Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after TRINITY, November 19, 2017
“Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?”
THERE ARE GOOD THINGS on this earth. Good things that may have no other purpose than beauty, good things that deserve our admiration, our honor, our tribute. Our good God made such beautiful, amazing things for Himself in the universe, and it behooves us to recognize His hand in them. It distinguishes us when we appreciate the genius of the Creator, even if we honor His creation. But we must allow the things that are before us to point to the One who stands invisible above us. Ultimate tribute must come always to Him.
I don’t think much of a person who claims only to honor God and must by temperament dishonor everyone else. I doubt his religion. Only a callous, cynical outlook could stem from the so-called love of a god that causes its acolyte to hate all else. Last evening’s sunset is deserving of more honor than such a stunted faith.
What am I going on about? Turn it around and see what our Lord commanded us. We are to love God first, and best. But then we are to love our fellow man equal to our own souls. And this intensifies with our fellow Christian, for our love toward him or her is to be that of Christ toward ourselves: sacrificial, unending, empathetic, honoring. When you meet an unfriendly Christian, you have encountered a heretic. His faith is defective. As St. John says it, “If anyone should say, ‘I love God,’ and should hate his brother, he is a liar. For the one not loving his brother, whom he has seen, is not able to love God, whom he has not seen.” 1 Jn 4:20
And what if we love part of humanity, and hate another part, is that not still heresy? That’s like patching only the half of your leaking tire on the outside of the car, and leaving the tire unpatched that’s gashed on the inside, facing the driveshaft. Racial hatred, from any side toward any other side, is tantamount to a hatred of God Himself. It shows contempt of the Creator’s wisdom in making in mankind such variety that broadens us and causes us to appreciate such a generous artist that has more than one color in his palette.
Likewise, we must avoid philosophical hatred, right? Did Jesus direct His apostles to go into all the world and hate all nations and disregard those of other faiths? Only show them why their gods are inferior and that they are going to hell? For God so loved me and my type only that he came to save us alone and let the rest of humanity burn. Does that sound like the Savior?
Political hatred is no better. What other divisions can I cite that separates us so much from anyone else that we can pull the lever for God that sends that person down the chute?
Of course, we may pretend a grudging acceptance that only appears to stop our bigotry. That is false, of course, but it is something. Television in the 1960s began including black actors sprinkled among the white stars it cast in dramatic, comedic and variety programming. It was forced, you might say, and was criticized as being only a token, symbolic, hypocritical. And yet, it is said that “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” François de La Rochefoucauld If we act in ways we know are the truth, even when we aren’t fully persuaded in our hearts, we at least acknowledge how things ought to be. Eventually, the right thing feels right, when we’ve driven the point home enough times.
Our land is presently ablaze with anger and criticism, mostly uninformed, or more accurately, purposely misinformed. We’re handed pre-loaded weapons to aim at one another and told why we should shoot. And what dies first in this melee is the truth. For the truth about our fellow man and woman is that they are wondrous creatures. Our most fearsome opponent is also a soul who Christ died for. We should want him saved, saved at least before he is hanged.
Jesus had enemies. He did get testy with them, as they were often trying to make Him say things to get Him into trouble. They laid tripping hazards before His every step. They insinuated things about Him, played at puzzles for Him, questioned His authority, and dishonored Him. But Jesus got mad for only one reason, I believe. These provocateurs were not interested in the truth, and didn’t want anyone else to hear the truth. They would have all Israel and even themselves damned, so long as Jesus Christ not be chosen as their Savior. He loved all of them, but felt enraged that in this fateful hour, so much time was lost answering their foolish questions and not enough attention paid to the truth that He was and the truth that He spoke.
Every agnostic and every atheist has his favorite question that, somehow, sends it out of the park, makes God sound ridiculous. “How can a loving god…” “Where was God when…” “Do you really believe in a God after we’ve proven that…” And then they lay their trap. And if you show them the fallacy of their reasoning, they get angry, like a cult member whose leader has been called bad names.
Criminal investigators have questions for those being interrogated that try to get them to incriminate themselves. That was the kind of question put to Jesus when He had been so well received by the rest of the population in Jerusalem.
They demanded that He answer: “Sir, we know that you are honest, and you teach the ways of God honesty, neither are you beholden to anyone as you rise above personality and position in all people. So tell us, What’s your opinion? Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”
First, these detractors set Him up with false praise, hypocrisy that feigns honor when it can’t honestly give it. And if Jesus rises above other men, then He can’t dodge the question with offhand remarks about His pay-grade. He has to have an opinion. Cleverly done. And the trap is laid. Do you give tribute to Caesar?
Now, Caesar was the pagan emperor of all the known world. He set himself up as a son of the gods on earth, to whom all people were to give honor. Every tribe, nation, race and people were to speak an oath and burn a pinch of incense in the emperor’s honor, making him their god. In all the Roman Empire, only the Jews were excluded from this practice, for they would all die in riots and rebellion sooner than claim any god but their God. It wasn’t worth making he point. And yet, they were a tributary nation, a conquered people, vassals of the greatest power man held over other men. In respect of that, even the Jews were to pay tribute, taxes, in Roman coins, to Rome and Rome’s emperor. Yet, to do so was honoring, might even be worshiping, Tiberius Caesar.
All the Jews paid that tax, or they went to prison, or prison ships rowed into battle, like Judah Ben Hur. You paid those taxes and you were silent about it, because even to teach tax evasion was punishable. Yet, the payment of tribute to a foreign god-man was heresy to a righteous Jew. This was the hammer and anvil that met on every Hebrews conscience, and had no resolution.
Jesus was naturally brilliant here, though impatient with their foolish attempt to cause Him to say something they could accuse Him of. He was not going to be tried for rebellion against Rome. Nor was He going to side against His people and with their oppressors. So He asked them to hand Him a coin, a Roman coin, with the emperor’s head pressed into the metal. “Whose image is this? And whose name is inscribed under it?” He asked. Jesus was also able to ask questions, better questions that cut to the heart of the matter. They replied, “Caesar’s” but of course everyone knew that: it was what they were debating. The offensive image of a man in profile was the hated head of their foreign ruler.
Jesus here turns the tables fully around. “Well then, give Caesar whatever belongs to Caesar. And give God what belongs to God.”
Are we to pay taxes in the United States? Even if we didn’t vote for this or that President? Are we citizens only when we agree with our nation’s policies, or when we approve the character of our leaders in office? And are we, what… pirates whenever we disagree with the government? Does the money we spend on groceries and gasoline have United States Of America printed on it? And we live here, and we have driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers – so: what does that have to do with whether we are good people or bad people? Who drew these lines in the sand and herded us into one camp or the other?
I read the big print on Facebook by friends of mine on each end of the current disorder and I want to cry. There is no light, only heat. And so much of it comes from distortion and suspicion, not real facts or truth. We lead with anger, and our reason doesn’t even engage. But even more, love is nowhere and honor disappears. No one is claiming to be the son of the gods today, but you wouldn’t know it. We are at war, a war of words, a war without a cause. It’s time to call the game and look into one another’s faces. God made us all. How can we so dishonor one another?
Shannon Alder has written this toast, and I give it to you. “Here is to all the brilliant minds that love deeply, for they write the stories that make us dream of true love. Here is to all the visionaries that create a miracle when others give up hope. Here is to all the artists, musicians, actors, singers, songwriters, dancers, screenwriters, philosophers, inventors and poetic hearts that create a perspective of heaven we can experience in this lifetime. But most of all, here is to the wild souls that the world calls broken, insane, abnormal, weird or different because they are the ones that renew our faith, by what they overcome and create, in a world that needs a sign that God doesn’t forget the least of us.”
This author is giving tribute. We do that too little. We lose nothing by honoring something or someone. We might like or hate the paintings of Jackson Pollack, but the man is deserving of our respect, as is every other living human soul. Even the lost, even the cruel, even those dedicated to end our way of life – for if we can find in them the dying embers of their humanity, God might through us reach them with the only medicine that could cure their poor hearts. Love.
Alder also wrote: “Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” We will not be remembered by the letters of our names cast in bronze and laid flat in a field somewhere. In a short time, no one will visit it and no one will know what lies beneath the sod.
St. Paul encourages our hearts, saying, “our citizenship is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed unto the body of his glory…” Phil 3
What do we lose by honoring another? By giving tribute even to one we don’t enjoy, but can still see his humanity? Doing homage to someone who has offended us, yet in some way has today done a good thing, or at least, like every human soul, has risen from bed and begun again?
We don’t know what we are. We are God’s image on earth. Can we look for that in another, and without having to endorse their misdeeds or mistaken notions, give them the honor that’s due to all, that’s due even to us? We get heaven, and God’s praise. Are we so stingy we can’t find a good word to say for those who have no such assurance?
Jesus handed them back the coin. And they were speechless. May our words have such wisdom that they cause hammers to fall harmlessly, stones rattle on the pavement, and hangman’s nooses to be untied? I honor you, my friends. I give you tribute for the people of God that you are.