Proper 24A Sermon (2020)

Proper 24 (October 16-22)
Texts: Matthew 22:15-22
Isa. 45:1-7; 1 Thess. 1:1-10


A Win-Win Answer to a Lose-Lose Question
We can experience Jesus’ answer in today’s Gospel Lesson on many levels. The first level has to do with the drama in the text, namely, the confrontation between the disciples of the Pharisees and Jesus. When experiencing the drama on this first level, we are tempted to cheer, because Jesus seems to be the winner. Matthew tells us directly that the Pharisees, through their disciples, are trying to entrap Jesus. We are set-up for a win-lose sort of drama.

And the Pharisees even think they have come up with a question that will bring a lose-lose outcome for Jesus. They think that whichever way Jesus answers this question, he will lose out. This may be especially important to them because Jesus has seemingly come with a different kind of authority, a win-win sort of authority instead of the kind of win-lose game that they themselves are used to playing. They recognize Jesus’ different kind of authority in their opening words to him as a teacher who comes to “regard people with no partiality.” Isn’t that a win-win sort of approach, to show no partiality? But in this world where we play games with winners and losers, the Pharisees want to show Jesus that it is impractical to play the game as if everyone could win, as if one could “regard people with no partiality.” They are saying, in other words, ‘If you insist on playing as if there aren’t any winners and losers in life, then here’s a question that will trip you up: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’

Do you see? For an occupied people, like the Jews were to the Romans, there is definitely a winner and loser. In asking Jesus such a question, they are trying to get him to buy into such a worldview of winners and losers. They are trying to get Jesus to choose sides such that he will be a loser with one of these two groups. If he answers yes, then the Jews will not like him for siding with their overlord, the emperor of Rome. If Jesus answers no, then the Pharisees will have something against Jesus to take to their Roman overlords and get him in trouble. Either way, they think that Jesus will be the loser in this exchange. They have come in the spirit of defeating him precisely by trying to get him to play the game of winning and losing.

Jesus refuses to play their game. He brilliantly takes a coin, gets them to say who image is on the coin, and then gives his win-win answer, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” These disciples are amazed that he has wriggled out of their trap, and go away. “Yea!” we disciples of Jesus shout. Jesus won! They came trying to beat Jesus, and went away beaten at their own game. On this first level of being Jesus disciples, we are proud because Jesus was such a master of debate. He was a winner. We like following winners.

But wait! In another sense, Jesus wasn’t a winner. They came trying to get him to play our win-lose sorts of games, and Jesus was able to answer their question successfully precisely by not playing their game of win-lose. He refused to take sides and instead offered them a win-win answer, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Stewardship as Giving Our Self as the ‘Thing That Is God’s’
This takes us to the next deeper level, to the faith issues that go beyond Jesus’s dodging their bullet. This has to do with the issue of “image.” Our translation does us a bit of a disservice. When Jesus shows them the coin and asks them, “Whose head is this?”, the Greek word translated as “head” is eikon, from which we get our English word icon. A better translation of Jesus’ question would be, “Whose image is this on the coin?” And the word image takes us much deeper to a fundamental truth of our faith. If we give the coin to the emperor because it is his image on it, then what is it that we give to God because God’s image is on it? Listen to this passage from the very first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)

In other words, we give to the emperor the coin because his image is on it, and we give to God ourselves because you and I are created in the image of God, both male and female. Jesus is not only refusing to play the win-lose games of the Pharisees, but he is backing it up with a more profound truth: we owe God, the one who made us, our very lives — not just money, but everything of who we are.

That has amazing consequences when we talk about stewardship, doesn’t it? We so often talk about stewardship just in terms of money. We talk about it as if what we give to church was like another tax, like the one we give to the government. (But with this ‘tax’ to church we have a choice, so we give a lot less than to Uncle Sam.) Jesus’ says, however, that it’s much more drastic than that: we owe our whole lives to God for that’s what is made in God’s image. Us. You and I. The money we give to church is but a sign of giving our whole lives.

John Wosyk gave us an excellent start this week in our stewardship campaign by going back to the Gospel several weeks ago, about the vineyard owner who generously gives everyone a full day’s wage even if they didn’t work a full day. Stewardship begins with generosity. And this morning we hear the depth and breadth of that generosity. When Jesus says, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s, it means giving our whole selves. That’s generous!

Win-Lose Thinking as the Block to Generosity
But today’s passage also helps us to understand what blocks our generosity, what blocks being able give ourselves. The passage we just read from Genesis 1 says that we are given dominion over the rest of the creation along with God. We are given stewardship over the whole earth, not just ourselves. But just like in this morning’s drama, we tend to hear everything in win-lose terms. So over the centuries this has led to so many of our tragic win-lose ways of doing things. We take control over other people’s lives such that we are winners and they are losers. We take control over the environment such that we are winners and the earth, our habitat, is the loser.

Here’s the catch: we are created in the image of God, so we need to be stewards and caretakers of creation as God is a caretaker of creation. One of the ways we could sum up our failure to be good stewards is to say that our stewardship is always along the lines of win-lose. We worship our idols of scarcity rather than the true God of abundance, and so we play win-lose. When we think there’s not enough to go around, someone’s got to win and someone’s got to lose out. That’s how we always end up playing.

But Jesus came to show us how to do it another way. He came to show us how to have trust in the God of abundant life, so that we can carry out our stewardship with win-win scenarios. There is enough for everybody, so that everyone can win. In short, the Pharisees had it exactly right when they said that Jesus came to show us how to show deference to no one, how to not regard others with partiality. They thought they could teach Jesus a lesson about the real world, that the real world is one in which some win and some lose. Instead, Jesus pointed them back to their own faith in a Creator God who doesn’t show any partiality, the God who made us in the divine image so that we, too, could learn to live without showing partiality to anyone. Jesus came to show us how to be good stewards by caring for everyone and everything with the same love and care.

“Be generous!” is the first guide to good stewardship. And that means giving our entire lives to God in loving service to God’s creation. You and I as created in God’s image means caring for one another and for the earth with everything we’ve got. It’s OK to give some coins and bills to Caesar; we give ourselves to God. Amen

Paul Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Savior,
Racine, WI, October 18, 2020

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