“Just Which Things Aren’t God’s?” – Sermon for October 19, 2014

Categories: Sermons

“Just Which Things Aren’t God’s?”

 A Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22 for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Preached by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister, on October 19, 2014[1]

Now, perhaps I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m going to guess that some of you might just have noticed that we have some elections coming up in just over two weeks from now. I know… who’d’ve thunk, right? I mean, it’d be nice if someone would let us know these things, tell us who’s running for what offices, that sort of thing.

So yeah… I suppose the upcoming election has been hard to miss. The governor’s race debates, the editorials, the lawn signs small and large—and, indeed, some of them are really large—that dot our roadways at the moment. And of course, the television ads. According to feature story aired just this past Thursday on National Public Radio’s evening news program All Things Considered, spending on political television advertising nationwide will easily top one billion dollars this season, and the interview guest thought that even two billion dollars might be possible.[2] But you probably didn’t need me to tell you that… if you’ve watched much television at all in the last few weeks—especially anything like the local news, for instance—I’m sure you’ve seen enough awkward hotdog vendors and padlocked factory gates and grainy videos of years-old interviews to know this all too well. Indeed, the fact that we’ve got elections coming up has been pretty hard to miss lately.

While I know we have some people here in this congregation that are active in electoral politics, I’m sure others of you probably would say that you hate politics. You try not to pay much attention to such things. Maybe you’re even the sort that would say religion and politics are things that shouldn’t be mixed… that religion and politics are two of the four topics that we don’t discuss in ‘polite company’—the other two being, of course, sex and money.

For better or worse, though, the Bible doesn’t really agree. At least not a lot of the Bible, and certainly not the two passages we’ve heard this morning from Isaiah and Matthew. Here in these religious texts, God seems rather intent on making us pay attention to money and politics. Pay attention. Pay attention to what’s going on here.

The reading we’ve heard from the prophet Isaiah spoke originally to a people who were returning from forced exile. After the Israelites had been brought out of Egypt in the Exodus, and gotten to the promised land and formed a nation there, they eventually appointed their own kings to rule the nation. After a while, though, both the kings and the nation itself strayed from the covenant God had made with them way back in the Exodus from Egypt. And so, eventually, a couple of neighboring nations end up conquering Israel and taking the Israelites into exile. The words we’ve heard from Isaiah this morning come as prophecy to the Israelites at the end of their exile, were returning home, back to Jerusalem and the rest of their country.

Really, with forced exiles, what tends to happen is not that the conquering nation suddenly decides ‘oh, ok, you’ve been over here long enough, you all can go home now.’ In this case, it was the ancient empire of Babylon that had taken the Israelites into exile, and those Babylonians didn’t just have a magic change of heart. No, rather Babylonia itself was conquered, by another neighboring empire, the Persians under King Cyrus. When he conquered Babylon, Cyrus decided that all the people who were there under exile from their own countries could go back home, and this included the Israelites among many others.

At least that would be the ‘news report’ version of the story: “Cyrus Conquers Babylon, Releases Exiles” the headline would read. Here in Isaiah, though, God seems to be saying, ‘hang on a minute… pay attention to what I am doing here.” Yeah, sure, it’s this Cyrus guy that’s made this decree to send you all home, but pay attention to what’s really happening. I, God, call Cyrus by his name, even though he does not know me—and I, God, work with you Cyrus for the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen. All this stuff that has led Cyrus to conquer Babylon, so that you Israelites can go home, it was I, God, who subdued the nations before him.

So, sure, if you picked up the Babylon Chronicle or the Persia Courant, it’s going to be this Cyrus guy who’s credited for all this. ‘But you know what, I am God here. I am working to keep my promises to you, my chosen people, even through somebody like a foreign king who doesn’t even know me.’ As the last verse of today’s passage reads, “I the Lord do all these things.” Pay attention!

But, you know, we should be a little careful here, because this could turn into a slippery slope. I mean, should we just assume that it is God behind everything our earthly leaders are doing? If ‘God is working his purpose out’—as an old hymn goes—through Cyrus, then is it always God working in the actions of our leaders and of our nations? Certainly if we take a walk through many other places in the Bible, it wouldn’t seem so. Some of you remember the old Sunday School story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace. In that story, God was at work in them as they resisted King Nebuchadnezzar. Or there’s the similar story of Daniel and the lion’s den. There too, God seems to be working on Daniel’s side, not the kings. Of course, the Old Testament imagination always brings us back to the Exodus story, and there too, God was at work against the Pharaoh.

And look even at more modern history. We could say that God was at work through earthly leaders—and sometimes that’s been true. But sometimes God has been at work despite our earthly leaders—despite a government that ran Aparteid in South Africa, despite a leader like Hitler or Pol Pot, despite American churches that were complacent about slavery or civil rights. Can God work through our earthly leaders? Sure, and God often does. But seemingly just as often God is working in some other way or through some other person.

Perhaps it’s not so much about God always working through our earthly leaders as much as it’s about God always being at work, period—whether it’s through the earthly leaders or despite them.

I don’t imagine many of the people around Jesus back in the day thought God was working through Caesar, the Roman emperor. If anything, much of Jewish hope for a messiah pointed toward a leader who would throw off the chains of outside rulers and renew Israel’s sense of itself as a people and nation. So much is at stake when Jesus utters those famous words, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Perhaps some of you know it better the way it was said in the old King James Version: “Render … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

The trap was being laid for Jesus, the hunters coming from two groups that had almost nothing in common with one another… except their desire to get rid of Jesus. The Pharisees are there as leaders of the Jewish resistance to the empire, devoted to living the Jewish laws and customs to the fullest. The Herodians there with them, they are the ones who have aligned themselves with the forces of the empire, the ones who are profiting by playing along with Caesar and his crony Herod. If Jesus said ‘yes’, it is lawful to pay the tax, then he’d be betraying the common people and their resistance to the Roman empire that is occupying their country. If he says ‘no’, it is not lawful to pay the tax, then he’d make himself liable to stand trial as an enemy of the empire, an insurgent, a rabble-rouser.

Jesus’s response, it sounds so simple, doesn’t it? “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Simple, but more than a bit enigmatic, no?  It gets Jesus out of the trap between the Pharisees and the Herodians well enough—they left him and went away amazed because he had run right around the game they were playing. But what does it actually mean? In what way do we give to Caesar or the emperor or the civil government, and just exactly what things belong there? In the past, Jesus’s answer has been used to support the paying of taxes, but if that had been the point, why didn’t Jesus simply answer the question as it was posed to him? Others, particularly Protestants through much of our 500 year history, have explained that Jesus was speaking of some sort of dualism between things like our bodies and our money, which can go to ‘Caesar’, and our spirits and hearts and sense of self, which should go to God.

But Jesus, of course, knew of no such split. Mind and body, the physical and the spiritual, the secular and the sacred… Jesus didn’t think you could so easily separate out the two. After all, its earlier right here in the gospel of Matthew that he reminds us that “where your treasure is, there your heart shall be also.”

Honestly, I’m not sure Jesus’ answer is enigmatic as it seems. It doesn’t require the sorts of mental or spiritual gymnastics that Christians have used for it. It’s really quite simple once you realize one thing: what in all creation—from your money and possessions to your time, effort, and allegiances, even to your very identity and being—what could there possibly be that is the emperor’s that is not also God’s first?!?

Just imagine that coin that they held up for Jesus to look at: sure, it had the emperor’s image and title on it at that point, but where did the metal come from? God’s creation. Where did the skills and talents needed to make it into a coin come from? God’s people. Some time later in history, that coin probably got thrown into the melting fire… and Caesar’s image dripped away… but even then, it was still God’s creation.

But let’s not forget about that image itself, though. That image of Caesar on that coin… what is that other than an image of a human face? The first creation story in Genesis proclaims: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” So, even as those Pharisees and Herodians stood there pointing to Caesar’s image, that very same image pointed beyond itself to God’s image, to the image of the divine in which all of us were created.

What could possibly belong to the emperor that is not also God’s, first? What could possibly be due to one’s nation or country that is not due to God first? What could possibly be ours that is not also God’s first?

“Many of us spend so much time grumbling about what we owe to Caesar,” one commentator writes, “that we overlook the larger issue of what we owe to God.” ‘Where is our allegiance?’, Jesus asks of us. Do we focus in on the things of Caesar, or society, or the marketplace, and leave God to have what’s left over? How many of us have spent more time in the past few weeks reading about election campaigns than we have reading scripture? How many of us are better at following our newsfeeds on Facebook than we at following the leadings of the Spirit? Even I am guilty of these things more often than I might like to admit.

In the end, though, the affirmation that there is nothing that is not God’s first, this is hope for us. There is nothing that does not bear God’s image, even if it is underneath the images we put in place. There is no earthly leader that God cannot work through, or cannot at least work in spite of.

And above all, sisters and brothers, there is not a single one of you that does not bear the image of God. Not a single one of you that is not part of the “things that are God’s”. Not a single one of you who is not inscribed with your true title: child of God, claimed one of Christ, agent of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, no matter which people win these coming elections and no matter what turns our financial markets take, all our hope is founded on God, the God who’s ‘things’ we are, no matter what.

You are God’s thing. You are God’s thing. And Jesus’ command is simple: “Give unto God the things that are God’s.”

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.


[1] This sermon was revised and adapted from a sermon by me titled “The Things that are God’s…”, which I preached on October 19, 2008, at the Second Congregational United Church of Christ in Rockford, Illinois.

[2] “Political TV Ad Spending Expected to Top $1 Billion”, NPR.org, 16 October 2014, accessed 18 October 2014 at http://www.npr.org/2014/10/16/356728094/political-tv-ad-spending-expected-to-top-1-billion.

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