Jesus called them hypocrites…
October 22, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22
Our scripture passage today is one we have all heard before. It is the one where Jesus is challenged to stand for or against Caesar and the government of Rome based on whose image is on the roman coin he is given. And on the surface it can be heard simply as advice for responsible citizens to pay their taxes and not to upset the status quo. However to hear the story this way does not take into account the fact that the whole of Jesus’ message was cast within the crucible of preaching and teaching against the oppressive Roman empire which occupied Israel and forced all of the inhabitants into abusive slavery in the name of preserving the state.
Today’s message must be heard within this context in order to appreciate just how radical and threatening it was to those who heard Jesus preach. For it is only in fully appreciating just how counter-religious, counter-prevailing culture, and counter-empire Jesus was that we can begin to understand why it was that after just three short years those forces conspired and colluded against him putting him to death on a cross.
And in this day, if we are truly faithful then we no longer have the luxury of sitting back and remaining uninvolved with all of the issues this scripture brings to light in our times and circumstances…we are not permitted as followers of Jesus to just go along to get along…
I printed the text of the passage from Matthew in the bulletin for your reference if you choose to follow it; however I would like to read it to you as I hear it couched within the language and issues of today. Now I do not claim to have it all right and perfectly accurate on every score, but I do stand by all that I want to share with you…
Then the Christians, who were so very sure of themselves and of their place in God’s plan and of their rightful inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven, to the exclusion of any who believed differently from them came up to this radical upstart new preacher and sought to expose him as a fraud. ‘Teacher’, they began, ‘We know that you are sincere in your belief that what you are teaching is in fact the way of God, in fact we find little fault in what you teach whatsoever, it seems to be quite literal in its interpretation of the church law and the history of our people. And we know that you care deeply for all people regardless of their positions on faith and their commitments to follow the ways of our understanding. And all that is good.
However we see that you also tend to support some of what we would consider to be fringe groups…those who seem intent on enlarging the perception of God to include everyone even if they may not profess to follow God exactly as we do. And you also have such a deep concern for environmental issues as though they somehow ultimately matter whatsoever, for do we not believe that there will be a time soon when all will be changed in an instant with the second coming of the Son of God followed by a rapturous salvation for those of us who have the correct beliefs, leaving this poor earth behind in its obviously broken and fallen state? Why do you worry so that we burn oil or coal’? ‘Surely the supply of fossil fuels will last until the day of our Lord.
And why is it that we have heard that you have attended and even spoke at rallies for some of those trouble maker groups who are so intent on upsetting the status quo? You know the ones who are so bent out of shape over law enforcement tactics that everyone knows are often a necessity’? ‘Of course lives matter, all lives, not just some!
But our greatest concern is that rumors have it that you are teaching that it is okay to refuse to pledge allegiance to this great nation of ours and in particular to the symbols of our heritage and out of respect for the great sacrifices that were paid and continue to be paid to insure your freedom to live and to teach in this great land.
Obviously you can see that it is critically important for all of us as Christians to stand together and to uphold the same values and teach the same truths. We simply cannot have some going off all on their own and teaching things that speak out against the government or the established order of things. As Christians, we have great opportunities in this day and age to finally push a Christian agenda through into law and to begin to bring our nation back into a place of law abiding and morality-based living. Surely someone as bright and informed as yourself can see that the root of all our problems in society across the board stem from the breakdown of moral standards and the loss of true Christian values.
And just so we are sure that our feelings about you as a faithful follower in line with ourselves is true we would like to ask you one simple question. Do you agree that it is the government’s right to collect taxes in order to sustain the state in all its function and obligation?”
Jesus listened to all of this without letting on how he actually felt about their attempt to force him to take a stand.
‘What do you use to pay your taxes’, he asked the Church leaders. Quickly one of them pulled out a dollar bill and handed it to Jesus. Looking at it Jesus asked, ‘Whose image is this on the face of the bill’? ‘Why that is George Washington, the Father of our nation, our first president and a great hero in our fight to become a free nation’, said the one who had handed Jesus the bill.
Turning it over and looking at the dollar bill Jesus was silent for a moment. Then handing it back to the one who had given it to him he said, ‘As regards your question, you should give to the government whatever has on it the image of the government, and give to God whatever has the image of God upon it.’
Totally puzzled by Jesus’ reply and even more unsatisfied that they were not able to pin him down on any of the issues they had placed before him they pressed him further. ‘Now come on Jesus, surely you can be a bit more clear than that. We know you are in a very different place than we are on some very important things and we would like for you to clarify your position on those other issues we mentioned.’
Shaking his head Jesus replied, ‘I don’t think you really want me to clarify my positions, especially if as you say, they are so different from your own’. ‘Oh yes indeed we do’, answered the apparent leader of the group, ‘We are very concerned about understanding all of your teachings and in discussing together ways in which we might begin to provide a more united front to believers around the world’.
‘Well, if you insist’, began Jesus, ‘You would know if you had read and truly understood my teachings in the gospels that my ministry was originally for a people who were greatly oppressed and under the power of a tyrannical government in Rome. A government that on the surface seemed to provide all that the citizenry needed in order to live prosperous and fruitful lives. The problem with that understanding, both then and now, is that a comfortable citizenry such as that is only possible on the topmost surface layer of society. There is a whole substructure of people and infrastructure which must be put and kept in their place in order to sustain such a lifestyle of comfort. And that substructure consists of poor people who are taken advantage of and forced to support the machinery of the state at great cost to themselves both in terms of dignity and in terms of health. The cost to maintain modern society falls upon the poor and the disadvantaged most heavily.’
‘But do they not have the right and the opportunity as well to turn to God and to work their way up into a better position both in life and in their fortunes’, asked one of the group confronting Jesus?
‘That is easy to say but not reality’, answered Jesus, ‘Your understanding of God is very limiting and their knowledge of God is very different than yours. You refuse to accept that they know and experience God from a place very different than your own. They know God as the one who comes to them in their misery and poverty and sustains them through the night. They do not always recognize or understand the God you profess to worship as your God seems more concerned with issues over which they have little control, your God seems to allow you to believe that all is well and that poverty is somehow the fault of the one afflicted rather than a byproduct of a system of faith or governance that may be causing those problems in the first place’.
‘Are you accusing us of making people poor by the way we express our faith’, one asked Jesus haughtily? ‘Does your faith make room at all for those who have long been oppressed by policies and laws intended to benefit the majority of your population at the expense of those in the margins; asked Jesus? ‘Are you willing to stand with those who have spent their whole lives trying to get by in a system and in a nation that sees them and treats them as second class citizens?’
Jesus continued, ‘Are you saying that their faith practice which is so often laced with cries for justice and equality that never comes is somehow an invalid expression?’ ‘Are you willing to stand with them in solidarity and insist that your government begin to address the issues that cause so much unrest and to join with them in lawful expressions of non-violent free speech which are so often mislabeled and mischaracterized as somehow unpatriotic or even unlawful? Are you willing to take a stand against tyranny and empire whenever and wherever it threatens to injure or reject any of the least of my children?’
Continuing on now as his audience stood there not knowing what to say Jesus said, ‘And as regards your words as to my concern for the earth and for Creation as a whole, are you really so short sighted as to believe that God would have cursed his own Creation to destruction and ultimate degradation? Did you not hear me when I said that indeed it all was good? And did you not understand me when so many times throughout my teachings I spoke of the kingdom of God being at hand and already here’?
At that, one of those listening began to chuckle audibly. Jesus noticed his reaction and turning to him asked, ‘What is it you find so amusing? Did you think I was not serious when I said those things?’ Somewhat recovering and now on the spot the one who had chuckled replied, ‘It is all well and good to say that the kingdom of God is at hand as in fact you did say many times in the past. However one quick glance around will show anyone who has half a brain that there is no evidence whatsoever to back up such a preposterous claim. Surely you had to be referring to the rapture we spoke of at the beginning’.
Again shaking his head in response Jesus said, ‘No, in fact I meant what I said. The earth was created to be the fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity as a whole. It was created in balance and harmony, and the Day of the Lord you referred to is actually still among you…at least potentially. For you see, it is not God’s wish to force humanity to be loving and kind or to treat one another as brothers and sisters created in the image of love. Rather it is within the potential of the resources given to all of you to find your own way to that holy day of peace and gracious living…it is there for you to seek out and to live into, all with God’s gracious assistance of course.
But if you persist in mistreating and sapping the very life out of Creation, if you insist on poisoning it ever more with a lifestyle that makes it harder and harder for it to sustain you than it will not present the same opportunity to you for a blessed ending or gracious new day. It was given as a gift for all, not as a source of selfish gain for a small minority. To hope for some rapturous deliverance from all your years of misbehavior is not within the plans of God whatsoever…rather seeking and finding the holiness of God within each individual image-bearer of love and learning how to live together in the celebration of that love is the true future God hopes for and believes in.’
‘And as for agendas and laws’, Jesus continued, ‘Why don’t you put the same energy into seeking justice for all, and truly accepting all humanity as part of one family, all created in the same image of the one God of all? Why do you not use the political capital you seem to be so proud of to make some real changes that benefit those most in need of freedom and the loving care the church was originally called to provide? How is it that you can so glibly profess and defend you allegiance to the nation and its symbols and not to the call that was placed upon your heart of hearts to love one another and to love your neighbor as fully as you love yourself, no matter what they profess to believe and no matter what their particular image looks like’?
‘For I can assure you, there is not one individual living who did not in some way start out as a reflection of the image of our God. Obviously, some chose to be solely unto themselves and unto their baser and selfish instincts and to become distortions of the image of love in which they were first imagined in the eyes of God, but to be sure all started out looking just like our God.’
‘And isn’t that the real crux of the problem’, asked Jesus? ‘Isn’t the real issue that we have not yet fully learned how to love one another? Does not every one of the issues you mentioned at the beginning have its\ genesis in intolerance and in a lack of compassion and love? Is it so hard to believe that it was supposed to be entirely different than it is now? And is it so hard to believe that humanity might actually one day turn fully around to a place of harmony and blessed community? Is it not worth at least praying for that possibility?’
‘So, as for your question regarding whether or not you should continue to pay your taxes and support your government, you should give to the government whatever you believe lawfully and faithfully belongs to them…and give back to God whatever has the mark of God’s image upon it or whatever reflects the love and creative grace of our Lord of love.’
When the group who had come forward to challenge Jesus heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.