Sermon for Sunday, October 22, 2017 || Proper 25A || Matthew 22:15-22
Imagine with me the thoughts of a nameless Pharisee, one in the party that seek to trap Jesus with their questions during the time between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion, while he’s teaching daily in the temple.
All week Jesus had been speaking out against us Pharisees. He did it subtle like, not taking it to us directly, but talking in riddles and stories. Stories about vineyards and tenants and weddings and guests, and at the end of them, we took umbrage because all the wrong people got rewarded in his stories. They were insidious, those stories; they rattled around in my head, making up pictures in an incomplete vision that competed with the one I had always been shown. I kept quiet around my brethren that week, lest I let slip the confession that Jesus fascinated me, despite – or maybe because of – his puzzling and radical rhetoric.
He was a nobody from…where was it? Nazareth? I couldn’t find that place on a map if you paid me. And his name – Jesus – one of the most common out there. Jesus of Nazareth. He could have been any of a thousand such Jesus-es coming to Jerusalem for Passover. But none of them rode into town on the back of a donkey with friends shouting up a storm, ready to crown him the Son of David. That got him noticed. And then what he did in the temple? That got him reviled. Imagine – upsetting not just tables and stacks of coins, but the whole ritual economy. And then the nerve of him, coming back to the temple the next day…to teach. Like I said, I was quite taken with him. He was entertaining, to say the least. Turns out, he was a whole lot more.
Jesus had earned some fame up in Galilee, and now here he was in the big city, trying to make a name for himself. He’d started off with a bang, and people were listening. The wrong people. He was attracting sinners by the droves with those stories about how they too had a place in the kingdom of heaven. I agreed, but first they had to change their ways; they had to be worthy of such a place. But Jesus seemed to see it the other way `round. Those people had worth just because – not for what they did or did not do. They had worth just by being children of God. And owning their own dignity helped them find the promise of the kingdom.
It was a revolutionary thought, but I still didn’t really know how I felt about it. Did people really have that worthiness innately? I had been working for my own worthiness for so long I don’t remember what I felt like before starting out. Had it been there all along?
Those were the questions I kept to myself that week. I would have liked to ask Jesus about them, but my brethren were bent on devising other questions to ask, questions designed to put Jesus on the wrong side of issues, to lower his standing in the eyes of the masses. I felt a little squirmy about it, but I went along with them, to my own shame. I wish I hadn’t because I had earnest questions in my heart, questions I never got a chance to ask.
We began with a question about money. We had seen Jesus palling around with tax collectors, those collaborators with our Roman occupiers, so we thought for sure this would make everyone else take notice of Jesus’ dirty associates. “What do you think?” we asked. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Jesus saw through us like newly washed windows. “Why are you putting me to the test?” And I wondered it too. Why were we putting him to the test? What we were so afraid of? That those who hadn’t worked as hard as us might share in God’s promises with us? That didn’t seem so bad.
But it was what he said next that convicted me. He asked if anyone had a coin, and I handed him one. He asked whose name and image the coin bore. Of course it was the Roman emperor’s. I had never realized I had unwittingly been carrying a talisman of our occupiers around in my pocket. Then Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
He had wriggled free from our trap and at the same moment trapped me with those words. Give to God the things that are God’s. I had been so bent on being worthy that I forgot what I was trying to be worthy for. I forgot that I had given myself to God and then struggled to keep myself pristine. And right then I realized my error. I was just like those wrong people who flocked to Jesus. When I gave myself to God, God took me not because I was worthy, but to make me so.
And that’s just what Jesus was doing. Those wrong people were the guests in his wedding story and the laborers come late to the vineyard. And yet they too were welcomed to the feast and paid a full day’s wage. The generosity of such action staggered me. Is that truly what God is like? I hope so. Because the God I had conceived – the god of scales and balances, of ledgers and quotas – who could ever measure up?
No one. And that’s what makes God’s generosity so staggering. God gives to us, gives everything to us – our worthiness, our belovedness, our callings, our talents, our passions – and then fervently yearns for us to give it all back. To give it back in service to the wrong people, because those people are only wrong in the eyes of those who don’t know what’s right. And yet they hear it again and again from people like me until they start to believe it themselves.
No more. I’m taking my stand with Jesus, and I don’t care what my brethren say. If my fellow Pharisees think they’re right – if they think all our rules and ritual can substitute for the true service God calls us to give – then I want to be wrong. I want to go meet those other people – those so-called wrong people – and see what kind of good news Jesus is telling them. Because it’s news I need to hear. It’s news I need to share.