Proper 24, Year A
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction ... in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.
1 Thessalonians 1:4-9
The Thessalonians' faith was known such that there was no need to speak about it because they lived it out with consistency and integrity. In other words, they didn't shout about having turned from idols; they LIVED in a way that proclaimed God's lordship (and please see this post if you want to know why I want to reclaim that fraught language of "lordship") in their lives.
It's a lesson that the Pharisees and Herodians questioning Jesus in this Sunday's gospel could benefit from, as indicated by a combination of two things often overlooked in the story. The first thing is the setting of the story in the courtyards of the Temple, as indicated in Matthew 21:23. There's something very significant about that for how we read this Sunday's gospel story, and it has to do with why the moneychangers' tables that Jesus overturned in Matthew 21:12 were there in the first place. They were there because coinage of the Roman Empire included images -- such as the image of Caesar, that man who called himself "lord" when that title truly belonged only to God -- that ought not be carried into the temple of the God of Israel, who forbids such images (that's commandment number one in Christian ways of numbering the "big ten"). We need to note that this Sunday's gospel takes place in the Temple because that's what makes the next point such a kicker.
The second point we need to notice in the story is that when Jesus asks the Pharisees and Herodians who are questioning him to produce a denarius in that setting, they do so immediately. In other words, THESE GUYS CARRIED AN IMAGE OF CAESAR INTO GOD'S TEMPLE! And these are the people who were going to teach Jesus a lesson about devotion to God rather than selling out to Caesar if Jesus failed to condemn paying taxes to Rome?
Until that moment when the coin is handed to Jesus, Jesus was between the horns of a dilemma. Had he said in so many words that paying taxes to Caesar was wrong -- especially during the Passover season, in which countless pilgrims streamed into Jerusalem to remember God's liberation of Israel from slavery under foreigners -- Jesus would be provoking Rome to immediate action against him. Had Jesus said that paying taxes to Rome was right, his questioners were ready to accuse Jesus of disloyalty to Israel.
And then Jesus tripped them up beyond any hope of recovery by showing that they were bearing proclamations of Caesar's lordship into the very Temple of the God they claimed to be serving with such single-mindedness. Anyone who was there to listen probably would have heard in dozens of voices whatever was the first-century Jerusalemite's equivalent of "D'OH!!!!!!!" On the spot, Jesus has won the argument; he could now go home in peace, having avoided that difficult question entirely while still carrying the day against his critics.
But he doesn't. Jesus, having already won the argument, answers the question anyway.
What he says might have confused anyone around (if indeed there was anyone meeting this description) who didn't know their Torah from their Plato, but it wouldn't have confused any self-respecting Pharisee. Jesus says, "Give to the emperor what is the emperor's, and give to God what is God's." So what in this world is God's?
Our reading for this Sunday from Isaiah provides some clues. It has God addressing Cyrus, King of Persia, a gentile, as one who is nonetheless called by the God of Israel. In other words, it's not solely the people of Israel who are God's, but everyone to whom God gives life and breath. And God tells this gentile king, that he is providing help "though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things" (Isaiah 45:4-7). East or west, light or dark, in all circumstances, God is God, and there is none other. Our psalm for this Sunday describes God similarly as Lord of all peoples, of all the earth.
As Psalm 24:1 puts it:
The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it.
It's a claim even more sweeping than some people would have wanted to make as they said that the land of Israel and everything in it belonged to the God of Israel. But as far as it relates to the question Jesus was asked -- the question of whether Israelites should pay taxes to Caesar -- it boils down to essentially the same thing:
What belongs to God is everything.
And if we really take seriously the claim that God is rightful Lord of the earth and all that is in it, the world and all people in it, over what is Caesar a rightful lord?
Nothing. Squat. Nada.
That is the radical edge and the liberating cry of the claim that "Jesus is Lord"; as I've argued before, it's that when we make that the central fact of our lives, nobody and nothing else gets to make the same claim. So when it comes to all wordly powers who would be our lord, whether it's the flag of a nation, a cause that we hold dearer than the Spirit's guidance and the fruit of following it, those amorphous but ubiquitous would-be lords of respectability and achievement, or a person who wants to take God's place as Lord of our lives, get up off your knees. They have no rightful claim on you at all. And when somebody else wants to condemn you for the freedom Christ won for you, then remember how often people lash out at their own shadow sides, and ask them to produce a coin. You might be surprised -- and get a much-neededm life-affirming, and despot-disarming laugh in the process -- at what you discover.
Thanks be to God!
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As always, Great reflection and insight Sarah
keep up the good work.
Posted by: Gerard | Oct 15, 2005 11:56:03 AM
I'm SO glad you caught this point at the end of the controversies in the Temple! It is long past time we Christians stopped making Jesus say that we have to obey Caesar, which is the dead opposite of what he was in fact saying.
So how do you relate this passage at the end of the controversies to Jesus stopping the sacrifices at the beginning of the controversies?
Posted by: Mark Rich | Oct 15, 2008 5:04:55 PM