Sermon for Ordinary 29 - Proper 24 - Year A
Matthew 22:15-22
"Unto Caesar"

READING:  Matthew 22:15-22
SERMON :  "Unto Caesar"

by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild

It is a sign of spiritual poverty to conceive everything in terms
of black and white.

It is a sign of spiritual destitution when everything is reduced
         to right or wrong,
          true or false,
             proper or improper.  

It is a sign that you do not understand and appreciate God's world
         when you look at a person
          and declare, without qualification,
              that he is either good or bad,
                 a sinner or a saint.    

The Pharisees were the good church people of their day,
         and they were very poor.

Because they were poor, they looked at Jesus and got very confused.

Jesus taught many things about the Kingdom of God that they could
         agree with,
          things like - God will judge evil doers and condemn them.
             Yet Jesus associated with people who were obvious doers
                 of evil: prostitutes, tax collectors, 
                    adulterers, and the like.

The Pharisees could not understand that.

They were also uncertain about how to classify Jesus because
         He taught that obedience to God and his law was necessary,
          yet he healed people and allowed his disciples to pick corn
             on the Sabbath day.

Jesus also bothered them,
         because while he taught the importance of holiness,
          a concept that was a part of their faith,
             He kept condemning the very people who seemed to them
                 to be the most holy people,
                    the teachers of the law,
                        and the hard working priests at the temple.

Jesus disturbed the Pharisees,
He upset the world they had created by their beliefs.
And so they ended up rejecting Jesus,
         because what he said and did would not fit into their neat
         little boxes, those boxes which defined for them what was good
         and what was bad; what was holy and what was unholy.

One day - after having decided that Jesus was
         a danger to the true faith of Israel,
          at least to the faith as they defined it,
             the Pharisees decide to trap Jesus in his own words
                 so that either the people would reject him
                    or the Roman authorities would arrest him.

They decide to question him about his stand on the poll tax, the
         tax that every person in the Roman Empire had to pay to Caesar.

They decide to ask Jesus if paying taxes to Caesar is lawful,
         knowing full well that if he says NO - then the Roman
         authorities will arrest him,
          and that if he says YES - then many of the people will
          reject him not only because they hate paying taxes, but
          because a Yes answer would imply that he believed that
          Caesar had the right to rule Israel.

They believed that their question was exceptionally clever,
and it was.
As a black and white question for the time and place that Jesus was
in, it was a hard one to beat.

It was the kind of question that gets a person,
         and damns them no matter how they answer it,
          a question like that posed by the old joke,
             the question that asks:

Let there be no mistake, the Pharisees, and the Herodians,
ere out to get Jesus.

They could not accept what he did and what he claimed because his
         actions and his claims did not fit their preconceptions of what
          God was like and how God worked in the world,

The scriptures say that Jesus knew their evil intents and said to

The scripture then goes on to tell us that the coin is produced and

They reply - CAESAR's

You hypocrites - Why are you trying to trap me.....

Hypocrisy is defined in dictionaries
          as claiming a virtue one does not have.  
          It comes from the root word in the Greek - 
             to play a part or to act on the stage.

The part, or role, that the Pharisees were playing was the role
         of the holy,
          And Jesus, by calling them hypocrites,
             suggests that they are not really people who know God,
                 and understand his law,
rather they only know it in their heads, and act the part,
rather than having that part come from their hearts.

Is our faith a matter of the head?
         the head that analyizes and categorizes and judges things?

Or is our faith a matter of the heart?
         the heart that understands why Jesus wept,because it has
         experienced, the joy of love and the sadness of condemnation?
Are we a people who believe in a living God and a living word?

The Pharisees are called hypocrites by Jesus,
not just because they are trying to trap him,
and thus show that they are unloving and uncaring,
they are called hypocrites by Jesus,
because they refuse to go beyond what they already know of God.

You can not really know God if you refuse to move beyond what you
already know about him.

What do we know about God?

Some of us know God hates sin -
         and so we feel very bad all the time because we know we are
          sinners and do not believe that God,
             or anyone else for that matter,
                 can or should love us.

Others of us know that God loves and forgives sinners,
         and so we feel confident and never really question our actions
          because we believe that God will overlook any so-called
             "small" mistakes we make now that we are his followers.

The first group traps God in a box of judgement,
         the second traps God in a box of forgiveness,
          and neither, unless their minds and hearts open,
             can let the real God both judge and forgive them.
                 Neither group really experiences the fullness of God.
They trap God by their own understandings
         and thus end up with only a shadow of what they should have.
          Sadly, they play a spiritual role, 
             rather than live a spiritual life.

Others think of God's work in this world in terms of who is saved
and who is not saved.

They categorize people by the nature of what they have to say about
God and themselves - if a person uses a particular language; a
language full of words like
          - salvation
          - justification
          - born again
          - sanctified,
          - and washed in the blood,
then they assume that the person really knows God,

But, if the person uses other words about the spiritual life;
         words like     - sacrament
                    - saints
                    - unction
                    - rosary
                    - meditation
                    - and contemplation  
then they begin to assume that maybe the person does not know God,
but is simply a church person - without any real experience of God.

That is kind of what happened to Jesus when the Pharisees looked at
him and compared what he did and said to what they did and said.

So many of us,
         in fact all of us,
          want to divide God and the world God has made
              into easy-to-grasp categories.

We take Jesus' answer to the question about the poll tax, for
example, and try to figure out what is Caesar's and what is God's.

Endless commentaries exist on this question.

They answer the question that Jesus refused to answer,
         by telling us to pay our taxes,
          vote in our elections,
             and render obedience to our Government.

After telling us that, they then tell us we must also
         give a tithe of all our goods to God,
          and be absolutely loyal to him in our hearts,
             and obey him by praying
                 going to church regularly,
                    and praising him for his goodness.

They work to make that which is ever changing,
         that which is rich and deep,
          and never totally definable
             simple and easy.
They strive to make a formula for success
         out of Jesus' answer - a formula that, if you follow it,
          will ensure your salvation.

My friends - there is nothing wrong with striving to understand
         what Jesus said and did,
there is nothing wrong with trying to understand Jesus' answer to
         the question that the Pharisees asked him,
in fact there is great virtue in it.

But there is something wrong 
         when we come up with a blanket formula to answer every question,
          an answer that says it is always right to pay taxes,
             or we must always obey Caesar,
                 or we must always give tithes to God....

Formulas simply do not work in the Kingdom of God.

If they did,
         then every Nazi who obeyed Hitler and ran a death camp,
          because Hitler was the Caesar of his time,
             should be Sainted for doing such a good job -
         and every person who, because of their faith in God,
          broke the laws in Alabama and Georgia during the Freedom
             Rides, should be condemned to hell.

The formulas, the easy answers to follow - 
         are the very things that blinded the Pharisees to the reality
             of Jesus.

Because Jesus did not fit their image of who the Messiah would be,
         or what a truly Holy person would say and do, they rejected him,
          and so missed out on a great spiritual adventure.

What works in the Kingdom of God,
         a kingdom that is all around us,
          a kingdom that includes all earthly kingdoms,
             and which incorporates all Caesars, all rulers
                 both the good ones and the bad ones,
                    is the sincere desire to do right,
the willingness to struggle with issues of conscience,
to see God in places that he has never been seen before,
and to recognize that God is no longer where he once was.

The new covenant of God-with-us is one that is personal - and it
must be experienced personally:

             This is the covenant that I will make with the 
             house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord.
             I will put my law in their minds
             and write it on their hearts,
             I will be their God, and they will be my people.
             No longer will a man teach his neighbour,
             or a man his brother, saying Know the Lord,
             because they will all know me,
             from the least of them to the greatest.

There is a place in all this for teaching,
         a place for gathering to consider together what it is God
          wants of us as both individuals and a community,
             a place for corporate prayer and praise,
                 and a place for making judgements together about
                    where God is moving in the world today.

There is a place in this
         for praying for our rulers,
          and rendering obedience to our governments,
             but ultimately, what God asks of us all 
                 is that we be open to His guidance,
that we try, 
         as best we can, to look into our hearts and see what he has
         written there,
that we try, 
         in our both our private and our public moments, 
         to see through his eyes, and to think with his mind,
          a mind revealed to us by Jesus Christ,
             and communicated in ever new ways 
                 and always in a unique way, a personal way, to each
one of us who has eyes to see and ears to hear.

Praise be to God.  AMEN

----  Check out George Hartwell's Creative Closings - Ordinary 29 - Year A 
for a prayer meditation with which to conclude the sermon and/or 
lead into the prayer time below.

copyright - Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 1996 - 2005
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.

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