In God We Trust – Matthew 22.15-22

October 19, 2014 – 19th Sunday after Pentecost

“In God We Trust” first appeared on US coins in 1864. The US Department of the Treasury cites “increased religious sentiment existing during the Civil War”1 as the impetus for coins to be minted with the phrase. It was a pastor from Pennsylvania who first wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury urging “recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”2 Depending on how you read the history, the desire for this notation could be seen as religious devotion or as an attempt to say that God was on the Union side of the Civil War—or some mashup of the two.

In 1956, “In God We Trust” was signed into law by President Eisenhower as the official motto of the United States3 and has appeared on our paper currency since 1957. The Cold War was going on in the 1950s and “the 1956 law was one of several legislative actions Congress took to differentiate the United States from”4 the so-called godless communists.

It makes you wonder if it was all motivated by religion or politics. Or some squishy amalgamation of the two.

Which is pretty much where we find Jesus with the Pharisees and the Herodians who are trying to set a trap for him. We don’t know a lot about the Herodians but we presume they were supporters of Herod (who was a lieutenant governor of the emperor) and so allied with the occupying Roman government. The Pharisees were teachers and keepers of the law of Moses. Pharisees and Herodians are not people who would typically be on the same side of any issue–except now they are united against Jesus.

So together they ask: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

The trap is, if Jesus says “Yes—it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor” much of the Jewish crowd would be outraged. Adding insult to injury, the Roman coins were stamped with the image of the Roman Emperor and had an inscription attributing divinity to him. Saying that the Roman Emperor was divine didn’t sit well with Jews and even handling the money that had the emperor’s image and title on it was offensive to some. Many Jews, living under Roman occupation and oppression saw paying the Roman tax as treasonous—like bowing down to the Roman Emperor instead of to God.

So if Jesus says, “Yes, it is right to pay taxes to the occupying Roman government,” there were many who would have condemned him for his response.

On the other hand, if Jesus answered, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,” then the Herodians would have pressed charges against Jesus for advocating treason against the Roman empire.5

He’s trapped either way he answers.

And Jesus doesn’t fall for it.
Instead he calls them out and says, “Why are you trying to trap me? Since you’re so smart, show me the coin used for the tax.”

Jesus’ questioners didn’t have to go far to find the blasphemous coin—several hands went into their own pockets and pulled out coins with the emperor’s head on it.

“Hmmm. Whose head is this?” (That’s a classic Jesus response—to answer a question with a question.)

Whose image? “The emperor’s.”
“Hmmm. Well, give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s.”

As if that answers the question.

Which also seems to be a classic Jesus response—to say something that requires more explanation and a deeper analysis and so the people looking for the easy answers or the sound bite leave disappointed, confused, or amazed at Jesus’ rhetorical abilities but don’t really press on to find out what Jesus was talking about.

Some people have used Jesus’ statement—about giving to the emperor what is the emperor’s and giving to God what is God’s—to argue for the separation of church and state. To say that there is a realm that belongs to the emperor and a realm that belongs to God. Do you remember sets and sub-sets from math class? Some say there is an emperor-set over here and a God-set over here and they don’t intersect.

But that is not an interpretation consistent with the rest of Matthew’s gospel (or the rest of the Bible).

It seems to me in the world of sets and sub-sets, when Jesus says “give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and give to God what is God’s” Jesus is saying that everything belongs to God—the entire universe, everything we have, everything we are—it all belongs to God—that’s the big set.

And within that set there is a sub-set that is what belongs to the emperor.

It’s not one of those over-lapping subsets—like when you have a red circle and a blue circle and the part where they overlap is purple. It’s not as if there is part of the emperor’s set that does not belong to God. In the world of mathematical sets, the set belonging to the emperor is contained wholly within the bigger set belonging to God. Everything, ultimately, belongs to God. That’s the biblical perspective from which Jesus answers.

Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and wealth.”6 Holding that Roman coin in his hand, looking at his questioners, I suspect Jesus is asking us deeper questions: Whose economy do we live in? Who is Ruler of that economy? And in Whom will we put our trust?

When Jesus asks to see the coin, he asks whose “image,” whose “likeness” is on the coin, whose “eikon” (to use the Greek word) is this? Of course the answer is “the emperor.” That’s the image the coins bear.

“Humans on the other hand, bear the ‘eikon,’ the ‘image,’ the ‘likeness’ of God.”7 (Remember back to Genesis chapter 1 where God says, ‘let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…’8) Residents of Jerusalem, people oppressed by the Roman government, “may pay the [awful census] tax but they do not belong to the emperor. They…belong to God.”9

“In life and in death we belong to God” begins the Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church. We belong, body and soul, to the living God.
“Humans bear God’s image, and wherever [we] live and operate—whether in the social, economic, political, or religious realm—[we] belong to God. [That means our] primary loyalties do not switch when [we] move out of church and into the voting booth.”10 Or out of the church and into the business world. Or out of the church and into the classroom. Or out of the church and into any other place in the world.

Rick Spalding, chaplain at Williams College, writing about this passage says, the Emperor “can stamp his picture and pedigree far and wide, but he cannot come near the true commerce that animates us. So [the Emperor] will get many or most of the coins…but the coin of the realm of our flesh and blood is the image of God. What is [given] to God is whatever bears the divine image. Every life is marked with that inscription, an icon of the One who is its source and destination…Baptism [then] is the watermark of our true currency.”11

Think about that: a watermark is the picture woven into the very fabric of a document. And our true currency—where we find our value—is in the love of God.

Baptism is the watermark of our true currency.

The God in whom we trust is “the God described by the Prophet Isaiah in the midst of the looming shadow of an earlier empire…‘Can a woman forget her nursing child?…Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you,” says the Eternal God.  “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.’ (Is. 49.15-16)”12

Marked on the palms of God, we can trust the One who will never forget us and never let us go.

When we look in the mirror or look at others, we may see the mark of a commercial world that values us for what we have or what we can do or who we can call up on our fancy phones, but underneath, in the fabric of our lives woven together by God, between the warp and the weft of all that is, we are God’s treasure. And in that God we can trust.

* * *
1. http://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-god-we-trust.aspx, accessed 15 October 2014.
2. Ibid.
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_national_motto, accessed 17 October 2014.
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_national_motto, accessed 17 October 2014.
5. Walter Brueggemann, et. al., Texts for Preaching, Year A, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995, p532.
6. Matthew 6.24
7. Brugemmemann, et. al.
8. Genesis 1.26
9. Brueggemann, et. al.
10. Brueggemann, et. al., pp532-533.
11. Richard E. Spalding, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 190-192.
12. Ibid.

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What Never Changes is Change – Matthew 21.33-46 & Philippians 3.4b-14

October 5, 2014 – World Communion Sunday

Last Sunday Mark preached on the parable about two sons and their father’s vineyard. This morning we have another parable set in a vineyard. And again, the parable is told by jesus in response to the religious leaders’ questions to him about his authority to teach and act.

The religious leaders are anxious. This Jesus is drawing a lot of attention. Earlier in chapter 21 we hear the story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem in what turned into a parade with crowds of people shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” which was the cry people would use to greet the promised Messiah.

Then he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, he cured those who could not see and those who could not walk. And all along the way he has been teaching about the realm of God in confusing and confounding ways. It was certainly not the same teaching that the religious leaders learned in seminary.

And the religious leaders are anxious. Instead of answering their questions about who his teachers were and what governing body ordained him to the ministry of teaching and healing, Jesus tells yet another confounding parable.

And this parable does not bring any clarity to the religious leaders because they end up being the ones in the story who lose everything; they are the ones who don’t know the right way to live in the realm of God.

Because this parable is so focused on the religious leaders, I had half a mind to suggest that Mark and I, seminary professors, clergy friends, and those who work at the Presbyterian Center to stay in our places to hear the sermon and dismiss all the rest of you to go enjoy the afternoon.

But this parable has a larger context than just the first century religious leaders so I went back to my sermon drawing board to find the 21st century connection and I thought maybe you could all stay for the sermon. (Did I just hear a sigh of disappointment??)

If I can do a little psychoanalysis on the first century religious leaders, I would observe that their anxiety comes from a feeling of being displaced and the fear of what they will lose. You don’t have to be a first-century religious leader to have that anxiety. Just look at what’s happening right now in Hong Kong or with the priorities of Pope Francis. Leaders in China don’t want to see people demonstrating for democracy in Hong Kong. Religious conservatives don’t like the changes Pope Francis is advocating and demonstrating.

The world is changing. The church is changing. Whether we like it or not. Whether we welcome it or not.

The other Friday night when our New Beginnings1 assessor, Ann Philbrick, was helping us think and talk about change, she pulled out her cell phone and said, “How many of you have one of these in your pocket or handbag? Nearly everyone in the room raised their hand. “This is a sign,” she said, “that we have navigated changes and adapted to a new reality.”

So perhaps we can hear this parable about change and specifically think about it in light of the New Beginnings process in which we are engaging. (The small groups are beginning this week. If you’re not already signed up, sign up today.)

Did you notice in this parable all the ways the landowner prepared the way for the tenants? The landowner planted the vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press, built a watchtower. There was little the tenants had to do besides provide the labor to tend the grape vines, keep the weeds down, subdue the pests, watch for those who would steal the grapes, harvest the grapes when the time comes and make the wine. That’s still a lot of work but everything that was needed prior to the labor of the tenants was provided.

When the harvest time arrives, the landowner sends his servants to collect the harvest, the produce, the fruit–those are all words this passage uses for the same thing. The writer of Matthew’s gospel uses the word “fruit” as a metaphor for good works.2 If we think metaphorically, in the parable it’s not just grapes and wine that is being produced, the real harvest is the fruit of the lives of the tenants. If the vineyard with the land and the grape vines and the fence and the watch tower and the wine press are part of the realm of God, the tenants are the people who have been entrusted by God with all those blessings and what God the landowner wants from tenants is the fruit of their labor–God wants the lives of God’s people to bear good fruit–which is the evidence of faith.

Sometimes for Presbyterians, the emphasis on fruit–the harvest–the produce–is a little hard for us. We’re used to the Reformed emphasis on grace. As in, we are saved by grace alone. It is not our work that saves us. We are redeemed by the grace of God and not because of some merit or spiritual heroics on our part. That’s what we hear Paul saying in his letter to the church at Philippi. Paul had a lot of credentials, a lot of accomplishments, a lot of stellar religious lineage. But he considered all of it garbage in comparison to the value of knowing Christ Jesus and being found in Christ, not because of Paul’s own righteousness but because of the faith of Christ3 and God’s righteousness.

It isn’t that Presbyterians are opposed to good works–or fruit–as Matthew says. We just think they come after God’s grace. In response to God’s grace, we respond with gratitude and service. Our hymnal is arranged around this Presbyterian theological assertion: God’s mighty acts and our response to God. It’s why we baptize babies because it’s a theological claim that God’s grace precedes any cognitive or behavioral ability we have to convince God that we are worthy of God’s love and provision. God already is convinced of that.

But what grace does require is a response. And so God gives us gift upon gift (in the parable it’s the land and the grape vines and the wine press and the fence and the watchtower) and God expects us to do something with all those gifts. God’s expectation is not that we will hoard them or use them only for ourselves or do nothing with the gifts and just let them lie fallow.

In the parable we don’t actually know if fruit has been produced–if there has been a harvest. The landowner assumes there is fruit to be harvested and so sends servants to collect it.

Interestingly, in Mark and Luke’s telling of this parable, the servants come to collect the landowner’s portion of the harvest. In Matthew’s gospel, there’s no qualification of the landowner’s portion. Matthew says the servants come to collect the fruit of the tenant’s labor. Maybe that’s just a little detail that Matthew left out because he assumed his readers would be thinking about regular old landowners who collect a portion of what the tenants produce. But what if this landowner really expects to receive all of the harvest of the tenants’ labor? We might think of the gouging, exploiting landowners of the first century (and the way the labor of the poor is exploited in our own day). We might also think about the landowner who this parable clearly intends us to know as God. The psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.”4 From the perspective of the parable (and the rest of the Bible), everything we have has been given to us by God. It all belongs to God. “All I have needed thy hand hath provided” we sing in the old hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” The amazing thing is that God entrusts gift after gift to us. Not for us to hoard or squander or bury but for us to use for the common good5 as Paul writes in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

When I look at all of you, I know that God has entrusted a lot of gifts to us. Together we have financial resources, we have physical space, we have reputation and influence, we have abilities and talents, energy and passion. God has entrusted to us an abundance of resources. Speaking metaphorically, some parts of the vineyard are bleak and desolate–the fence is falling down, the vines are dying and the wine press is in disrepair. That is not so in our part of the vineyard.

And so the question we are invited to consider as we begin our discussion and prayer together in the New Beginnings small groups is: What will we do with all God has given us? Who will we be? Will we be tenants who don’t have fruit to give back to God or will we be tenants who have an abundance to share?

* * *
1 http://www.whatisourfuturestory.com/
2 Fred B. Craddock and M. Eugene Boring, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 83.
3 An alternate reading of Philippians 3.9.
4 Psalm 24.1
5 1 Corinthians 12.4-7