Matthew 22:15-22 • October 16, 2011
Wendy and I recently returned from a pilgrimage to Italy. We spent time in Rome, visiting massive cathedrals and basilicas and excess in almost every facet of what the word excess means. We also spent time near the homes of Benedict, Frances, and Thomas of Aquinas. These were places of greater peace than Rome. I’ve always considered these men to be some of the greatest early reformers of the Christian church – long before the likes of Martin Luther came along. I know I will share much more about this pilgrimage with you in the weeks and months to come.
Just returning from a trip like the one that Wendy and I have experienced challenges us to hear and see a gospel text like the one we have before us today differently. So I’d like to ask each of us gathered together in worship today a very direct question – brothers and sisters in Christ, is there anything that doesn’t belong to God? If so, what?
The Pharisees and Herodians, which by the way is a group that we know very little about – historically or biblically. They are probably followers of King Herod who always seem to show up in support of the Pharisees objection to something about Jesus. Anyway, they think they’ve finally figured out a no-win question to corner Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus says yes, he’ll alienate all who struggle against Roman rule and believe that Israel must only be obedient to God and God’s law. If, however, Jesus answers no, then he’s immediately against the entire Roman Empire and has identified himself as a dangerous opponent. There is no question that Rome will deal quickly and painfully with such an adversary.
Having just returned from Rome – I have a greater appreciation than ever for the intensity and strength by which the Roman Empire ruled. Jesus simply saying, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” caused those who tried to trap Jesus with a no-win question to leave amazed. In October of 2011 in Bismarck, North Dakota in the United States of America – I hope Jesus’ response causes you and me to be amazed too. Jesus gives us a fantastic answer, but, what does it mean?
As people who seek to live as followers of the risen Jesus Christ, what does Jesus answer mean? What actually is God’s and what is the emperor’s? Or from today’s perspective, what is God’s and what is the city of Bismarck’s or the Bismarck Public School’s or Park District’s or Burleigh County’s or the state of North Dakota’s or the United States government’s?
For a Jewish person in Jesus’ day, this statement from Jesus makes perfect sense. For Jewish people, everything is God’s.
Let’s also remember that there was no such thing as a “Christian”, at least not as we know it today, when Jesus offers this insight. What then, can this possibly mean for us today, who are in fact people who call themselves Christian?
I think baptism can provide significant meaning of Jesus answer to the Pharisees and Herodians in today’s gospel. For a Christian, we are claimed by God in the water and word of the sacrament of Holy Baptism. In baptism, we receive the gift of relationship with God through a savior named Jesus as we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit, forever. We are baptized in the name of God. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, forever.
The gift that we receive in baptism is not concerned with separation of church and state or how much money we make or give away or whether or not paying taxes is important or what social and economic class we fall into. In baptism everything we are or ever will be, everything we own or ever will own, every penny we make or ever will make, everyone we love or ever will love, every act of kindness or hatred we have made or ever will make – are you ready for this – it’s ALL God’s. It’s all God’s.
So if it’s all God’s, how does this gift from God in baptism shape who we are and the decisions we make? Who we are in the community and our decisions about being connected to what our governmental leaders are doing or simply having an interest in what the PTO might be working on in our children’s schools. Who we live with and our decisions about the relationships in our lives – people whom we love very deeply or even the homeless man living in the park at the end of our street. Who we are economically and our decisions about money – what and where we buy things, how much we save or freely give in service to others. All of it, brothers and sisters, is God’s.
If I brought anything back to North Dakota from Italy, it may be this – I have deeper and more profound belief that everything truly is God’s. As a child of God everything that I have or am or every will be – is God’s.
In Rome, there is a fine line between what appears to be emperor’s and what might be God’s – especially if you look at the history that is all around you in a place like Rome.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, remember that you receive a free gift of relationship with God through Jesus in baptism. This is a gift that should cause us to respond differently than fighting over what are the emperor’s things and what are God’s things, because it’s all God’s.
One of my favorite prayers of all time is from St. Francis of Assisi. Wendy and I spent some time in Assisi and at the tomb of St. Francis when in Italy. I found his prayer from the 13th Century to be helpful this week as I challenged myself to answer “no” to the question, “Is there anything that doesn’t belong to God?” It’s a prayer that helps us remember that everything is God’s as we walk each day as children of God.
Let us pray, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.