Lectionary blog for Oct. 22
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9 (10-13);
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Although we often use it as a launching pad for discussions of politics, or taxes, or the separation of church and state, these things 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. Here we have a group of people who spend a great deal of time worrying about things like politics and taxes and the separation of temple and empire and who think of such fretting and worrying and arguing as somehow fulfilling their religious duty to God. The preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth has threatened the delicate political and religious and social dance that keeps those on top on top and those underneath, well, underneath.
Those on top are resolved to protect their position and the status quo by tricking Jesus into saying something that will offend either the Roman rulers or the piety of the people.
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?” (Matthew 22:15-17)
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 is too smart for them. He uses the coin and its images as an object lesson. “Render unto Caesar … ” he says. 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 busy-ness. We are called away from a practical atheism, from a life in which we confess faith with our lips but fail to live it out in our lives.
This text is about not letting the cares and obligations of the world divert us from our calling to serve God.
The latest statistics show that the United States is still one of the most “believe in God” countries in the Western world. About nine in 10 Americans say they believe in God, according to a June 2016 Gallup poll. But it is hard to square that profession of belief with other obvious facts. 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 religious people?
Record poverty rates, random and vicious violence—including mass murder on an unprecedented scale—the sexualization of everything. The harsh, 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 our civic duty to the best of our ability, we must not confuse our politics with our religion nor neglect God in the midst of our public service. Do not forget to “render unto God that which is God’s.”
I am not much of a linguist, but I do remember a little Latin that helps me keep things straight. “Ultima” is the last syllable on a word. “Penultima” is the next to last, occurring just before the last syllable. In everyday Latin, “ultima” became a word for the most important thing, the final thing. And the “penultima” was the almost final thing, the “almost but not quite” most important thing.
Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich referred to God and faith as “matters of ultimate concern.”
No matter what else may be important in our lives—our job, our family, our children, our politics, our sports team, our church—God must be our ultima, our most important thing.
We must “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” But, we must never forget that “rendering unto God that which is God’s,” is the most important, the ultimate thing, we are called to do.
Amen and amen.