October 22, 2017 – 20 Pentecost A, Proper 24
Isaiah 45:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who polish their shoes and those who don’t. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who do what they’re supposed to and those who don’t; those who follow the rules and those who don’t; those who make the world a better place and those who don’t. There are two kinds of people in this world: which kind are you?
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. God created the light, the waters and the earth, vegetation and animals, the stars and the moon and the sun, birds and livestock and the fish of the sea, humankind in God’s own image. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. (Gen. 1:1-31)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory. (John 1:1-13)
The Pharisees come to Jesus in our gospel lesson and try to pin him down. What kind of person are you Jesus? You’ve got to be one or the other so tell us which you are. Are you one who respects the empire or not? Are you one who respects the temple or not? It seems like a simple question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? Why wouldn’t it be? Matthew’s introduction to the event lets us know something is amiss. “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.” They’re trying to catch Jesus choosing the wrong side and they think that whatever side he chooses will give them an advantage over him.
A little background is important here. Right before this exchange Jesus has entered Jerusalem in a big parade which has irked both the religious establishment and the Roman Empire. Who does this guy think he is? Does he think he’s some kind of king trying to overthrow the government or tear down the institution of the temple? The first thing he does when he gets into town is go to the temple and throw out all the moneychangers. The Pharisees are insulted and it’s all made worse by a crowd of blind and lame people who come and are healed by Jesus. Nothing like healing the masses to get them on your side. Now the crowd is in a frenzy and the Pharisees look insensitive and powerless.
Then Jesus tells a few parables that are clearly directed against the Pharisees. He says the tax collectors and sinners are in the kingdom of God instead of the Pharisees. He says the Pharisees are like wicked tenants who kill the vineyard owner’s son so that they can have the vineyard for themselves. He says God is throwing a big banquet but that the Pharisees haven’t bothered to come so God is inviting the dregs of society to feast in the kingdom. The Pharisees have had enough and they try to trap Jesus.
If they can get him to say that people should be more faithful to the temple than the government, they can turn him over to the Roman authorities as a seditionist. If they can get him to say that everyone has to pay taxes, they can label him as anti-Jewish and the crowd will stop supporting him. What kind of person are you Jesus? However you answer the question, this will be the end of you.
Jesus evades the question but not by ignoring it. He addresses it at a deeper level and reveals the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. “Show me your money,” Jesus says. They bring him a Roman coin. Do you catch the irony there? They’re asking Jesus where his loyalties lie. He asks them what’s in their wallet and they show a Roman coin.
Maybe a little more background is helpful. You couldn’t pay your temple tax with Roman coins. You had to exchange them for temple coins. That’s what the moneychangers were all about. If the Pharisees were loyal to the temple, wouldn’t they show Jesus a temple coin? Jesus has turned the tables on them too. It’s kind of like me telling the Vestry I can’t pay my pledge for next year because I just bought a new car. I’d be asking you to give to your church while my priorities would clearly be somewhere else.
Instead of just rubbing their noses in their hypocrisy, though, Jesus does a little teaching and a little inviting. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” A portion of your money belongs to the emperor, Jesus says, so give it to him. But you belong to God so live your life like you believe that.
My preaching professor in seminary used to say: “It’s not good enough just to tell the congregation they’re sinful. They already know that. You’ve got to show them Jesus. You’ve got to let them know God is doing for them what they cannot do for themselves.
I think that’s what we can carry away today. The message is not just what kind of person you are. We’re all the wrong kind. There isn’t a right kind. The message is that just like our money bears the image of some governmental authority, we bear the image of Christ. We are made in the image of God and that makes us good because that’s where we come from and God sends Jesus here as one of us to remind us of that. We’re all hypocrites, we all fall short, we can’t choose to be different. But God doesn’t leave it to us. God comes to us in Jesus to make us different, to change us, to bring us into all that God wants for us. You bear the image of Christ. Your value is not just who you are or what choices you make. Your value is that God made you and God loves you. That’s the good news we come to hear.