“Conflicting Loyalties”

Matthew 22:15-22

October 18, 2020

The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor

Rush United Methodist Church

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Prayer.

The preacher’s dilemma for today is

How does one preach about traps

Without falling into one?

Our dilemma in experiencing this Gospel text is

How far are you and I willing to walk with Jesus

Up Calvary’s hill

– the Via Dolorosa –

With him to his crucifixion?

Verbal blows had been exchanged

In our Lord’s confrontation with Jewish leaders:

First the Chief Priests and elders of the people,

Then Pharisees joined the party,

In today’s continuous text, the Herodians are added to the interrogation.

Next Sunday, some Sadducees will join the brawl.  

This high intensity challenge of Jesus’ authority in the Temple

Would within a few hours

Result in Jesus’ arrest, trial, abuse, crucifixion, and death.

Civil authority was clashing with kingdom authority.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows

Kind of like this diverse gathering of Jewish leaders

Conspiring to trap Jesus.

The Chief Priest and their family ran the Temple.

Sadducees were leaders of a sect that did not believe in the resurrection.

Pharisees were righteous and well-educated lay people.

The Herodians were Jews loyal to Rome (their occupiers).

Leaders, followers, and collaborators;  

United for one common purpose –

To trap Jesus,

To destroy Jesus,

To remove Jesus from the playing field,

To erase every memory and aspiration he created.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows.

Pharisees and Herodians working together would have been as likely as

Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer agreeing on a new Supreme Court nominee.

I try to keep my politics out of preaching.

The Gospel is my politics.

That is the way I like to keep it.

Get Jesus in trouble with Rome

And they’d crucify him.

Trap Jesus by getting him in trouble with the populist,

And a lynch mob would take care of business.

Blood was in the water,

And it drew every variety of shark in for the kill.

Civil authority clashing with kingdom authority.

As we celebrate the 503 anniversary of the Protestant Reformation this month,

It is good to remember Martin Luther

Who understood this titanic clash as being between

Civil righteousness and Spiritual righteousness.

Civil righteousness is compliance with civil law.

We construct a system to organize ourselves.

We refine the system.

And we are held accountable for adhering to the system.

Civil righteousness is demonstrated by how lawfully we act in society.

Spiritual righteousness, however, regards our relationship with God.

Spiritual righteousness is not determined by our actions

But is demonstrated by God’s love in Jesus Christ.

The contrast is between our dual citizenship:

We are citizens of both the state and citizens of heaven.

(Thanks to Erick J. Thompson, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3450)

Jesus replies,

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (22:21)

This appeals deeply to those of us who’s cultural DNA

Is rooted in the western, American experience.

In fact, we are so fond of it, most are content to linger too long,

To become too acculturated to this initial Gospel point of view

That we become reluctant to walk with Jesus

Any further than the first station of the cross.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,

Or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

the 1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads.

The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause,

As first imagined by Roger Williams in 1644,

Create a dualistic world separated by a wall,

Between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”

(Roger Williams, 1644)

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (22:21)

Pay your taxes.

Pay your tithe.

A tithe is a gift to the Temple

(in modern times, to support the Church)

To support operations.

According to Leviticus 27:30

A tithe is to be calculated as 10% of your annual produce or income.

According to Proverbs 3:9

The tithe is not only 10%

But it should be the first fruits of all your crops as well.

To live a Biblical life one has to strive for the tithe.

Pay your taxes.

Pay your tithe.

Our Lord’s adversaries must have been writhing in anguish.

Their conspiracy failed.

Their trap failed to close.

I suspect some of us are writhing in anguish right now,

Doing the mental arithmetic of our own income and contributions to the Church.  

No pressure.

Jesus is carrying his cross all the way up to Calvary,

Beyond this initial, first stop.

Many of us would just as soon linger, lounge, and reside.

Come with me.

Exit your comfort zone and let us continue the journey with Jesus.

Every thoughtful, contemplative Christian

Can recognize the fact that the world isn’t black and white.

Despite our founding father’s best intent,

There are necessary intersections between church and state.

The wall separating the two is assailed

When we call for and work for civil justice;

Whether it is advocating for human rights,

Healthcare reform,

Gender equality,

Protecting the environment,

Or Black Lives Matter.

The wall separating civil righteousness and spiritual righteousness is assailed when the state elevates

Patriotism above faith,

Economic winners over losers,

The will of the powerful few over the powerless many.

Do we, as Jesus followers,

As people seeking spiritual righteousness

Stay quiet in the civil realm?

This journey with Jesus from the Temple mount to Calvary

Opens our eyes to the conflicting loyalties

Between Rome and Jerusalem,

Between Washington, Albany, and our congregation.

Some of our Christian sisters and brothers find these conflicting loyalties

Easier to reconcile than others.

Some will swear to never swear an oath,

Vow never to bear arms,

Join in million-man protests,

Even chain themselves to the doors of Capitol Hill.

Others will see no conflict in running for office

Espousing Judaic-Christian values,

Cite scripture from the stump,

Even erect monuments to the Ten Commandments in a court rooms.

Those from opposite sides often vilify each other.

The rest of us are somewhere in-between,

With our heads spinning in a bog

Filled with fake news, social media, and 24-hour news channels,

All being stirred by the Devil himself.

I can’t speak for you, but

I wonder all the time about

My conflicting loyalties between Caesar and God.

And I suspect you do, too.

Jesus stumbles,

Takes a knee under the weight of the cross,

As he ascends his earthly triumph.

Our epistle lesson encourages us to continue with Christ;

To stretch our spiritual canvas.

In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians

We are reminded of the expanse of humanity;

The need for the Word to go beyond Jerusalem,

Not only in Macedonia and Achaia,

But to the entire world.

The Good News of Jesus Christ comes personally, privately, and by individual re-birth,

Signed, signified and eternally sealed by our baptism.

At the same time,

The Good News of Jesus Christ comes collectively, corporately, and to all of Creation,

By means of the Body of Christ, known as the Church.

Paul does not stop here.

Paul stretches us further.

The God who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ,

The God of Creation and re-creation,

Is the same God that loves us so much,

Individually, collectively, and without exception,

That He gives us His Holy Spirit,

That we can become an example to all believers,

To prepare ourselves for Jesus to return,

And for Him to rescue us from the wrath that is coming.

(I Thessalonians 1:1-10)

From before time to beyond the end of time.

Our God is our God.

From the individual to all of humanity,

From the private to the corporate,

Our God is our God.

And all is of God.

In the clash of civil authority and kingdom authority,

In the clash of Caesar and God,

When Jesus wisely proclaims,

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (22:21)

Jesus is running the table.

Everything is of God.

Everything is God’s.

Even Caesar.

So, in the end,

In the wrath that is to come?

Even that which is rendered to the state

Returns to the Lord, who first gave it.

Everything returns to God.

Elegant, don’t you agree?

Yeah, Jesus is that way.

Jesus is pretty awesome, in my book.

As one enters through the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher,

You turn right,

Pass through a door way

Up a stone stairway; winding, crooked, and steep.

You are not yet to the top of Calvary, but near the end.

The way of the cross is nearly fully revealed.

“Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus commanded.

“And they brought him a denarius.” (22:19)

Interesting fact about the Temple economy,

When you look into the books of organized religion,

Both then and today,

There is much to be revealed.

Pilgrims coming into town to make their yearly visit would

Make their annual animal sacrifice to God.

They would also be required to make a once a year contribution,

Their tithe,  

To the unpopular poll tax.

Who likes paying taxes?

Pilgrims would come with their local script or currency,

Most commonly, but not always, Roman denarius.

Currency would be exchanged into Jewish shekels at usury rates.

The Temple currency exchangers were shaking the people down.

This made the commoners,

The people in the pews

Seethe with anger.

Every Jewish pilgrim in the Temple

Would only possess shekels.

Only shekels.

So, were did the denarius come from?

Pharisees and Herodians are exposed for their hypocrisy.

It gets better.

The Roman denarius sported an image of Caesar

Together with the slogan,

Augusti Filius August Pontifex Maximus 

Which means

“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”

(Boring, Eugene, Matthew – MarkThe New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 420.)

Whose head?

Whose title?

Of course,

A righteous Jew was forbidden from

Worshipping another god,

Or sporting an idolatrous image of a god,

Especially right there in the Temple courtyard.

Let’s be clear,

It’s never a good idea to break the Ten Commandments.

It’s really bad when you do it right there in the Temple!

Yet, the Temple authorities had no trouble

Presenting Jesus with a denarius

Sporting a graven image.

In the clash between civil righteousness and spiritual righteousness,

At the intersection of life and faith,

Loyalties are conflicted.

This once seemingly familiar Gospel narrative

Now presents itself worthy to start a revolution,

Tossing some money changing tables,

Just like the world has been tossed upside down.

The last shall be first and the first shall be last.

Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s.

This newly plowed ground

Drives us to the foot of the cross

And begs each of us to inquire about the conflicting loyalties in each of our lives.

What are yours?

What are the conflicting loyalties in your life? and

How do you justify the choices you make?

What sacrifices (yes, I said sacrifices) need to be made to place Christ first?

Like carrying around a few denarius in our pockets,

Or a few Abe Lincoln’s in our wallets and purses,

What idolatrous commitments do we make?

How are we complicit in the larger sins of the world?

How is Christ calling you and I to respond?

Yes,

Jesus is asking us to re-examine the choices we make

Whether or not to let our kids play Sunday morning Pop Warner football

Or cheer for the team.

This is only the tip of the iceberg.

Jesus is much more serious than simply

Challenging us to a mundane conflicting loyalty.

His sacrifice nailed him to a cross

and dropped that cross into a hole,

complete with a flesh tearing, bone breaking jolt at the bottom.

That’s his sacrifice for you.

What are you willing to sacrifice for Jesus?

Amen.

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