Sunday October 17,
1999 ~ 21st Sunday after Pentecost
Anatomy of a Spiritual Disaster
The final conflict of Jesus' life is fully engaged as we look at the beginning words of today's gospel reading. "Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said."
The last straw for the Pharisees and religious officials was the series of parables Jesus told which clearly pointed a finger at them. Although the disciples had often asked Jesus to explain his parables, the parables we have looked at over the past few weeks leave nothing to imagination. The Pharisees, chief priests and virtually all of the official religious leadership finally "got it." Jesus told them in clear terms that they were totally off the mark with God and that all those people they considered spiritual rejects were about to inherit the kingdom of God before them.
Because of Jesus' popularity with the crowds, the Pharisees and their allies decided to set a trap for him. They would engage Jesus in question and conversation that would result in discrediting him and weakening his credibility. Then they could proceed to indict, arrest, judge and execute him.
You've seen those interview on TV news magazines haven't you? The ones they call "ambush" or "sandbag" interviews where the interviewee has no idea of what's coming and then is confronted with scandalous personal material. CBS's Sam Donnelson is one of the best. The trail of his career is littered with people who have been bushwhacked by his cross-examinations. Most of them were deserving.
Then it happened. Sam Donnelson's turn came when a program called Hard Copy ambushed him concerning government money he was receiving for a ranch he owned. Donnelson makes a much better "bushwhacker" then a "bushwhackee." He was not a happy camper at all. "No comment," he grumbled as he turned and walked away quickly with camera crew hot on his trail.
Chances are this was simply too good to pass up for the Hard Copy folks. As I watched, I thought to myself, "Bushwhack not, lest ye be bushwhacked!" The Pharisees and their cohorts planned to bushwhack Jesus.
The Foot is Shot
One of the interesting elements to this story is that those who came to entrap Jesus were strange allies indeed. The Pharisees send their disciples "along with the Herodians". Normally the Pharisees and the Herodians would have absolutely nothing to do with each other and certainly had nothing in common. The Pharisees were purists and separatists who did not like paying the Roman tax, but did so reluctantly. The Herodians who were wealthy and more influential Jews cooperated with the family of Herod and had no problem with paying the tax. Then there were the "Zealots" who openly resisted paying the tax and rebelled against Rome at every opportunity. What the Pharisees and Herodians do have in common is a desire to see Jesus eliminated. Forcing Jesus to answer a question about paying taxes would insure that he would incur someone's wrath. If he says "yes" to the tax, he will anger those who oppose and struggle against submission to Rome. If he says "no" to the tax, he will be subject to a charge of treason.
What happens is a joy. Our gospel reading today is a delightful example of Jesus' brilliance and of how the trap of the entrappers became a snare into which they willingly walked. They shot themselves in the foot with their question about paying taxes. Instead of discredited, Jesus' credibility rises and the esteem of the crowds only grows.
The downfall of Jesus' adversaries was their pride. They were so certain of their position that they had no room for doubt. No idea that they might make fools of themselves. The spiritual sin in this was the fact that they were totally closed to the possibility that Jesus just might be from God.
It's a poor example, but I recall very clearly a time when overconfident and brash behavior left me pretty humiliated. I had just passed the test for my driver's license on a slippery winter day and was quite pleased with myself. My mother was in the car with me when we returned home and I was inwardly gloating because she thought I should perhaps wait for better weather to take the test. Not this kid! I aced the written test and did the road test flawlessly. The examiner told mom I was a very good driver. As we pulled into our drive, I thought I would give mom a bit of a thrill by speeding into the drive and stopping the car a couple of inches from the closed garage door. (Do you see this coming?)
The car did not stop a few inches from the door. The car did a perfect brake lock-up on the ice and we entered the garage without bothering to open the door. Mom's jaw hit the floorboard as she gave me this "have you gone stark raving mad?" look. Dad, who came racing into the garage, was not at a loss for words.
My brand new driver's license sat on Dad's dresser for six months. A family friend observed to my dad, "I thought John had his drivers license -- I haven't seen him driving." Dad's response was the first time I heard the phrase, 'Oh, he shot himself in the foot.' "
Imagine the Pharisees waiting for the return of their students and the results of his being put in the jaws of a vice -- between the Pharisees and Herodians. "Well?" They anxiously ask, "Did you get the evidence? Is he a traitor to the Jews -- or is he in treasonous rebellion against Rome?"
"Aaahemm..." They clear their throats, reluctant to give an answer their teachers are not going to like, "Actually, we might have shot ourselves in the foot. We had no answer for his answer. We thought it best to get back to you." They would naturally be reticent to tell the Pharisees that they had actually been amazed at Jesus' brilliance and couldn't wait to high tail it out of the crowd.
Don't Miss These Points
The central theme of Matthew's words over these weeks in October is that Israel's leadership is involved in a spiritual disaster. The rejection of God's message and messenger, the inflexible spirit that has no room for God and the noxious attitude they have toward one who has a heart for God is the kiss of death for authentic spirituality. Today's lesson is one more brick on the road to catastrophe.
Yet -- there is a crucial issue in today's story that applies directly to our personal lives and our life together as a church. Jesus' response to those who came to entrap him takes us to two essential spiritual concepts. Nail these down, because they are central to our living -- then and now!
There is no such thing as a "Black - White" world
The students of the Pharisees and the Herodians who came to Jesus had a rigid mindset. Things had to be black or white. They had no middle ground. They were of the, "My way or the highway" mentality. They had a "hair trigger" judgmental attitude.
They came to Jesus with their minds made up. And... it was in their inflexibility of spirit and rigidity of attitude that they became so vulnerable to spiritual disaster. There was no honest exchange of who they were and what they were all about with Jesus. It was simply a set up deal. They came to entrap. They ended up trapped by their own rigidity.
In order to receive, we need to be open. There is no such thing as a black - white world. Jesus' detractors had no room for questions or reflection. They were not open in the least to self-examination. There were "good guys" and "bad guys" and Jesus was one of the "bad guys."
How can you tell when a person is operating with this rigid, black - white view of the world? The key is in our scripture. You and I have met these people. Here's a diagnostic question that will help us know whether they are interested in genuine give and take -- or are simply waiting to pounce upon you with their predetermined attitude.
The diagnostic question is this. Are the questions they ask genuine questions? Or are they simply a "set-up"? There is not really a question, but a probe which intends to open up an opportunity to instruct, correct or pontificate.
Do you know these folks? The church is especially vulnerable to them. It is relatively easy to hide rigidity in religious terms. Here are a few examples of predetermined attitudes and judgments disguised as questions:
You can probably make a long list of similar questions you've heard. And... you can do some personal spiritual work by examining whether you use questions to make statements. Trust me. The elimination of inauthentic questions in our personal and group conversations can change our lives and our life together. When we realize that there is no such thing as a black-white world, we are more fully able to give each other the respect every child of God deserves.
[It may be important here to say what we are not saying. We are not saying that there are no absolutes. With God there are absolutes. With persons there are opinions and even strongly held opinions which may come close at times to spiritual truth. But we human beings are not the locus of "absolutes" -- God is! It is when I being to believe my perception of truth is absolute, that I get into spiritual trouble and begin to aim the gun at my foot.]
The image of God is the unspoken center of the text
The coin Jesus asks for would seem to be almost incidental to the main theme of the text. Yet, there is a major issue that emerges once the issue of the image on the coin is mentioned. Jesus answer to the phony question is stunning.
I still prefer the old version of this. "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." Mt. 22:212 KJV
That which bears the image and likeness of God's should be given to God. They are doubly ensnared by their own deceitfulness. They are stunned by his answer and they are seemingly unaware that they demonstrate the point. Made in the image of God they are not given to God at all. They are in fact opposing the message and messenger of God.
One of the questions that comes up over and over again when people come to this point in Jesus' ministry is, "How could religious leaders get so far off the mark as to be seeking the elimination of the One God has sent?"
The bottom line answer to the question is in the injunction to; "Render unto God the things that are God's." You and I have the image and likeness of God imprinted on our spirit. We belong to God. But God has given us the choice to do the rendering. We may choose to give ourselves to anything we want. And we do.
However -- at the end of the day -- when all is said and done, there is a basic principle here. If we wish to avoid the kind of spiritual disaster that befell the adversaries of Jesus in our text, there is something we must stay in touch with.
If I am to avoid shooting myself in the foot -- in a spiritual sense -- I need to consistently practice inward searching of my life and its priorities to regularly renew and refresh the "rendering" of my spirit. I need to constantly renew the inner commitment which says, "I am given to God."
Connections in the Texts
A question that could bind the texts together is, "Who knows the Lord?" The religious officials in Matthew are working against the Lord, Isaiah and the Psalm call on people who are not God's people to acknowledge the Lord and Paul is celebrating the knowledge of God that has come to the Greeks.
In terms of knowing God, Matthew deals with people who should know God, but don't. Isaiah addresses Cyrus the Persian who doesn't really know God, but is used by God. Paul writes to those who have turned away from pagan worship because they have come to know the Lord. The Psalm is a celebration of the God who should be known in all the earth. There is a strong sense in the texts of the One God who is sovereign over all peoples and all circumstances -- whether they know it or not.
The texts are connected only loosely, but if I were to stretch and do a meditation using all of these texts, I might ask people to look at their lives, their schedules, their priorities -- the sum total of what makes up their living and have them ask, "Where is God in all of this?"
You could apply that question to all of our texts and come up with: The Pharisees and Herodians didn't have a clue. Cyrus doesn't know he owes his success to God. The Thessalonians know God and are acting on that knowledge. The Psalm would make a great prayer to carry on our hearts as we ask the question of where God is in our living.
The first thing that jumps out of this episode is the fact that Pharisees and Herodians team up to entrap Jesus. These two groups had absolutely nothing in common and one of the unfortunate facts about human nature rears its head once again. It is easy to unite people to be against something -- to gather around the negative. Give folks a common enemy -- something to fight against. Throughout history, genocide has documented the fact that people can be gathered together to hate with relative ease.
The media will cover a "protest" if it promises conflict. Can you imagine the response if you were to do a press release announcing that there would be an "affirmation" -- the opposite of a protest. People would be asked to get together to make a bit of noise, carry signs and join hands in singing -- as an "affirmation" say, of legislation that helped the homeless. The Pharisees and Herodians who wouldn't give each other the time of day find themselves coming to Jesus arm in arm to back him into a corner.
The second thing that jumps out in this text is the utter hypocrisy of their approach to Jesus. "Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God..." Now if Jesus teaches the way of God, why are they not advocates of Jesus instead of adversaries? If you have ever been on the receiving end of this kind of behavior, you know the revulsion this stirs up inside. The question they ask is one of those "no-win" questions. No answer will work. It close to the old quip about the district attorney who asks a defendant, "So -- tell the court with a 'YES' or 'NO'. Have you stopped beating your wife?"
The heart of this passage is the question of what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. How shall we, as the Psalmist enjoins, give God the glory that is deserved?"
The prophet affirms that Cyrus the Persian is actually a servant of God. Cyrus doesn't know it -- but his success has been for the sake of Israel. There is a strong affirmation of providence in these words. Even though it is behind the scenes and even though Israel is a tiny, almost unnoticed on the world's stage at this time -- God is watching over her destiny.
Verses 5 & 6 are illustrative of the radical monotheism of the prophets. Even though the people chased after other Gods and honoring the gods of one's allies was simply good manners, Israel was called to a strong, "no other gods before me..." stand.
Though it might be in different circumstances and terms that we examine this issue of no other gods, it is a good self-examination. What shape do the other gods take in our lives today?
The readings from this epistle over the next few weeks connect with Matthew's portrayal of the days of Jesus' last week. The parable in Matthew takes place about Tuesday of Passion week. Everything begins to point to the end and Jesus will soon begin the eschatalogical discourse in Matthew 24. Paul's first letter to the church at Thessalonica is the earliest bit of writing in the New Testament and is filled with fresh eschatalogical imagery.
There are several opportunities over these weeks to do some contrasts and correlations between Matthew and 1 Thess. Consider today how it is that the religious officials who come to Jesus saying (deceitfully) -- "We know you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth..." As opposed to the church at Thessalonica where they have, "...received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit." Some oppose the word and wisdom of God with everything they have (including alliances with people they don't even like). Others receive it with joy. And this begs the question of his you and I are receiving the word and wisdom of God in our lives. And your life.
Here's another contrast. All of us have people in our lives we are mistrustful of. Then there are people who add something to our lives. Paul remembers the folk at Thessalonica with joy. Jesus will not have another conversation with the people who came to him with feigned deference. There are toxic people and there are nourishing people. Some leave us drained and some leave us energized. Paul writes to a group of people here who leave him energized. If you are -- there's a sermon here. I tried it two or three times. The question behind the sermon is, "Are you the kind of person who brings joy to a pastor's heart?" [I plan to preach this sermon more often now that I will be a "visiting" preacher. :-) ]
A Call To Worship (Adapted from Psalm 96)
Leader: O sing to the LORD a new song;
A Prayer of Dedication
Lord, it sometimes seems as though you gave so much and