Monday, November 7, 2011

Taxes to pay? What do you say?....Sermon for Year A Proper 24

Ben Miller and Michael Watts,
both professors in Economics at Purdue University,
wrote a paper back in 2009 titled,
“Oh, the Economics You’ll Find in Dr. Seuss.”

As the paper’s title indicates,
it’s about a variety of economic concepts
that one can find in the books
by children’s author Dr. Seuss.

I thought about Dr. Seuss and this paper on economics
as I read Matthew’s gospel this week.
There is much about economics in the gospels.

In today’s gospel
those trickster Pharisees
are out to try to entrap Jesus once again.

They send out their eager young disciples--
this time with some Herodians--
government officials.

I thought if Dr. Seuss had written this gospel scripture
it might start something like this:

Oh, Rabbi!
Could we ask you a question?

Taxes to pay?
What do you say?
Big emperor, little emperor?
Big God, little God?
Tell us, Jesus, what you think.
Help us throw you in the clink.

The disciples and the Herodians are pretty thrilled with their question--
They believe they have Jesus just where they want him--
with this lose/lose question.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor--or not?

Jesus is getting sick and tired of their foolish games.
And he tells them so:

Oh you silly hypocrites.
Oh you make me lose my wits.
Coming up with tests for me
As if I’m too blind to see.
What you want is rid of me--
Your questions are just foolery.

But Jesus takes a deep breath and asks:
Do you have one of those coins used to pay the tax?

Oh. Ooh. They’ve got him now.
They hand him a denarius.

And Jesus asks them.
Who’s head is on this coin?

They reply “The emperor’s.”

Alright, says Jesus. Tossing the coin back to them.
Then give to the emperor
what belongs to the emperor
and give to God what belongs to God.

The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians were amazed.
Because they realize their little plan has not worked.
In fact their little plan has worked against them.
Their little plan is now a large dilemma.

Because essentially Jesus has trapped them.
Jesus has left them with a far bigger question than the one they asked.
What belongs to God?

They have already failed the test.
Just by having that coin in their pocket,
they have broken the first two commandments:

Commandment 1: You shall have no other gods before me.
Commandment 2: You shall not make for yourself an shall not bow down or worship them.

The commandments, given to Moses,
were not just words to be put on a bookmark
or memorized in Sunday School--
this was the covenant they had made with God.
This was their rule of life.

The Pharisees and the Herodians
have shown themselves to be compromised--
by having a pagan god--the emperor--
right in their own pockets.

Jesus is not talking about separation of church and state here.
First of all,
in the time of Jesus there as no ideology
that separated civic and religious life.
The concept of separation of church and state
originated with Thomas Jefferson in the late 18th century.
We have to be so careful
that we do not project our own modern culture
onto the culture of Jesus’ time.

You see the Emperor--or Caesar--was not just the head of state.
He was--by his own self-proclamation--proclaimed to be a god.
And if you didn’t worship the emperor as a god,
you were in serious trouble.

Now we can say, well, we don’t have an emperor any more,
so I don’t have to worry.
I’m down with Jesus.

What belongs to God?
That is the question Jesus is asking--then and now.

There is a lot about economics in the gospels.
Jesus taught more about money than any other subject.
27 of his parables--out of 43--have to do with money and possessions.
1 our of every 10 verses in the gospels deals with money.

The Bible includes 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 on faith,
and more than 2000 verses on money.

In the church today
we really do not like to talk about money.
Talking about money makes some of us uncomfortable.
It makes some of us mad.
it makes some of us guilty.
It makes some of us sad.
We feel “our” money is nobody’s business.
“Our” money.

The truth is
our relationship with money
is often very reflective of our relationship with God.

Jesus does not let us escape.
Jesus wants us to ponder and struggle and become more clear
about whom we really worship.

Jesus is asking a much more powerful and difficult question:
What really belongs to God?

It is rather amazing what happens
when we are willing to acknowledge that everything belongs to God.
When we are willing to live with that as our guiding principle.

Teresa of Avila lived in the sixteenth century in Spain.
It was a time when women had little voice, little influence, little power.
And yet...and yet..
she reformed her Carmelite order,
she founded 17 new communities,
she wrote 4 books
and she confronted and challenged many people--
both women and men (including John of the Cross)
about their relationship with God.

Teresa of Avila was very clear that all this was possible because of God.
Not because of her.

She wrote:

“Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life, which is short and has to lived by you alone; and that there is only one glory, which is eternal. If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing.”

What belongs to the emperor?
and what belongs to God?
This is still the question with which we struggle.

And to close, in the tradition of Dr. Seuss:

You'll look up and down streets. Look 'em over with care.
About some you will say, "I don't choose to go there.
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet...

You’ll encounter the emperor prowling his beat.
When will you bend? To whom will you bow?
What really belongs to God?
Pray upon this right now.

Pray upon this right now.

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