entire ministry having confrontations with the religious leaders of the day. Those religious leaders were the Chief Priests of the Temple, the Scribes, the Sanhedrin (which was the ruling council of the Jewish religion), and then various membership groups such as the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were somewhat akin, I guess you could say, to denominations.
The Pharisees were actually the forerunners of modern-day Judaism in that they believed that God’s revelation came in the form of the written law, which is known as the Torah, and the oral law, which is known as the Talmud. The Torah is what we know in Christianity as the first five books in our Bibles. The Torah was regarded as directly given by God. The Talmud was the collected interpretation, commentary and musings of hundreds of years of rabbinical thought all collected together and which, in itself, was capable of interpretation and reinterpretation. The Pharisees immersed themselves in this Talmudical world and, wanting to follow their religion very ‘correctly’, they spent a lot of time in complex legal discussions regarding the Talmud, and arguing what we might think are abstruse, perhaps rather persnickety debates.
And, in a sense, they had gotten so into the complex minutiae of these various Jewish rules and regulations that it had become abstruse and persnickety. And the highly technical legal discussions had had the effect of obscuring the spirit of what the law had tried to achieve in the first place. Essentially, all of the run-ins that Jesus has with the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Scribes boil down to this: that Jesus is trying to return people to the spirit of the law.
In the last week of his life, Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover, and the way that he entered Jerusalem had been particularly controversial. He had come into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to shouts of ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, which was tantamount to saying he was the long-awaited Messiah. Then, later, Jesus gone into the Temple courtyard and in a fit of rage had overturned the tables of the money-changers and the guys who sold birds for the Temple’s ritual sacrifices. Jesus had shouted out that his house was to be a house of prayer not a robber’s den. Incidentally, the reason why there were money changers in the temple was because it would have been considered blasphemous to offer in the temple itself coins that bore the head of a foreign ruler, such as Caesar, so the money-changers exchanged Roman coinage for Temple coinage. More on that later.
What really upset the Pharisees and other religious groups with all this was Jesus referring to himself as the Messiah, so they wanted to know by what authority he was doing this. This then forms an extended debate in Matthew’s Gospel between Jesus and these various groups in Judaism, in which each side poses complicated questions of each other, and each side engages in clever rhetorical gymnastics in order to outwit the other. In a passage before today’s reading, Jesus had posed a particularly difficult question for them about John the Baptist. He’d asked them if the power of John the Baptist was divine or human in origin. This had them floored. Because if they answered ‘divine’ then Jesus would say, “well, why didn’t you believe him, then?” But if they said, “human”, then they would be roundly condemned by the people since John the Baptist was widely regarded as a prophet. So, in the end, they had to say, “We don’t know”.
So, that’s the context for today’s reading. This is why the Pharisees have come to Jesus to entrap him. Not only are they incensed that Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah, but he had so handily defeated them in the last debate that they presumably felt that their intellectual pride had been wounded. In short, they were mad. And so they had no doubt spent quite a while cooking up this very clever question for Jesus, thinking that it would be the one to trip Jesus up.
So they come to Jesus, and show him a denarius, a common Roman coin which had the head of the Emperor on it, and with an unctuous preamble ask Jesus if it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. Now, everyone in the Roman province of Palestine had to pay a tax of one denarius to Rome each year. A denarius was roughly an average day’s pay. So, hardly an enormous tax. Not that the amount is the point. What the Pharisees wanted to know is whether payment was lawful. They really thought they had Jesus on the ropes with this one. Because if Jesus answered, “yes, it is lawful”, then they would cite the precedent that this was breaking the Torah, since the Jewish religion regarded the image of Caesar on the coin as idolatrous, since only God is the only ruler. And then they’d be able to get Jesus charged by the Jewish authorities for blasphemy. But if Jesus answered, “No, it’s not lawful”, then they could report him to the Roman authorities and have him charged for insurrection. So, as you can see, it was a very clever question, and they eagerly awaited the answer.
The thing is, the answer that Jesus gives is even more clever. Like a consummate politician, Jesus answers the question by not answering the question. Jesus gives us the classic line: “Give […] to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” As the reading concludes, we are told that the Pharisees are just amazed by this answer and leave. Doubtless they were amazed not only by the content of the answer, but also by the fact that they had, yet again, been totally outwitted by this itinerant rabbi on their supposedly foolproof question.
At that time, the primary purpose of the question was not about theology, but about power and authority. The Pharisees weren’t actually there to discuss theology but, rather, to find a way to get rid of Jesus. As we know, they spectacularly failed to do that. But for us, now, the question does raise questions of its own about the relationship between the church and the state, between divine authority and human authority, and where our allegiance truly lies. And, to be honest, Jesus answer is pretty ambiguous. It was meant to be – it was meant to outwit the Pharisees. But what we can learn from it?
I always feel slightly awkward during the Pledge of Allegiance. Now, don’t misunderstand me here: I don’t view the pledge itself with awkwardness, just how I am personally supposed to act during it. As everyone else around me has their hands on their hearts and is reciting the well-known words, I never really quite know what to do, so I stand up straight, slightly bow my head and maintain what I hope is a respectful demeanor. You see, I can’t say the Pledge of Allegiance because I am not a citizen of the United States. I am a citizen of the United Kingdom and I have sworn my allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second and her successors. One day I hope to be a citizen of this country, and then I will swear the Pledge of Allegiance. Interestingly, there is no legal way to renounce British Citizenship. It’s like Britain’s saying, “Of course there isn’t, I mean, why would you want to do that?”. When the time comes for me to embrace US citizenship I would have dual citizenship and, when that day comes, I will have to promise that if I ever had to decide between the US and the UK in some weighty matter, the US would be where my preference of allegiance would lie.
What Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees says to us, it seems to me, is that we have dual citizenship. We are citizens of both the earthly nation in which we find ourselves, but we are also citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. And everything that the Bible tells us indicates that if, in this dual citizenship, we ever have to decide between the two in some weighty matter, the Kingdom of Heaven would be where our preference of allegiance would lie.
So, yes, we recognize that we are members of an earthly state, and we play our part as citizens in this country, and we pay our taxes, knowing that we are taking part in the ‘common good’, which is a series of complex compromises that see us paying for things with which we agree, and things with which we might not agree.
But above any other consideration of allegiance is this: we are before anything else at all pledged to God in Christ Jesus. How this plays out in our everyday lives is one that sometimes presents us with hard choices. It could end up being a tough, demanding way. But it’s the way that Jesus Christ calls us to.