Matthew 22:34-46 34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44 “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”? 45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
This week, Pastor Intern Andi Lloyd gave the sermon, Love in Action. To read the sermon, click the button below.
Silver Denarius of the Emperor Tiberius, commonly referred to as the Tribute Penny. Early First Century, CE. Public Domain.
Matthew 22:15-22 15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So 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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They 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.’ 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Sometimes I wonder if we lose something when we read our gospels as Scripture. Granted, they are, and as such, the gospels have been mined through the centuries to help us humans figure out how the world works, how to be good to one another, and how to connect with God. As Scripture, though, our gospels are usually read one short section at a time in our personal or group studies, or during worship services. Often, we return to our favorite parts and sometimes disregard the more difficult parts.
But what if we read the gospels more like stories, with beginnings, middles, and endings, with villains and heroes, allies, and conspirators? What if the main character showed development and growth throughout the story and faced down some great evil in some climatic series of pages that, like a really good novel, we aren’t able to put down until we figure out what happened? What if seeing the entire story was part of the gospel experience? What if, by reading more broadly, we might challenge the way we read and apply those gospel nuggets we learned in Sunday School growing up or saw on a bumper sticker or road sign?
Today’s gospel reading, where Jesus is asked to give his opinion on paying taxes, really doesn’t stand alone. Instead, it takes place in the latter part of a story, as the conflict between Jesus and the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem is escalating. If this story was a modern novel, we might notice ourselves reading a little faster right now, connecting earlier elements with these climatic events. We might be closer to the culture and society that our story was written and understand the context of these events without any explanation. And we might come to different conclusions about what it means to be faithful to God when we think about our own politics because this story is a political thriller of sorts. But, because it’s also Scripture, it informs how people of faith might think and act politically.
So, to get us caught up, here are the notes we need to help is today.
From the very beginning of our gospel story, we know that Jesus is special. As an infant, he was visited by foreign dignitaries who offered him royal gifts. The local ruler, King Herod, hears of this, and, fearing that his rule will be usurped, murders infants in the town of Bethlehem. Meanwhile, Jesus and his parents escape to Egypt, where they live as refugees until King Herod passes away.
At some point after Herod’s death, either at Jesus’ birth, according to Luke’s gospel, or when Jesus was a child, a census was held in the region so the Roman Empire could count everyone and tax them accordingly. While not mentioned in our gospels, but written about in other Jewish and early Christian writings, Judas the Galilean led a revolt against Rome because of this census, arguing that by submitting to being counted and paying taxes to Caesar, the Jewish people were submitting to another master, other than God, which was forbidden. And as this movement grew, Galilean Jews who submitted to the census were attacked, a Roman armory was captured, and political assassinations became common. To add fuel to the fire, Emperor Tiberius had coins minted with his image and the words, “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus, and High Priest.” These coins, which bore the image of the emperor who declared himself the son of a god and the religious leader of the Jews, were to be used to pay taxes. The Galilean countryside where Jesus grew up flared with regular fighting between the empire and rebel leaders. This backstory was common knowledge to the early readers of our gospel story.
As Jesus reached adulthood, a prophet named John began gathering a crowd of dissenters in the neighboring region of Judea, just outside of Jerusalem. People, a lot of people, were attracted to John’s message because he’s naming the abuses, corruption, and violence they face in their everyday lives because of their leader’s greed, quest for power, and authoritarian control. Further, he offered a story of hope, proclaiming that God is about to do something good, and the corrupt rulers will be held accountable.
Inspired by John’s message, and having been baptized by John in a miraculous event, Jesus returned to Galilee and began working as an itinerant sage, healer, and leader. Mostly, he attracted the disenfranchised, local peasant fishermen, a couple of loud and brawling brothers, a recalcitrant guy named Judas with his own revolutionary ideas, and a reformed tax official named Matthew, the gospel’s namesake. And he spent a great deal of time with these guys, teaching them a different way to live with greater generosity, love, and faith. Above all, he argued that ordinary people like them could make change possible through direct action. He then sent them out to spread the good news and help those in need.
Sending the twelve apostles out is a turning point in our story. The success of their mission brought a lot of attention to Jesus, and folks came in the thousands to hear Jesus speak. The size of these crowds had the attention of local leaders. Soon after the apostles return from their travels, Jesus is confronted by those same religious and political leaders John spoke about in Judea. And then Jesus receives news that John has been arrested and then killed by a local governor during a drunken birthday bash. Jesus inherits John’s followers, many of which are angry at the needless death of their leader and are ready for open revolt.
At this point, Jesus’ message, and the way he tells it, change. He’s no longer a wandering holy man with a handful of non-descript followers who performs miracles for a few individuals. He gathers large crowds wherever he goes. And some in the crowds are ready for a fight. He’s become a popular leader to the disenfranchised, the poor, and all those treated poorly by those in power.
So, knowing that his crowds are on edge, and seeing representatives from local leaders watching his every move, Jesus begins to teach in parables. These parables are stories Jesus tells to make a point about the corruption of the system, or God’s alternative way, called the kingdom of heaven. These stories serve as a buffer of ambiguity, so those watching Jesus, and hoping to nab him like they did John, have nothing of substance to report. These parables also calm the crowds, as most stories do, and give Jesus time to teach a message of hope that doesn’t include a violent uprising.
But this new style only buys Jesus so much time. Conflicts and disputes with authorities are now commonplace by the time Jesus gets to Jerusalem for Passover. There, folks in the city usher him in like a victorious king, or a conquering one. He goes to the temple and, using the power of his gathered crowd, chases out the officials who were running a racketeering scheme. The next day, he issues a threat, telling the angry officials that their power is about to be taken away.
So now, in chapter 22, Jesus gets three trap questions, one about taxes, one about life after death, and one about the greatest commandment. These are all questions posed by religious leaders who hope to get Jesus to say something they can arrest him for, either against the Roman occupation, or blasphemy against God.
Jesus knows they are feigning genuine appreciation when they begin by saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. So tell us, is it appropriate to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
These folks know that Jesus has been teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, an alternative way to order life that challenges both Roman occupation and religious corruption and complicity. Perhaps they thought that Jesus was like Judas the Galilean, another ruffian from the sticks that opposed Roman rule and taxation. If they can get Jesus to say “don’t pay the tax,” the case is open and shut. Anyone aligned with Judas’s movement was arrested by Roman authorities and summarily executed.
But, if he says “pay the tax,” then Jesus loses some of his most devoted followers, folks who agree with Judas the Galilean but seek a more peaceful way of sluffing off foreign rule.
It’s wonderfully calculated. Either Jesus is arrested for sedition, or he loses his audience.
Calmly, Jesus asks to see a coin used for the tax. And someone pulls out a silver coin.
And Jesus asks, “Whose image is this, and whose title?”
And his opponents say, “Caesar’s.”
“Give to Caesar, what is the Caesar’s,” Jesus says. “And give to God, what is God’s.”
It’s a mic drop moment. Even his opponents are amazed at his answer.
But why are they amazed? And while this has been a fun summary of the gospel of Matthew so far, what does any of this matter to us today?
So, there’s an election coming up in two weeks. And here in the US, it’s an important one. And a divisive one. And the outcomes will affect how our country recovers from the pandemic, practices health care, works with other countries, and funds education. This election will affect our economy, our use of energy, and how we care for the environment.
And for some, faith leaders and faith communities should stay quiet and never talk politics. In fact, this passage, the “Render to Caesar, what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s” passage was used by Martin Luther in the 16th century to argue for his “Two Kingdom’s Doctrine.” In it, politics and religion are two separate kingdoms that should not meddle one with the other. Jesus was in charge of the Heavenly Kingdom, and Earthly monarchs in Luther’s time were thought to be ordained by God and rightful leaders of their servants, regardless of competence. While Luther does this, in part, to discourage 16th-century monarchies from interfering with church life, the inheritors of Luther’s “Two Kingdom’s Doctrine” have often described the life of faith and political life as two self-contained worlds that can be separated from one another. In this way, the words of Jesus about peacemaking, healing the sick, or holding leaders accountable can be applied only as spiritual or religious ideals, and do not carry weight when it comes to our politics.
But I offer one observation about this position and one word of encouragement. The gospel story of Jesus Christ is a political thriller. It’s other things too, but it is also a story about a man whose life was affected by the politics of his day. When leaders behaved in abusive and self-serving ways, Jesus drew attention to it. More importantly, when Jesus met with people who had no healthcare, who had been discriminated against, and who had experienced injustice at the hands of a corrupt and unstable administration, he felt it. He felt pity and compassion and frustration, and anger for the people that were hurting. And he taught a new way, a different kingdom option, one that confronted the powers that be. When he challenged this system, he was arrested, tortured, and put to death on charges of sedition, a political charge. To dismiss the political story of our gospels, as some do, leave us with some really cool sayings about being nice to our neighbors and being loved by God, but skirt any political responsibilities we might have to make the world a better place by voting, lobbying, and advocating for politicians who tell the truth, work for the common good of all people, and place the health and wellbeing of a diverse nation above quarterly profits.
And I think all of this because of the zinger in today’s story, “Give to God, what is God’s.” What isn’t God’s? That’s Jesus’ entire point, and the reason his opponents left awestruck. Jesus isn’t describing two separate kingdoms, one run by an earthly emperor and one by himself, but an entire cosmos that belongs to and is sustained by a gracious creator God. If we believe in a God like this one, and if we turn to this God when a loved one is ill when we lack discernment and direction in our personal lives, and when our own broken moments need divine reconciliation, why wouldn’t we consider the teachings of our faith as we cast our ballots this November? How might our faith remind us to be less cynical, more trusting, and mindful of our political responsibilities? How might we act more like Jesus when it comes to the politics we practice?
Folks, we are created in the image of a loving, compassionate, and faithful God. As image-bearers, we work to make this world more loving, compassionate, and faithful with all of our powers, including our political power. May we prayerfully consider the votes we cast in the coming weeks. May we pray for those officials responsible for our voting system. May we pray for peace and clarity at the polls. And may we vote faithfully, doing our part to make this world better for all God’s creation. Amen.
“The Shepherd’s Song” by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1891). Public Domain.
Philippians 4:1-9 1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
“What do we do now, knowing what we know?” This question was my favorite professor’s refrain every time our class stumbled across some great insight about faith, community, or doing good.
“What do we do now, knowing what we know?”
So, we are about six months into the 2020 pandemic. As of today, about 35 million people have contracted COVID-19, and over 1 million have died from it. Millions upon millions have faced insecurity in housing, food, employment, and child care.
In the United States, communities struggle to address the embedded inequalities and violence aimed at people of color. Statues of slave-holders have come down, bigoted CEO’s have stepped down, and protests have continued. Violence and property damage have occurred in some places, carried out by a few opportunists or right-winged extremists.
Wildfires on the West Coast have displaced over 200,000 people and thanks to the second most active hurricane season on record, thousands more in the Gulf Coast.
We cannot forget, of course, that 2020 is an election year.
2020 has been a dumpster fire of a year, and it’s not over. No wonder some of our more fundamentalist brothers and sisters of faith have seen apocalyptic overtones in 2020, hailing these days to be the last days.
“So, what do we do now, knowing what we know?”
But there’s an additional problem.
A few weeks ago, my sons Simon and Miles brought home information about town soccer. But the problem was, the K-2 soccer team in Starksboro did not have a coach. I got a call that very night by another parent asking if I would co-coach with him. K-2 soccer.
Now I’ve never played soccer or coached, but that’s why we have Youtube. And wanting my boys to participate in a fall sport after spring sports were canceled, I said yes and then went to my computer and googled “How to coach soccer.”
Luckily the other coach didn’t know a thing about soccer either, so, at our first practice, one of our drills was an army crawl, a technique I have yet to see us use in a game. We did study up on the pandemic precautions for youth soccer, and now have a good set of drills to keep us busy. But it was good to hear from a more veteran coach that this age group is a lot of fun, and coaching kids this age is a combination of keeping a positive attitude and herding cats.
And I’ve had a blast doing it.
And then, last Friday, at our game in Bristol, I realized that I was full of joy. If you haven’t been to a K-2 soccer game before, imagine a small field with one ball and 47 legs trying to kick that one ball all at the same time. Goals are being scored mostly by accident while defenders find worms, throw grass at each other, or catch bugs. There’s a lot of little boy energy on the team, so kids waiting to go in on the sidelines mostly practice karate or talk about Minecraft.
But because my brain never seems to stop these days, sometime toward the end of the game, I was reminded that we are in the middle of a pandemic, social unrest, political distrust, wild fire-y and hurricane season. Am I even allowed to feel joyful these days?
“What do we do, knowing what we know?”
In some ways, Philippians attempts to answer this question.
In the early 60’s CE, the Apostle Paul writes to the first church he founded in Europe at Philippi in modern-day Greece. Paul has spent time among the community, and there is evidence of mutual support. We also know that Paul is writing this letter from prison, awaiting sentencing in Rome. He has likely been held in confinement for over two years. And yet, the tone of the message is overwhelmingly positive. In today’s Scripture reading, Paul is attempting to mend a fracture in the community. Two leaders – Euodia [U – O – DEE – A] and Syntyche [SIN – TIE – KEY] have been disputing, either with each other or with Paul. Paul reminds these two leaders that they are on the same team and encourages the congregation to support these women through whatever rift there is.
Then Paul does something interesting; it seems as if he changes the subject. He calls on this faith community to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” and to “let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Further, he calls on the community to “Not be anxious, but to go to God in prayer and be thankful.” These practices will, he claims, bring this community peace.
Finally, Paul drives home his point by calling upon the community to think about those things that are beneficial for living together, being truthful, honorable, justice-oriented, pure, beauty-seeking, worshipful, and excellent in a Bill and Ted sort of way, I imagine. This, too, focusing one’s thinking on good things, also brings peace to the community and everyone in it.
Are we allowed to feel joyful during 2020?
There is so much illness, disaster, and distrust in the world right now.
And yet, for the Apostle Paul, as he sits in prison and pens a letter to one of his struggling faith communities, he writes about joy. He calls the Philippians his joy, even when all is not well. He’s even optimistic, hoping to be released soon, excited to send his partner Timothy to help them, and expecting to visit soon.
It seems to me that the Apostle Paul’s position on the matter is that joy is something we choose and practice. It does not dismiss the problems and conflicts people of faith encounter. Instead, it fully acknowledges them, openly and also prayerfully. In fact, practicing joy looks something like taking our deepest concerns to God, trusting that God is working in our lives and in this world for good things.
Being joyful then has something to do with trusting God. As we know, trust is a practice, something that takes time and energy, and devotion. This type of joy perceives that even in the challenges and turmoil that this world has to offer, God is actively working in concrete ways to change the story. Joy is our response to this reality. To have joy is to practice imagining what good is possible, over and above what is, to focus your attention on what God is going through us and through others throughout the world.
“So, what do we do now, knowing what we know?”
The poet Rumi writes that “sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
Even in 2020, we can be joyful. We can see our children and grandchildren grow leaps and bounds. We can be thankful for victories in our lives and in this world, both big and small. We can imagine all those that continue to work hard to find a vaccine, officials, and community leaders that have worked together for social equality. We can also be thankful for firefighters who risk their lives to contain wildfires and the countless workers and volunteers that help those displaced by the recent hurricanes.
And we can be hopeful that regardless of judicial appointments and election outcomes, good people are working in our communities and states and nation to make life more tolerable for everyone. They tell the truth. They fight corruption. They promote freedom and responsibility. They use their words wisely, decline the photo op, and stand up for those on the margins.
And most importantly, we can trust that God continues to bend the history of our human race toward something loving, and caring, and just. Our God hasn’t taken 2020 off or walked away from this mess. Rather, our God is more active, present, and available to us now than many of us have ever experienced.
We are allowed to be joyful in 2020. Practicing joy would probably make us a little healthier, inside and out, and would bless those around us during this troubling time. So, consider the good around you. Take your concerns always to God. Watch a little kid’s soccer game. And practice trusting in our good, loving, and always active God. Amen.
33 ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’
42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Every three years during the season of Fall, our Sunday morning gospel readings consist of a series of insightful, sometimes challenging, often violent, Parables from the gospel of Matthew. This Sunday is no exception.
Jesus has already entered Jerusalem for the final showdown in Matthew and has committed a revolutionary act—he has thrown out the corrupt officials who ran a racketeering scheme at the temple. This action caught the attention of the poor, who had been overcharged and swindled for years by these officials to complete their required religious observances. They seek out Jesus because they wonder if he is bringing lasting change. But this action also caught the attention of temple leaders and the Roman occupying force. His actions are seen as treasonous and unsanctioned.
So, we can imagine the scene taking place in today’s parable. Jesus has reentered the temple complex the next day. The corrupt officials who are buying and selling and exchanging money wonder what they should do. Everyday religious folks have gathered around him. And the religious elite, ruling families that have benefited from generations of scamming the poor, have pressed to the front of the crowd to question Jesus. All this while Roman soldiers look on. It’s a tense setup.
So Jesus tells another story, perhaps to defuse the situation, or maybe to pour gasoline on it. Unlike other parables where the meaning is ambiguous enough, Matthew’s Jesus leaves nothing to the imagination by the end of this one, suggesting that he sees this time as ripe for change.
In this story, a Vineyard owner creates an impressive Vineyard, leases it out to tenets, and goes on a journey. When harvest came due, the owner sent representatives back to collect the harvest, which was agreed to at the beginning of the partnership. But the tenets, wanting to keep the entire crop for themselves, beat, stone, and kill a series of representatives until the landowner decides to send his son, who he assumes the tenets will respect. But they don’t and kill him as well. Jesus then asks the crowd what the landowner should do when he returns.
“He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants that will give him the produce at harvest time.”
Turning to the religious elite, Jesus then says, “In this way, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to leaders that will produce a just harvest to God.” Jesus has just confronted the most powerful people in the land and told them that their reign is over.
Our scriptures report that they wanted to have Jesus arrested, but could not do so because he had the people on his side.
In many ways, this is one of Jesus’ saddest parables. In it, God is the creator of everything, and all of creation belongs to God. God then shares the work of creation with stewards; caretakers tasked with caring for this creation and ensuring that it produces things like justice, compassion, mercy, love, and right relationships. God trusted that these folks would be good stewards, that they would take care of one another and the land, but seeing the potential for profit, they misuse God’s creation, even resorting to violence to protect what they see is their property. This parable serves as an indictment on any leader that uses and abuses resources that harm people and abuse the land for profit. It also serves as a reminder for all of us that God calls us into this collaborative effort of co-creating a just and peaceful world. We can take up this work as good stewards of God’s creation in practical, down to earth sort of ways, like the work that takes place in a vineyard. Checking in on folks, ensuring that our neighbors have enough to eat, keeping one another safe during this pandemic, and being fully present in community life are tangible, hands-in-the-dirt actions that good stewards do.
But the warning of our parable is also difficult. God is willing to move on when the stewards cannot be rehabilitated. God’s love for creation, all of us creatures, and this big beautiful planet, is too dear to God to be mismanaged for long. When we fail to address income inequality, accessibility issues, racial injustice, coercive state violence, and corrupt public officials, God will move on. When we actively work against green energies, degrade farmlands and waterways, and trash our world’s oceans, because it is convenient or cheaper, God promises to find another solution, and we might not be a part of it.
This troubling parable reminds all of us that we are stewards of God’s creation and that God expects good things from this creation. It calls on us to keep high standards in our lives, our faith communities, and our societies, standards of love and justice, compassion and mercy, hospitality and inclusion, and hope and faith. It calls us to consider how our words and actions affect something bigger than ourselves, this wonderful, messy, sometimes confusing, always surprising cosmos. We get to play in it. We get to tend some corner of it. We get to share in the life of a creating God.
May we celebrate how cool it is to be stewards of God’s creation. May we also take this role seriously, caring for one another, and caring for the spaces around us. For the glory of God, for ourselves, and for future generations of stewards. Amen.