Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10, Matthew 22: 15-22
I was a part-time “commuter” student my first two years of seminary, so I didn’t have easy access to a college bookstore. Thus, when I found myself in need of flash-cards for my Greek class, I went to a Christian Bookstore in Little Rock. To my surprise, when I arrived at the store I did not want to go inside.
It only took a minute to realized why. I didn’t want people to see me going into a Christian Bookstore and make assumptions about what I believed. Far too often, Christians speak of God’s judgement and not God’s grace. They use fear rather than love to convince non-believers to turn to Jesus for salvation. They focus on the afterlife, not the blessing of this life. I sat in my car reflecting on how my faith, our faith as Episcopalians, is different from other denominations in how we interpret scriptures and worship, and how we live our lives.
To say that I am a Christian is like saying I’m an American. It doesn’t tell you a great deal about what I believe. To say I’m an Episcopalian, helps, but in this “branch of the Jesus Movement,” as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to call us, there are a number of differences of opinion concerning our beliefs.
What we do agree on, is to worship together and to seek to follow the way of Jesus Christ. We agree to seek Christ in one another, and to serve others. Simple, but not easy. To love and serve those we don’t agree with requires us to see beyond the labels we use and see others as children of God – loved by God just as we are loved.
Today’s gospel makes reference to the Pharisees and the Herodians. These are separate faith communities within the Jewish faith – Sadducees is another. Each have a great deal of power, in part, because they help the Romans keep the Jewish people under control. Despite their differences, the Pharisees and Herodians are conspiring to trap Jesus into saying something that can be used against him. They consider Jesus a threat and want to give the Roman authorities reason to arrest him.
So, they ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Jewish law does not recognize the authority of a earthly king, for God alone is our ruler. The Pharisees and Herodians do not object the taxes, but they know the people have both personal and religious reasons to object to paying Roman taxes. How Jesus answers, they believe, will get Jesus in trouble with the people or the authorities. If Jesus says yes, it is lawful, he will anger the people who believe that it is God’s law that must be followed – not Roman law. If he says no, he can be accused of generating civil unrest against Roman rule.
In response, Jesus asks them for a coin that is used to pay the tax. When they bring it to him, Jesus asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answer, “The Emperor’s.” Jesus then says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This was not an answer they anticipated; it does not accomplish what they had hoped – so they leave after hearing it. It is an answer, though, that challenges us today.
What does belong to God? If we believe we have been created by the love of God, then the answer is clearly everything! What challenges us, is to live into this belief. We have a prayer in our Prayer Book, The General Thanksgiving, in which we pray:
And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days . . .
It is easy to say with our lips that we belong to God. It is not easy to always live our lives as an expression of praise to God who created and redeemed us, and continues to sustain us in the midst of the chaos that exists in the world in which we live.
Our world today, like the world during the time of today’s gospel story, is one in which various groups are struggling for control. The coin is symbolic of the pull between our faith and our life in society. It is difficult to keep our focus on our life in Christ when the news is filled with reports of the pandemic, racism and injustice. Our faith; however, is what can keep us sane. We do have reason to be thankful. We are loved by our creator. And, when we share God’s love with others, we find God’s love increases in our own lives.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, keep us mindful that we are ever walking in your sight. Give us the strength, that with faith we might show forth your praise, not only with lips, but in our lives. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.