Proper 24A Sermon (2002)

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


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 whose 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.”

This takes us to the next deeper level, to the faith issues that go beyond his 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 first chapter of the Bible:

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 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’s made in God’s image. Us. You and I. The money we give to church is but a sign of giving our whole lives.

But it says even more than that. 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. Wow! 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 you 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 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 reconnected with 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. They couldn’t get Jesus to play their win-lose games. His answer pointed them right back to the God whose love for us is the win-win gift of life, a gift we can offer right back to God through our loving service to each other and to this earth.

There’s one more level at which to experience this story. The disciples of the Pharisees go away as losers, even though Jesus has offered them a win-win situation. We know that they take this episode as losing because the chief priests and Pharisees will seek revenge. They will re-assert their brand of authority in just a couple days. This episode takes place at the beginning of what we call Holy Week, several days before they will try to make Jesus look like the loser, putting him on trial and executing him on the cross. This has been a confrontation of authorities in which Jesus has offered them the kind of authority from heaven which makes everyone winners. And the Jewish leaders and their disciples can’t see it, and so they walk away as if they are losers, plotting their revenge.

To see this last glimpse of insight, we should remind ourselves how this whole thing began, in the Gospel Lesson assigned three weeks ago. Jesus has just had his triumphant entry in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and we read:

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23)

This entire exchange in the Temple has been about authority. Again, the Jewish leaders have approached it as a win-lose commodity, and they will be prepared to hold onto their authority with force if necessary. Jesus has instead tried to get them to see their brand of authority for what it is. The parable of the wicked tenants two weeks ago showed our brand of stewardship in which we take over the creation and play our win-lose games. The owner of the vineyard simply asks for his portion, and they keep killing the messengers, right on down to killing the owner’s son himself. Their brand of authority, in other words, is to usurp the owner’s and to hold onto it by force.

That violent brand of authority is even more clear in last week’s parable of the king who ruled by force. When those he invited to the joyful celebration of his son’s wedding turn him down, this king slaughters them all and goes out to find someone who will come — which is probably everyone at that point, since they have just seen what this king does to those who turn him down. This king rules like Saddam Hussein. If someone doesn’t do what he tells them, he kills them, so that you can bet that the next person asked will do it. In short, this brand of authority is based on violence and terror.

But there is one other singular character in last week’s parable: the man at the end who has come into the banquet without the proper apparel. When the king sees him, he again responds with his brand of authority, accusing him, binding him hand and foot, and throwing him out into the outer darkness. This is, of course, what the Jewish and Roman authorities are about to do to Jesus. Like that man dressed without the wedding gown, Jesus refuses to clothe himself with their brand of win-lose, violence-based authority. He will stand before them silent, letting himself be bound to the cross and thrown into the outer darkness of death.

But he has come with God’s authority, a win-win authority based on love and forgiveness and life. So their violent authority cannot defeat him. It cannot even defeat themselves, because this apparent loser comes back to life with the power of forgiveness, the power to make everyone a winner as children of God. It is this brand of authority which he continues to pour out upon us through the Holy Spirit.

Will we let this Spirit turn us into winners? Will we let it transform our authority into one based on love rather than on force? Can we live lives of offering people the Good News of win-win rather than win-lose? As parents, for example, what kind of authority do we wield, one based on force and punishment, or one based on love? What kind of authority do we share from God as spouses, as co-workers, as neighbors, as citizens? You and I, with our votes in this democracy, for example, with what kind of authority are we counseling our representatives at this critical time in responding to terrorism? We promised to help rebuild Afghanistan, have we held true to that authority based on caring, before we rush into another place with that worldly authority based on violence? Can’t we pursue a win-win scenario of rallying the world to rebuild Afghanistan before we continue with the win-lose scenario of war in another place? And, in this age of modern weaponry, do we see how war so often brings a lose-lose scenario?

Yes, these are political questions, and we like to have these left out of the pulpit, but the point of Jesus’ answer in today’s Gospel is that we owe our whole lives, including our politics, to God’s authority of love. Right?

When we are tempted to once again exert our authority of force instead of God’s authority of love — when we want to once again make it a win-lose situation instead of God’s win-win scenario of a power of life that not even our worst violence can cancel — we come hear again this morning to receive that life broken for us and lifeblood poured out for us, so that we might become his disciples once again with the whole of our lives. We come once again to be remade in the image of the one who so lovingly made us and forgives us. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, October 20, 2002

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