Sunday, October 22, 2017

Proper 24

Matthew 22
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax[a] to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

As movie tropes go, this is a good one.

A trope is a familiar theme or device that the author will insert into a story—something we recognize and enjoy—like fictional comfort food. So, take as an example, a dispute over jurisdiction. Cop group A will arrive at a crime scene and begin investigating, only to have cop group B come and claim jurisdiction. Some examples:

In that Canadian classic Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006) the body is literally laying over the Quebec/Ontario border, which means our heroes must cooperate or the RCMP will swoop in and claim jurisdiction.

Or that Christmas classic Die Hard (1988) where the evil genius Hans Gruber knows that the FBI will claim jurisdiction over the LAPD in a hostage situation, buying him more time to steal $640 million in bearer bonds, whatever they are.

Or the rare case where claiming jurisdiction is a good thing, in The Fugitive (1993). Assuming that no one could survive the terrible wreck that frees Dr. Kimble, the local sheriff gives up. It then falls to the U.S. Marshals to claim jurisdiction and make the call:

What I a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area.

I have waited decades to quote that line in a sermon.

And the word itself has multiple meanings. From the Latin, jurisdiction literally means “what the law says.” It can describe who is responsible over what kind of case, both in law enforcement and the courts, but it can also mean who maintains law and order in a certain place. Think Smokey and the Bandit (1977) racing to the state line with Sally Field and 400 cases of Coors. But we’re done with movies for today.

It seems jurisdiction is at the heart of the very familiar passage John shared this morning. The Pharisees and the Herodians have set a trap, asking Jesus if it is lawful for a person of faith to pay the imperial Roman tax. Israel lies within the jurisdiction of Roman, making the tax a requirement—yet some resist. Pay the tax and you are committing treason to the faith, refuse to pay the tax and you are committing treason to Rome. In other words, it’s a trap.

So Jesus sets a kind of jurisdictional trap of his own, asking the gathered group to give him a coin. “Whose image is this?” he asks, “and whose inscription?” The answer is Caesar, and so Jesus makes his iconic and mostly misunderstood statement: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.”

If we are required to render unto both, then, it becomes a question of jurisdiction. Somewhere between Caesar’s jurisdiction and God’s jurisdiction there is a border, and we need to decide where to live. Put another way, there is line between Caesar’s jurisdiction and God’s jurisdiction, and we need to decide where to draw the line in our own lives (Cousar).

And the clue to where to draw the line is hidden there in the text. For Jesus asks “who’s image (εἰκὼν) is on the coin?” and he could have very well have asked the follow-up question “and who’s image (εἰκὼν) is on you?” And the answer, of course is God’s.

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them (Gen 1.27).

Created, as we are in the image (εἰκὼν) of God, we seem to be predestined to inhabit God’s realm, on God’s side of the jurisdictional dispute. We can render the things the state demands—assuming the state is legitimate—always mindful that we belong to God. It doesn’t mean we live separate lives in separate realms, but that we live in one and visit the other.

Before I venture into a very tangible example of how this works, I have a confession: I’m a monarchist. If there’s a toast, it’s to “Elizabeth, Queen of Canada.” If I have a choice of stamps (you remember stamps) it’s the Queen every time. Like Macdonald, I say “a British subject I was born and a British subject I shall die.” And when I say subject, I mean loyal subject.

And it’s not just because Elizabeth, Queen of Canada is so awesome, it’s because of what she represents and what she doesn’t. As the embodiment of the crown, she represents the stability that comes when the head of state exists outside politics. Governments serve at her pleasure, though in reality we elect them (or more accurately we throw the other bums out). In other words, we can be loyal to the crown and not the government. You might like the government, or the value of good hair, but your loyalty is to something beyond politics.

Cross the border, and there is no crown. And without a crown, people try to imbue the same significance to items like the flag, the anthem, the presidency, the pledge of allegiance, and so on. The constitution seems to approach the idea of the crown in terms of neutrality, but it’s a document, so it’s always subject to interpretation.

Where I’m heading is this: when national symbols are given too much meaning, too much significance, you end up with conflicts such as the controversy about standing for the national anthem.

The “take a knee” controversy, where black players protest the treatment of black people in the criminal justice system, is a really good example of the tension Jesus is pointing too. The faithful response to injustice is protest, even if it means that people will question your loyalty to the state. We can debate the cause that is being highlighted, but at it’s core this is a story about higher loyalty—to an anthem and a flag, or a person’s sense of what’s right.

Another obvious example is unfolding in Quebec right now. The state (the Quebec government) is willing to undermine freedom of religion for reasons that keep shifting. One day it’s about public safety, another day it’s about assimilation, another day it’s about the presumption that women who choose to exercise their religion must somehow be oppressed. All these shifts tell me that it’s about discomfort with “the other” and they are willing to misuse the power of the state to make them something else. This is a moment when it seems religionists (all who value faith) should stand together and resist the state that no longer upholds the freedom of religion.

In the world, but not of the world. This is perhaps the most vexing thing a believer tries to do. It is about our fundamental identity as Christians, our ability to exercise our faith in a society that is increasingly secular, and our ability to use governments to further the common good. And while we have moved beyond the divine right of kings, we can still believe that the state is a vehicle for the betterment of humanity, and that God intends us to work together (through the state) to seek justice and resist evil.

All of this through a simple coin. In our hand is a coin that represents earthly power, and the state, and the women and men who struggle to govern us, most often doing their very best. But the hand that holds the coin, that’s part of you, made in the image of God and holy. A little less than angels God made us, in God’s own image, pronounced good in God’s sight.

The hand that holds the coin that’s part of you that’s made in the image of God—is also one of the hands of Christ, busy on the border between this realm and God’s realm, doing the work and worship that God demands and God deserves. We are imperfect vessels, Paul will say, but we are given righteousness through faith (Rom 3) to do the work of Jesus Christ in the world. May it always be so. Amen.


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