Lectionary blog for Oct. 19, 2014
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9;
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

By Delmer Chilton

Recently I heard a story about a man who had grown up in a small town, had gone away to college and then to the big city to make his fortune. He had not visited his hometown in almost 40 years. He returned for his 40th high school reunion and attended worship at his old “home church” on Sunday. Afterwards, he was not happy and told the pastor all about it.

He complained about all the changes that had taken place in the congregation since his youth, and he made it known that these changes were somehow an affront, an insult to him and all his ancestors and all the other people who had been a part of that congregation for all those years. He ended his diatribe with these words, “Preacher, if God were alive today, he would be shocked, yes, shocked at the changes in this church.”

“If God were alive today.” “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” If God is dead, we don’t have to render much do we? Therein lies the real question of this text. Though we often use it as a launching pad for a discussion of politics, or taxes or the separation of church and state, these are not the core concern of this Bible story. This text is about not letting the cares and obligations of the world divert us from our calling to serve God. It is about not living our lives as though God were dead.

In this text we have a group of people who spent a great deal of time worrying about things like politics and taxes and the separation of temple and empire, and who considered such fretting, worrying and arguing as somehow fulfilling their religious duty to God. The preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth had threatened the delicate political, religious and social dance, which kept those on top on top and those underneath, well underneath.

Those on top were resolved to protect their position and the status quo by tricking Jesus into saying something that would offend either the Roman rulers or the piety of the people. Listen again to verses 15-17:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?

If he says “no,” he is fomenting rebellion; if he says “yes,” he offends the common people who hate paying taxes, especially to an emperor who claims to be a god. As usual, Jesus was too smart for them. He uses the coin and its images as a lesson. “Render unto Caesar … .” So far, so good.

But then, Jesus comes across with the real, deeper point; “Render unto God that which is God’s.”

The call of this text to us today is to not forget God in the midst of our busyness. It especially calls us away from a practical atheism in which we confess faith with our lips but fail to live it out in our lives.

The latest statistics show that the United States is still one of the most “faith in God” confessing countries in the world. To the question “Do you believe in God?” almost 90 percent of us say “Yes.”

But it is hard to square that confession with other statistics. Besides the plummeting church membership and worship attendance numbers of almost all Protestant denominations, think about the culture we live in: Do you see a lot of evidence that this is, in any recognizable form or fashion, a nation of Christians?

Record poverty rates, sky-rocketing prison populations, the sexualization of everything, the judgmental and unforgiving political rhetoric that fills the talk shows on the left and the right, the list could go on and on. And just like the Pharisees, many of our leaders from the left and the right speak of these things and of their proposed possible solutions as if their ideas were sanctioned by God!

And into this the voice of Jesus calls us back from the brink of a serious mistake. In the midst of rendering unto Caesar, of doing your civic duty to the best of your ability, do not confuse your politics with your religion, nor neglect your God in the midst of your public service.

So, do remember to “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” But more importantly, remember to “Render unto God that which is God’s.”

Amen and amen.

Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

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