Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 10/22/2017

We’re getting close to the end of the current church year, year A in the three year cycle of readings, the year during which Matthew is the featured gospel. If you were in church every Sunday of this year you would wind up hearing maybe two thirds of Matthew read; some parts do get omitted often because the same story occurs in one of the other gospels. But even if you were here every week, because the weekly gospel texts are considered in relatively short segments, it still might be hard to detect a pattern in how Matthew has organized things.

There also isn’t just one right answer to the organization question for any gospel, different commentators have different ideas. In the case of Matthew though, one pattern has to do with conflict. In broad terms sometimes it’s conflict between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this World, sometimes it’s the conflict between Jesus and the leaders of this world, both religious and political.

Today’s reading has elements of both of those conflicts. The presenting issue is Jesus being questioned about paying taxes. Before we get into that though, it’s important to note that this section of Matthew started in the previous chapter with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Palm Sunday as we know it and of course we heard that story a long time ago, back in April. That context is significant though, because entering Jerusalem, Jesus was no longer preaching mostly to those who supported him. His presence in Jerusalem put him in direct contact with those who opposed him, those who saw him as a threat.

As long as he stayed in Galilee, Jesus might have been seen as an annoyance to those in power, but not really a threat. But now, especially as he begins teaching in the sacred space of the temple, things change. Now there’s the risk that the people could rally behind him and create a problem, an uprising, a challenge and that is something that neither the political nor the religious leaders wanted. The status quo was serving them well. The real powers back in Rome were leaving them alone and they wanted it to stay that way.

In fact, the political and religious leaders were concerned enough about Jesus that they were actually working together in a rather unlikely alliance, an alliance of Pharisees and Herodians. The Pharisees, while they did need permission from Rome to worship their God and to continue the rituals and customs that were part of that worship, they also wanted to maintain some distance between themselves and the Roman authorities; they didn’t want to be seen as collaborators. The Herodians on the other hand, were a group loyal to King Herod, a group who willingly cooperated with Rome. Often there was friction between these two groups, but when it came to opposing Jesus, they joined forces.

Part of their plan then, was to discredit Jesus, to make him look bad and so the question about paying taxes. Note though that they start with flattery: “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.” That’s all true, if only they meant what they said.

Their goal however was not to flatter Jesus, but to trap him so they then hit him with a question for which there was no good answer. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” It’s a trick question because if Jesus says “yes” it makes him look like he’s something of a hypocrite, that while he’s claiming to be a faithful Jew he’s also siding with the Herodians and collaborating with Rome, all of which which would disappoint his followers. If he says “no” it makes him a rebel in the sight of the Roman authorities, thus providing a reason for his arrest. He can’t win. It’s like asking someone if he’s stopped beating his wife. Neither answer will make him look good.

Jesus however, being the smartest man in the room, doesn’t answer their question but instead asks them to show him the coin used to pay the tax, which they do. He then turns the table and becomes the questioner looking at the coin and asking, “Whose head is this and whose title?” Of course it’s the emperor so he responds, “Give to God the things that are God’s and to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” thus leaving them amazed so they go away…for the time being.

The Pharisees and the Herodians were amazed by Jesus’ answer; the trouble is, we’re not amazed. We’re not amazed because we think we know what Jesus was talking about, that while he proclaimed the Kingdom of God, he also understood the realities of this world, realities that included obedience to the existing government, including paying taxes. That’s also what Martin Luther thought: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authority,” he said. That’s what his Two Kingdoms doctrine is about as he saw the secular government as ordained by God and necessary for the purpose of maintaining peace and order in a sinful world.

In our time, we pick up on Luther’s reality and see no conflict between our faith in God and loyalty to our country, patriotism if you will. For many, both are important and they don’t want there to be a conflict between them. I know there are some who feel very strongly that the American flag should be in the worship space and would be very upset if it were removed.

All due respect to Martin Luther, while the Two Kingdoms doctrine does seem to make practical sense, if we interpret Jesus’ response in this story through that lens, it essentially makes us Herodians who are in willing cooperation with the government. Again, we, like Luther, can probably live with that compromise between the two kingdoms. But, that interpretation would also make Jesus a Herodian and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t one.

Easy to miss here is the fact that Jesus has to ask for a coin for his little object lesson. He didn’t just reach into his pocket and pull out a coin because…he didn’t have one! I read between the lines here, but it may be that he didn’t have a coin precisely because the coin had the image of the emperor on it and to possess such a coin would be a violation of what we heard a couple of weeks ago with the giving of the commandments, “You shall not make for yourself and idol whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth.”

It may be, that for Jesus, possession of this coin made one an idolater. It may be, that when he says “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” he really is saying that all those coins should be sent back to the government from which they came. It may be, that Jesus is not saying that we have to learn to live with divided loyalties in both the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world, but instead he’s saying that such divided loyalties are not acceptable, that they do constitute idolatry.

All of which leaves us with a problem we can’t solve. I have coins in my pocket and paper money in my wallet all of which have images on them, mostly images of dead presidents. Now a chunk of that does get returned to the emperor as it were, in the form of taxes, but if Jesus is saying it should all be returned, well, that’s not going to happen. Call me an idolater if you want, I can live with that; but I can’t live in this world without money.

Understood this way, Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Herodians does create a problem that we can’t solve. However, it may be that that is exactly what Jesus meant to do. The trouble with the interpretation of this story that concludes that Jesus meant that we have to find ways to live with divided loyalties is that it lets us off the hook. We’ve solved the problem! As followers of Jesus though, you know you have a problem when you think you don’t have a problem.

Luther was right in saying that secular leaders and governments are necessary in this world and that the rules and ethics of God’s kingdom don’t always work in the kingdom of this world, but I hope it bothered him when he said that because it should bother us any time that we try to explain away something Jesus said in order to make it more palatable. It’s true that we have to make accommodations with the ways of this world, we do have to make compromises, but again, it should bother us, we should see that we have a problem. Recognizing the problem though is to begin to follow Jesus. Recognizing the problem, we recognize our need for God’s grace.

We recognize that his ways are not our ways so that we’re always in need of the grace of his forgiveness. If we think that our ways and the ways of this world are his ways, we truly are idolaters, making ourselves and our institutions equal to God. On the other hand, we still have to live in this world.

We do have a problem, a problem only solved by the grace and forgiveness of Jesus—and as followers of Jesus, that’s the way it should be.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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