“Amazed? Confused? Or a Bit of Both?”
Matthew 22: 15-22 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ October 18, 2020
How do you feel when you see the red lights of a police car flashing in your rearview mirror? We feel nervous, afraid, confused…we wonder what we possibly have done wrong to warrant the officer’s attention. That is how 75 year old Eunice Smith felt when she was pulled over by the officer. “Do you know why I pulled you over, Maam?” “I’m sorry, I don’t know why officer” the gentle lady replied. “I pulled you over because you ran the yellow light just back there on 156th. And four blocks earlier, you did the same thing! Maam, yellow means stop. Please obey the law in the future. You are free to go with this warning” Mildred thanked the officer; she carefully signaled and continued on her way. When the next yellow light appeared, she promptly slammed on the brakes and (you guessed it) she was rear ended. Rear ended by the same officer who had just given her the warning!
This morning’s gospel text presents a world where simple answers of ‘stop’ here and ‘go’ there, of ‘red’ and ‘green’ are not so defined. We move into a text that lifts up the complex world of ‘yellows’ where deep discernment between real faith and real life is required. One scholar commented on this passage that people naturally yearn for the dilemmas posed by faith to be clarified and made black and white. We want to know what, exactly, is right, and what is wrong. Unfortunately, this will not be the case with Jesus’ teaching this morning. Apparently, our dislike over paying taxes extends all the way back into the days of Jesus. The Herodians and Pharisees question Jesus about taxation: “tell us then what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” In the text, there is a seemingly binary choice: yes or no, which side of the coin will your decision fall? Yet, Jesus returns the question with, not an answer, but rather another question: “show me the coin used for the tax…who head is this, and whose title?...(“the Emperor’s”…they answer)…(He continues) well therefore give to the emperor the things that are his and to God the things that are God’s”. The seemingly simple question of paying taxes is, indeed, not so simple after all! And the response is that of amazement. The text records that “they were amazed; and they left him and went away”.
And that is where I would like for us to spend our time this morning: in amazement. What did it mean for the questioners to be amazed? Amazement implies being caught up in wonder and awe. It can be a place where we ponder new possibilities; where we move to higher levels of understanding; where we gain a comfort living in the ‘in between world’ of the ‘yellow’ and find God’s guiding presence. Though, I must admit that I fear what comes after the amazement. The text records that “they were amazed” …and next…that “they left him and went away”. My fear is that in these challenging areas of discernment, the easy choice is to “leave him and go away”, to be confused, to revert back to old ways. To just go away is that of following the ways of the world 6 ½ days of the week and placate Jesus coming back to church on Sunday morning. But we are Jesus’ followers. We will not fall trap to walking away. So, if you are up for the challenge of being amazed…and living in this state, I believe this text has a lot to offer.
The question Jesus raises is one that prompts our theology and the way we live and worship and express our being. In Jesus’ time the coins were stamped with image of Caesar upon them. People viewed the emperor as a god…worthy of lighting incense…worthy of worship…worthy of praise. The emperors were always considered to be sons of God who had a divine birth story, so worship towards them was natural. Jesus’ question of the Roman currency takes us back a few weeks ago to our exploration of the ten commandments ~ specifically here to the first commandment to have no other gods before our God. Looking at the denarius, Jesus said to them “whose head is this, and whose title?” And so, we are instructed to give back to the state that which rightfully belongs to the state. So, if you are looking for biblical warrant to avoid a run-in with Revenue Canada it is not to be found here! In fact, reading through Paul’s letters, he also lifts up the importance of civil authority and our obligation to it. An authority, he notes, which is rightfully under the authority of God (as an example, see Romans 13). Yet, on the other side of the coin, the theological question before us is: ‘what part of yourself do you give back to God?’ This goes back to the age-old consideration of God creating us in God’s image (see Genesis 2). While we live under civil authority, we were first created in the image of God. And that part of our being, our image of God, must rightfully be returned…through the discernment of our actions, through worship, through faithful living. And that is not an easy thing to do…is it?
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas in his commentary on Matthew’s gospel puts the challenge this way: “Christians are not amazed by Jesus’ answer. We assume that we know what Jesus means when he says we are to give to the emperor what is the Emperor’s and to God what is God’s. We assume we know what to do when a conflict occurs. Yet…are we clear about what to do when a conflict occur? Christians are usually Herodians, but we lack the means to recognize ourselves as such.” That slap in the face stings, Dr. Hauerwas! We don’t like to be called out as ‘Herodians’ ~ collaborating with and promoting Roman ways…or in our own context… promoting the needs of the few over the needs of the many…or those who neglect the needs of the environment…or any whom the world places as last and least. Yet, we are called in this text to strike a balance in how we live in this world: returning the parts that belong to God back to God and returning the parts that belong to the emperor back to him.
In an increasingly relevant analysis of culture engulfing faith, theologian Jurgen Moltmann poignantly wrote how we are now living in a “new Babylonian captivity”. He observes that as we increasingly find relevance in the life of the world that this is done at the expense of Christ. In his book, The Theology of Hope, Moltmann argues that we must always be seeking to liberate our faith from the cults of the private, the cults of the communal, the cults of the institutional. When faith is only assigned to the task of the personal: a place for inner unburdening and spiritual readjustment, it becomes ‘a cult of the personal’ that is removed from social responsibility and action. When faith is only assigned to the task of the communal: a medium for the creation of community when society is lacking warmth and comfort, we become ‘a cult of the communal’. When faith is relegated to that of being an institution: a place where people give over their responsibility for understanding, decision making and accountability, we become ‘a cult of the institution’. Whenever faith refuses to identify with the concrete struggles for public freedom, we fail to return back to God that which is rightfully God’s! Whenever faith refuses to walk with the broken, we fail to return back to God that which is His! Whenever faith refuses to ask the difficult questions, we fail to return back to God that which is Hers!
John Calvin, one of the great Protest reformers of the 16th Century, observed that the human mind is an efficient factory of idols. We so quickly want to fashion the means for comfort, to create guarantees for security, yearning promises for protection. For some, we fashion idols with our government…forgetting that our government are not ‘them’ who we can assign tasks and blame, but rather they are us ~ people whom we are responsible for electing, sometimes even people ~ like you and I ~ who have been called to public service. We fashion idols in the form of substances…hoping to numb the pain, distract away the problems, only to realize that the problems and the pains remain. We fashion idols with our self-image…telling ourselves that we are not worthy, not enough…forgetting that we are God’s children, who are more than enough! Indeed, we are very efficient and resourceful in the fashioning of our idols, aren’t we? This concern over the reaction of Jesus’ listeners of simply leaving him and going away is very a valid fear. The underlying question in this text prompts us to sit in a state of amazement rather than one of confusion walking away towards the idols of our world. Can we be amazed?
Can we be amazed with this call to return to God that which is God’s? Can we be amazed and not just walk away? Can we be amazed by the way that we say we love God and not slip away so easily into those other things we love as well? Can we be amazed? Can we be amazed with this Jesus, even when he teaches the way of the cross which makes our lives more difficult than easy? Can we be amazed? Can we be amazed that Jesus believes in each of us: limited, naturally idolatrous people, who with God’s help can be faithful to such a demanding teacher. Can we be amazed? Can we be amazed with a faith that both comforts and confronts us as we live into God’s complex world.
Can we be amazed…not confused…as we offer back both to God and to the world that which is rightfully theirs.