Sunday, October 19, 2014


Today’s Gospel lesson is 3 dimensional.
We need to go at it from 3 different angles to get the point.
The first angle is the joke.
It’s important because we read the Gospels
            not just to learn what Jesus taught,
            but to know who Jesus is.

So first let’s get the context.
Remember the 2nd Commandment.
“You shall not make any graven images.”
Jews took that seriously and literally.
No graven images meant: “no graven images.”
And the Pharisees took great pride in how strictly
            they followed the law.

Keeping the 2nd commandment was awkward
            in the Roman Empire since business was done with Roman money,
            and Roman money had the image of Caesar on it.
To make matters worse, Caesar was revered as a god.
So to carry a Roman coin was to carry a pagan idol in your pocket.
Most Jews compromised on that in daily life,
            but remember the Pharisees were ultra strict.
And even ordinary Jews should not take a Roman coin
            into the Temple.
That’s why there were moneychangers outside.
They swapped Roman coins for special blank Temple coins
            that could be used for offerings.

In today’s lesson, Jesus is teaching in the Temple.
That’s where the Pharisees set out to trick him
            with a question about taxes that anyway he answers it,
                        he’ll make enemies.
But the foxy Pharisee gets outfoxed.
Jesus calls him a hypocrite and says, “show me the money.”
The Pharisee reaches in his pocket and pulls out a coin,
            with lo and behold the face of Caesar on it,
            right there in the Temple. Busted!
But woven into the joke of Jesus outfoxing the Pharisee,
            there is something profound.
That’s the second angle on this lesson.
The fact that Jesus uses a joke to make a profound point
            is also something we learn about his style.
But what is the point? Just this:

Jesus says the coin belongs to Caesar
because Caesar’s image is on it.
The late Bible scholar Walter Wink
            called the state and the market “the domination system.”
What the domination system giveth, it also taketh away.
What little wealth and authority the system gives us
            is just its hook in our flesh.
The tighter we cling to it, the tighter the system’s grip on us.
So Jesus says, “let it go.”
Give Caesar’s stuff back and get yourself free.
But then he says something really enigmatic,
“Render unto God that which is God’s.”//
If Caesar’s stuff has his image on it,
            then what belongs to God?
What is marked with God’s?

The answer is in Genesis chapter 1 verse 27:
            “God created humanity in his own image;
            In the image of God, he created them.
            Male and female he created them.”
We are made in the image of God
            because we belong to God.
Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.
Render unto God that which is God’s.
Jesus invites us to give our lives, our hearts, and our souls to God.

But it’s for quite a different reason than we render unto Caesar.
It’s because giving ourselves to God is the way
to our own peace and our happiness.We are wired for God.
In 2002, three neurologists wrote a book called
Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & The Biology of Belief.
They had discovered that the idea of God is hardwired into our brains.
Without God there is something missing in us.
Some call it the God-shaped-hole in the human heart.
That’s set to music in the song God Shaped Hole by Plumb. 

Plumb’s song and the new brain science echo an old, old truth.
1.600 years ago, St. Augustine prayed:
“O God you have made us for yourself
And our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
But the word “for” isn’t quite right.
It is more like “toward” – “you made us facing you.”
We are not whole, not complete, unless we are connected to God.

But Jesus isn’t just talking about a private spirituality here.
We won’t get this teaching without looking from the third angle.
The Pharisees’ question is political,
            and Jesus’ answer is political as well as spiritual.
For Jesus, the political is spiritual.

People wanted Jesus to take the lead of the Zealot party
            and lead the insurrection against Rome.
Tax resistance would have been the way to start that fight.
It would have been the Boston Tea Party of the day.
It would have kicked off their version of the Arab Spring.

Reza Aslan’s book Zealot imagines Jesus as that kind of leader.
But the Gospels are emphatic that Jesus was dead set against
            that kind of insurrection.
First, he knew good and well they couldn’t win.
When Judea started their revolt with a tax resistance in 66 AD,
            1,100,000 people died, Jerusalem was sacked,
            and Rome still ruled.

Second, Jesus knew that armed revolt, or any sort of power play,
            just replaces one gang of thugs with another gang of thugs.
Maybe you get Bashir Assad out, but then you get ISIS in his place.
Mubarak out; Muslim Brotherhood in.
Muslim brotherhood out; martial law in.
Jesus had a different kind of insurrection in mind.
He imagined groups of people gathering together
            to render unto God that which is God’s.
He imagined groups of people cracking the shell of the Old World Order
            by collaborating to live godly lives.

But godly lives were not something you could impose on others.
It was about power within each person,
            not the power of one group over another.
That’s what the Christian Coalition never got.
It wasn’t about a strict code of rules to follow.
It was about people caring for each other.
It wasn’t about judgment.
It was about grace and mercy.

And it wasn’t about solemn proclamations.
It was about jokes, stories, and unexpected gestures
            like foot washing that expressed people caring for people.
Jesus didn’t teach an ideology.
He instilled an attitude of appreciation, humor, kindness, and caring.
It was an attitude that honored the poor and the outcast
            more than the rich and the inbred.

If one person goes genuinely Christian, just one person,
            It makes a little difference in the world.
If two people who don’t know each other go Christian,
            It makes twice as much difference.
But if the those two people come together
            -- as we do in Holy Communion --
            the power multiplies many fold.

You get a dozen of those folks
            and they can go out into the world
            making disciples of all nations.
The deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk,
            and the domination system begins to crumble
            before our very eyes.

Perhaps you are wondering why the domination system
            is still calling the shots.
G. K. Chesterton replied:
            “It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting;
            it has been found difficult and not tried.”
But we could try it – any old time now.
Nobody said it was easy.
It is the way of the cross.
But it is the way to life and peace,
            not just for a few believers,
but for the whole of creation.