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This Week's Sermon !

October 19 -- 2014 -

Exodus 33: 12-23
Psalm 99
Matthew 22: 15-22

Whose Image?

This is a participatory sermon! Get ready! Please tell me what the Prime Minister’s name was in 1984?

History buffs amongst us may have said that this was the year we had three Prime Ministers: Pierre Trudeau, John Turner and Brian Mulroney but any of those is the wrong answer - our Prime Minister was born with the name Stephen Harper so that was his name back in 1984.

Tricked ya!

A teenager goes to his mom. “Mom what are you doing tonight?”

“Northing, as far as I know I’m home all night. Why?”.

“So, you don’t need the car then! Can I use it?”

Some teenagers have very creative ways of trying to trick parents, backing them onto a corner so, in the teenagers mind, the parent will have no reason to refuse the hidden request. A wise parent will probably learn that the more prudent response would probably be to say something like, “I’m not sure yet, what did you have in mind?”

If you believe the gospel writers it seemed that there were a few people, or a few groups of people who went out of their way to attempt to trick Jesus into saying something incriminating. Unlike the first part of my sermon, it was not in “good natured fun”! It may or may not have been as bad as the gospel writers portray, but the important lessons in the Gospel stories are not really about the sneaky Pharisees and Herodians, but about you and me, in our day to day lives here in Nova Scotia.

These folks are presented as a serious pain in the back pew; they were the “old guard”; they were “against change”; they did not like it when someone “rocked the boat” - especially when that someone was popular! Today, it’s their disciples who go to Jesus to test him.

The question is clearly loaded! “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not”?

Seems like a no-brainer! You MUST pay your taxes whether you like them or not! Of course it is lawful; in fact it is not lawful to do anything else! The question seems more nuanced than that though - I’ll rephrase it just a littel - “According to the Jewish law should we pay our “Roman taxes?” We must remember that they were living in occupied territory and under the rule of a very cruel and oppressive power. Roman rule was an affront to their faith.

Either a “yes” or a “no” answer would have landed Jesus in hot water! If he said “NO”, they would, no doubt, have passed this information to the authorities and Jesus would have been arrested for sedition, and put in jail. Problem solved!

If, on the other hand, Jesus said, “YES”, he would have raised the hackles of everyone who had no option to pay the hated taxes and the everyday folks who flocked after him, may may well have said, “Well - we thought he was on our side - I guess I’m not running all over the wilderness following after him any more”! Problem also solved!

Jesus, though, had other ideas.

He asked for a coin with which the tax was paid. They had no trouble presenting this ROMAN coin.

We need to know that strict Jews only carried Roman coins for tax purposes; the rest of the time they were supposed to use other coins. Roman coins were offensive to their faith because they had a picture of Caesar on them with an inscription that proclaimed he was divine - in short it broke at least two of the ten commandments - the one about graven images AND the one about worshipping other gods. I am told that since money has to have something printed on it, Jewish money had the images of plants instead of human faces to get around this.

Sooooo, the leaders were already breaking their own rules about using Roman money for their everyday purchasing. Despite having the appearance of rigid adherence to the law they themselves were already compromised on this matter and they knew that Jesus knew this. The tables are starting to turn!

He then asks them an obvious question” whose image was on the money and whose title and they answered the only way they could, “Caesar’s”. What’s the point Jesus?

Perhaps Jesus shrugs as he says, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. The ball is now in their court!

There is a play on words here, almost lost in English. Jesus asks whose image is on the coin and the obvious answer is Caesar’s but the word used is the same one used when the biblical text speaks of human beings as created in the image of God.

The challenge for people of faith is not about taxes, per se, or rigid adherence to a list of laws as much as it is “how to honour the God in whose image we were created”. .

I know a mom who has said something like this to her teenage children, “don’t embarrass me by letting the neighbours think you were raised by wolves!” She was talking about basic table manners and the use of “please and thank you” and making sure they took off their muddy shoes at the door - she didn’t want her kids behaviour to reflect badly on her parenting.

When I was at Atlantic School of Theology one of our professors said that he sometimes wondered if some of his former students had slept through theological school, they came out with such odd ideas.

As a people created in the image of God we are called to give our whole selves to God in such a way that we honour that image of the divine within us!.

One of the people our study group is going to look at is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian, whose particular struggle was “to be Christian in Nazi Germany”. His choices ended up costing him his life.

Being Christian under an oppressive regime is a very hard thing but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that it’s a piece of cake in a country which purports to be fee and democratic. All too often such countries, including our own, are in fact run by Caesar’s dollar and you had better be able to “get with the program” or fall through the cracks. We know that all over the world the rich are getting richer and the poor are having a harder and harder time. We may protest this until we realize that our pension funds and our investments are benefiting from the profits of corporations that are probably downsizing and outsourcing to increase their profits or even to stay afloat.

Our General Council and the Trustees of the Pension Plan are at loggerheads over investments in GoldCorp which has questionable mining practices in Guatemala. The list of companies with questionable human rights, labour, or environmental practices goes on and on, making ethically responsible purchasing and investing very complicated.

The early church was very concerned for the welfare of widows and orphans, two groups which had fallen through the cracks in the Greco-Roman world. The vision of the Hebrew tradition of which Jesus was a part was deeply steeped in social and economic ethics. You see, faith involves social issues and economic issues as well as the “moral” issues. Or issues of belief, with which we sometimes think the church should be limited to. What we do in every aspect of our lives., and how we treat others matter.

Recent words of Pope Francis challenge all of us, even if we are not Roman Catholic - “It is increasingly intolerable that financial markets are shaping the destiny of peoples rather than serving theor needs, or that the few derive immense wealth from financial speculation while the many are deeply burdened by the consequences.”

It used to be that the church was relegated to commenting on issues of “simple morality”, while world finance was left to others. I contend that the two cannot be separated. If it is wrong to break into your neighbours house to steal their TV, it is equally wrong to steal the livelihood of hundreds so shareholders can buy more with their earnings.

It is wrong to allow human rights abuses in other countries by our companies that we would not tolerate on Canadian soil.

I read a news clip recently that indicated that a professor received death threats because she dared to challenge what she regarded “the anti-woman nature of video game culture”. VIDEO GAMES - These violent video games are obviously earning someone a lot of money and those someone’s are afraid of the possibility that she might be right.

Jesus comments are meant to be a little unsettling. We should be putting more thought and faith struggle into our economic decisions, but also into all our decisions.

The world has never been one of clear choices, of right and wring - the world has always tried to trick us into thinking wrng was right - and sure some choices are like that but for the most part we live in a world of gray where we have discern which path we should take. Perhaps there is no better criteria than the question, “How do I render honour to the God in whose image I am created”.


1995- 2014 The Rev. Beth W. Johnston.

For some good stuff go to:
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