Proper 24 – Series A
Try this on for size: Jesus the master politician. We are used to hearing Jesus compared to a good shepherd, a door, a vine, a lamb, and a whole host of other images. There are even a few negative ones thrown in there. In Matthew 12, when the Pharisees accuse him of being in league with the Devil, Jesus even compares himself to a thief who has tied up the strong man and is plundering the devil’s goods (people). Robert Capon even thinks Jesus compares himself to a vulture in Matthew 24.
Today we see the various members of the press corps asking questions which are intended to trip up the candidate (oops, wrong century). The Pharisees are gathered trying to trip up Jesus. They have a fool proof sort of a question for him, the sort of question to which there is no right answer, the best kind. Should they pay taxes to Caesar? If he answers, “Yes, you should.” The crowds will desert him because they want him to be the messiah who evicts the nasty Romans and their tax collectors (like Matthew.) If he says, “No, you should not,” then they have him, the Romans will pounce and arrest him for sedition. The Romans largely did not care what you did as long as you did not cause too much trouble or interfere with the orderly gathering of taxes. They tended to get quite upset if people started a tax revolt.
But Jesus deftly avoids their trap today, giving a non-answer that is worthy of any presidential press secretary. One should give Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. He even uses a coin for an object lesson.
We are always close an election it seems. Perhaps the attack ads have been going full steam for some time in your part of the country. Will the Republicans take/retain control of the Senate? Will there be change? Today’s readings seem to intersect oddly with politics and power, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. Isaiah sings the praises of Cyrus with words that make those praises of politicians we hear before the election sound pale by comparison. Yet, we also know that Cyrus, even though he rather magnanimously let the children of Israel go home, was a power-hungry tyrant like the rest of them. He was no exemplar of virtue, justice, or humility, yet God goes before him and levels the high places and bursts open the locked doors.
What to make of this day? If you are thinking of preaching politics, I highly recommend the document “Render unto Caesar” which you can download from the Synodical website. If you navigate into the CTCR and look for documents online, it is under “Social/Ethical Issues.” There are some rather important rules which a preacher has to know about when broaching the subject of politics in the pulpit. The congregation’s tax-exempt status requires that it not advocate for a particular candidate.
Legal issues aside, the faithful preacher wants to be a proclaimer of the Gospel. The reality is that our pews are filled with folks from across the political spectrum. On the Wednesday after the election we must be the servant of them all. That means we cannot say something from the pulpit which would jeopardize that holy relationship we enjoy in the Gospel for the sake of 2
political gain. And the truth is that there are legitimate differences people have in how to solve important problems. It is not black and white in politics, it never is.
O God, the protector of all who trust in You, have mercy on us that with You as our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
What are the temporal things and what are the eternal things through which we pass? Of course, the temporal things are the things of this created life, but the temptation we often face is to locate the eternal things in the afterlife. But God has given us eternal things in baptism, sacrament, Word, and more. Paul has said that love endures. Does that mean faith and hope are not eternal things? Faith and hope even pass away. Love endures, is eternal.
The eternal things are often embedded in the very things we pray go away. When there is conflict and hurt, there is the implicit opportunity to bless our enemies, to forgive, to care for, reconcile, and much more. When we pray for God to lead us through the temporal that we do not lose the eternal; that is not pitting this life against the next.
We also might struggle with the term “love.” The word has largely become meaningless to the average hearer. It has become the rationale and cover for much that qualifies as sin. The couple living together will confess they love each other; hence, it cannot really be wrong. But this idea has been around a long time, Abelard would use it as an excuse in the 12th century for his affair with Heloise. His intentions were good, he just did not execute those intentions well.
God is the protector of all who trust in him. But a good look around at the Christians I know seems to belie that statement. At least if I am looking at the measurements of the world and with these eyes of mine. This could simply be the greatest challenge which a thoughtful and pious person must face intellectually. If God does indeed care, why does it seem that he does so little? As the philosopher J. L. Mackie succinctly put it, If God is entirely good, and God is all powerful, how can there be such evil/suffering? He thought that people who believe in God had a problem in this little formulation. Do you agree? The prayer is of little help in this regard. It appeals to his role as ruler and guide, not to his powerful intervention, miracles, or angelic army. If he has those angelic armies and all that power, why don’t we see more of it? Why only pray for guidance when we really need him to act?
We want to pass through things temporal so that we do not lose things eternal. But having God as our ruler and guide could be understood in a few ways. A guide is a conveyer of crucial information. A ruler is someone who sets up the rules and might not be really present until such time as we break those rules. Both of those readings could suggest that God’s help is not activist 3
and interventionist, but more subtle and certainly one in which we keep a great deal of responsibility for our own actions.
This accords well with our Lutheran understanding of God. He is Deus absconditus, the hidden God. We want this interventionist God to show up and put all the baddies in the naughty pile and get rid of them once and for all, at least as long as we think we are in the other category, the good side of that equation. But God does not operate that way. He is the God who works through the foolishness of the cross, who works through mustard seeds, who works through fishermen and tax collectors, not generals and senators and emperors. The problem with Mackie’s formulation above is that it leaves out another essential truth about God: God loves.
God’s hand is all around us, but we must adjust our vision to see him. The prayer does not suggest an absent but a hidden God. Indeed, God may be found in the suffering – he might be preserving me from something much worse by training my soul, by training my heart through this day if trial and tribulation. He might just be telling me something about Jesus’ through that suffering. Is he sometimes like the coach who makes me run so I am ready for the important game to come? This can help some folks bear up under suffering. Peter and the writer to the Hebrews use such logic, comparing God to a loving parent who disciplines. But be prepared for the fact that this is not always sufficient. Sometimes it is just a mystery as Job found out in that eponymous book.
Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: 2 “I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, 3 I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name. 4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, 4
I name you, though you do not know me. 5 I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, 6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. 7 I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.
8 “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit; let the earth cause them both to sprout; I the LORD have created it.
I included verse 8 because I thought it was beautiful and because it puts the whole Cyrus event into a context.
Thus says the Lord to Cyrus. God calls him the anointed one. That word in Hebrew is Messiah, the word which was later attached firmly to Jesus. Of course in the ancient world messiahs were all over the place. It simply meant someone who had oil poured on his head to mark him as set aside for an office. Was this a shocking for Isaiah to say about this pagan? Probably, but we have a hard time knowing just how shocked they were.
God’s people in exile for seventy years under the Babylonians were freed by a Persian king named Cyrus who thought the whole policy of relocating subjugated people was a bad one. When the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar proved himself inept, he assumed control in a relatively peaceful coup and was welcomed into the city of Babylon as a hero. One of his first actions is recorded in a famous document which let all the exiled peoples of the empire go home, including the Jews. You can see a picture and read a translation of the Cyrus proclamation (our copy is a little fragmentary) here: http://realhistoryww.com/world_history/ancient/Misc/Elam/Cyrus_del.htm
Cyrus’ declaration would create something of a crisis for the Jews at the time and several books of the Bible were written in response to it. You see, they were looking for another Moses. They wanted someone to come and smite the Babylonians with plagues, lead them across some large body of water like the Red Sea and provide them with manna in the wilderness again. But it did not happen that way. The Persians said they could go home and they rather had to hold a bake sale to raise funds for the trip. It wasn’t quite the plundering of the Egyptians and following a pillar of cloud and fire through the wilderness. Of course they had forgotten those parts in which the wrath of God vented on the Israelites under Moses and thousands died. They also seem to have forgotten about the whole 40 years of wandering. The generation that walked out of Egypt 5
did not actually walk into the Promised Land. But they probably thought that they would do better than their ancestors had done. They would surely not doubt. They would humbly eat the manna and drink the water from the rock without complaint. So when God showed up in a different way than they expected, no smiting of the Babylonians but rather letting the nasty Babylonians simply implode and fade into a sort of irrelevance, the first thing they did was doubt, complain, and question God’s tactics – just like their ancestors had done in the wilderness.
Isaiah foresees all this. They are looking for Moses and get a bureaucrat who actually gets something done. (Now, you should be aware that in scholarly circles this passage has created something of a stink. It has given many folks occasion to think that Isaiah, the historical man who lived in the 8th century, did not actually write this part of the book. After all, Cyrus did not come along for over 200 years. Of course, if you think that God actually can tell the future then much of this line of argumentation evaporates. It should also be noted, however, that this sort of prediction is very rare in the Bible, that a figure is named this far in advance, so perhaps the better argument can be made that this is out of character for God working through his prophets. Alas, such temperance is rarely seen among academics, especially the sort that study the sacred texts from a position of radical skepticism. Probably the best thing to say is that the people of God have not had a problem with this for the last 2500 years or so.)
Isaiah counters the disappointment of the people. God, the same God who is worked through Moses, also works through Cyrus. He works great miracles, but notice that the goal is the same. All this is for the sake of the people and the ultimate goal is the same. Moses led the slaves from Egypt so that all the nations would see this and fear the LORD. Likewise God’s great deed through Cyrus has the same goals: the good of God’s people and the salvation of all.
It should also be noted that pagan Cyrus is the instrument of God. Cyrus by no one’s estimation ever became an observant Jew. He paid for the Temple to be rebuilt, but he paid for lots of temples to be rebuilt. The idea was that they would pray for him. It was his way of covering his divine bases. He was no follower of the LORD, yet he is the chosen instrument of the Lord. God uses Cyrus, the prophet celebrates him. The verses which follow speak of the potter and the pot and the humility which is demanded of one who is created can apply in two ways here. Cyrus cannot get too big of a head, but at the same time, the people of God cannot get too strange about this either. Who are we to say whom God elects as his instrument? He might even use a crook like Nixon or a philander like Clinton to get something done. The mayor of my city a few years ago was openly gay and apparently ethically challenged. I may not like what he did sometimes, but that does not mean that he is not also, in some way, an instrument of God through governance. I don’t know why God does things this way. Sometimes I really wish he did not, but I am the clay, he is the potter.
Do we do this very thing in our own congregations? Do we think that the only way to revitalize our parishes is to bring young families into our congregation? But is God in fact bring a bubble of retiring baby-boomers to our communities. Here are folks who have spent much of their lives 6
proving to their parents that they are going to do it “their way” but now their parents are dead, they are retiring, their own bodies are failing them and they find their hearts empty. Is it time to think of them as a community of folks whom we need to evangelize far more intentionally? Should we really be so focused on young people? Is the real growth market actually in the old coots?
Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! 2 Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. 3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! 4 For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. 5 For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. 6 Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
7 Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength! 8 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts! 9 Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!
10 Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns! Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.”
11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 12 let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy 13 before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.
The preacher who is considering the OT text will want to read this psalm carefully. The people are enjoined to sing a new song. God is not going to do it like he did it long ago, this is a new 7
song, a new act of salvation. He is not ceding his primacy in this. The idols of the nations are worthless, and he is the only true God. But you have to ask why the psalmist is putting that in there. Is it because God is using someone like Cyrus, a pagan, a worshiper of those idols to accomplish new act? The glorious deeds of which we are to sing are said to take place among the peoples, the nations of the world.
It is the nations who are urged to ascribe to the Lord the glory due to his name. It is not only the nations but the oceans, fields, and trees of the forest get into the act. This is going way beyond what we might expect. Their praise and adoration are in response to the fact that God is coming to judge. That should stop us short. Praising God because he comes in judgment?
You will want to read the I Thessalonians text to get this one straight. Another way to think of this is that the hills and mountains, nature itself was called upon to bear witness against the people of Israel if they broke the covenant. Does God’s righteous salvation he works in the first verses relieve them of that odious task? Are they just glad to be off the hook?
In any event, it will be an occasion to rethink God’s judgment. The world is glad to be judged, the peoples are judged in equity and fairness and righteousness. Luther was terrified of that until he discovered the imputed righteousness of Romans. We will want to keep that in mind.
I Thessalonians 1:1-10
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. 9 For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
Are you thinking about avoiding today’s difficult gospel lesson and preaching Paul’s little letter to the Thessalonians? That might just be a good idea. The letter to the Thessalonians does not get enough attention from the pulpit and with all the apocalyptic rhetoric going around these days it might also be a very timely message. 8
If you are thinking of preaching this, start by doing a little careful reading. The whole book is quite short. We think it is likely the first letter that Paul wrote. Letters were always Paul’s third best choice when it came to dealing with congregations. He always preferred to go himself. If that was not possible, he usually sent someone who could speak on his behalf. If that was not possible, then he sent the letter. We learn from Acts that Paul had only spent about three weeks in Thessalonica before local Jewish elements started a riot and drove him out of town. He went to Berea from there. Acts says that the Bereans were of a more noble character and actually listened to Paul and compared what he said to the Bible. This must mean that they were Jewish or at least synagogue attending gentiles that they would even be able to compare his words. Unfortunately the same elements who chased him out of Thessalonica followed him to Berea and made life difficult for him. The Christians sent Paul on to Athens where he was to meet up with the rest of the party. As we was leaving Berea, Paul apparently sent Timothy back to Thessalonica to check up on the little church he had started there and which was facing pressure from the same elements that had chased him out of the area..
When Timothy arrived back in Athens he had very good news indeed. The Thessalonian church had not perished under the persecution of the Jews of Thessalonica but had in fact done rather well and was thriving. Paul was overjoyed! Timothy did relate, however, that they were having one problem, and that was with their understanding of the end of the world, their eschatology. You can imagine that in three weeks Paul did not have time to get to every subject in depth and to correct all misunderstandings. So, since he cannot go there, and since their questions seem to require his personal authority, he writes this letter to them.
He is effusive in his praise of them and in telling them how excited he is that they are even still there. This letter is marked by a great joy. That often gets missed in theological interpretation of the missive. What is also missed is the overarching point of the letter. If you are thinking of preaching this letter, I urge you to look into every chapter of the book and find the verses which deal with the end of the world and write them down and then look at them all together. This is not a book about making people afraid, quite the contrary, it is a book about encouraging people and giving them a great deal of hope. Here at the end of chapter 1, we get Paul’s first words about the end of the world:
You…wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.
Notice, Jesus, for whom we wait, delivers us from the wrath to come. The folks in Thessalonica were apparently a little confused about this whole end of the world thing and this was the essential point Paul wanted to make first. The end of the story is already set. Jesus comes to rescue us from God’s wrath, not deliver God’s wrath to us. The point of the whole Christian message is that he saves us from God’s anger.
Contrast that with the image most people today have of the end of the world and you will find that they are looking for the delivery of God’s wrath not the deliverance from God’s wrath. This continues to make this message a pertinent one for today. The preacher who takes up this task 9
will want to be sure to read ahead, Paul will explore this in some detail throughout the book. In every chapter of this short book, Paul says something about the end. He is building to the more sustained arguments he will make at the end of the book, but the first three chapters with their little bits about the end are really important for reading those larger pieces in chapters 4 and 5. I would, if I were preaching this letter over the next couple of weeks, simply cut and paste them in order out of Biblegateway and keep them before me. What is so interesting is that in each of them, Paul is reassuring his readers that at the end of time God acts on your behalf. Yes, there is some scary stuff in here, but that is not the main story. It is our current culture which has turned the end into a fearsome story. Paul was lowering the fear felt by his audience, not raising it. The Christian story says that the end of the world needs to be seen through the lens of Calvary and the empty tomb. The God who is coming back has holes in his hands and feet where he shed his blood for me and that changes everything.
Matthew 22:15-22 I have included the following section here. It shows up in the next Sunday’s readings, however, for many of us the next Sunday will be observed at Reformation Sunday and we will set these aside. Since next Sunday is actually a little easier, the preacher might just make use of the whole section or simply use next week’s reading.
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”
29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. 10
The Pharisees plotted how to entangle him with words. Isn’t that just the way of words? They have this power of entrapment. But what these crafty politicians of the first century did not bargain on was that they were up against the master of their own craft. Jesus in his prior teaching, especially the parables, demonstrated again and again that he was a genius with words. The Gospels again portray Jesus as the master of this situation.
They bring along the Herodians. We are actually not entirely certain who these people are because this is about the only place in the literature of the time in which they are mentioned, but you can imagine they are folks allied with Herod. The problem is that this all takes place in Jerusalem which has since the days of Jesus childhood been ruled by a Roman Governor. Herod’s other sons ruled in other places at the time, such as Philip the Tetrarch who ruled the Decapolis where Jesus fed the multitudes and Herod II in Galilee where Jesus had spent much of his ministry prior to this week. We also know that Herod II had John the Baptist beheaded, so perhaps this was a party of folks associated with him. It may also be a party of folks in Jerusalem who are seeking to oust the governor and replace him with a descendant of Herod. Probably the best guess is that the Pharisees were hoping Jesus would return to Galilee, Herod’s jurisdiction, after the feast and they were hoping to equip them with reason enough to arrest him once he got there. It is also possible that they were hoping that these Herodians might then go and speak to the Romans and seek Jesus’ arrest while he was here.
The flattery: Teacher we know that you speak the truth… You can almost hear the honey drip from their tongues. They are laying it on thickly because they have evil intent which must be covered. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” The various men who were named Herod certainly thought so, they were client kings of the Romans, sort of an administrative subcontractor. A client king ruled his little corner of the empire with what amounted to a franchise. He paid taxes to Caesar and Caesar provided for the national defense. Herod and his sons thought it was a pretty good deal, at least it let them get away with murder once in a while. The Romans were pretty tolerant of the misbehavior of these guys. Augustus once remarked that he would rather have been Herod the Great’s pig than his son, because Herod had just gone through a spate of killing off his sons whom he thought were eyeing the throne a little too aggressively. Being an Edomite king in a Jewish community, of course, he did not eat pork, hence the pigs were safe. Despite Augustus’ awareness of the issue and obvious disgust at Herod’s brutal methods, he never took any action against him. His son, Archelaeus, on the other hand, was a different story. His ineptitude was a serious threat to the collection of taxes. He was deposed and a governor put into his place. This question of taxes was serious business, a man could get himself killed, crucified, for the wrong answer to the taxation question.
Jesus perceives their malice. While as the incarnate second person of the Trinity, he has all knowledge, one does not have to resort to any sort of miraculous nature of Christ to account for this knowledge. It probably was pretty hard to miss. In truth, whenever someone starts buttering you up, you probably should have the deception radar on pretty hard. The warm handshake of 11
the salesman, the interest in your well-being, the compliments about the cut of your suit, may all be genuine or they may be simply a means to gain access to your wallet.
He calls them hypocrites. They are claiming to be the paragons of lawful virtue yet they are trying set up a situation in which he will die. That’s murder. They would simply kill him with the hand of Herod or the Romans, as indeed they will do. It was a little like Joseph’s brothers who sought his death at the hand of an Egyptian slave owner instead of bloodying their own hands. The Bible is pretty clear that they were guilty of his blood as much as Cain was guilty of Abel’s blood.
His answer is a marvel of the political art. It is a non-answer really. What does belong to Caesar? What does belong to God? Everything is God’s and yet the coin bears Caesar’s image. Depending on where you stand at the moment, you can answer this question either way. It is the perfect press briefing sort of answer.
So we have the politically charged, tension filled moment in which Jesus comes out on top of a pretty ugly heap. The Christian might understandably be wondering what Jesus is doing here. He should have simply said “go away” to these sorts of people, but he does not. He should have been above all this, but he answers the question, he participates in the sordid piece. Granted, he is not ensnared in their wicked little scheme, but he doesn’t give the answer. His answer to their question is really a non-answer. It is, to our shock, politically astute.
So what is the preacher to say about this? To ask the good Lutheran question, where are the Law and Gospel of this passage for the folks of 21st century America? As I write this the news is filled with talk exiting trade agreements, Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions, fires, and much more. What will happen to our pension funds? The Euro-zone and even China are stagnant economically speaking. The news program I saw some time ago wondered to whom will we sell all our iphones and ipads to when every American has one but no one else can afford one?
But these concerns are simply large scale expressions of things which are also happening on a micro-scale in the homes of your parishioners. On a microcosmic level your parishioners are going through divorces, getting sick, raising their children, having surgeries, remodeling their homes and trying to figure out how to pay their bills.
What does this passage really say to us? I am going to take a stab at that, but there are other ideas out there and I think we really need to focus on this come Tuesday.
It seems that we are too often tempted to put our hope in the things of this world. The Pharisees who confront Jesus in the streets of Jerusalem in this text thought that the answer to their problems would be in the removal of this troublesome preacher of Galilee. Their hypocrisy was not only to be found in their obvious conflict with the law they were sworn to uphold but also that they, as leaders of their faith-defined community, were looking for answers in all the wrong places, most notably, a political entity which was not God nor godly. 12
And yet, one cannot go too far in that line of thought. God has not called us to be utterly removed from the political processes of the world. We are in it, but not of it, said Jesus. He answers their question. He demonstrates a mastery of political speech. He is not removed from the realities of his day. Jesus does not pass through first century Palestine like some wraith, seen but not actually part of the landscape. He interacts with it. Most notably, in just a couple of days after this scene, he deliberately did not avoid the cross, a Roman execution.
This same Jesus, through you and me, is still part and parcel of this world over which he has twice asserted his ownership, once in creation and again in redeeming it. When Saul is confronted on the road to Damascus Jesus inquires why he is persecuting “me” as in Jesus. He does not sit out there and observe the persecution of his people but when they are imprisoned and harmed, Jesus feels every blow himself. It is his body suffering in them.
So, what does this mean? The Christian cannot, it seems, argue that he or she is above the political fray. This should not be couched as their ‘worldly’ over against our ‘spiritual’ concerns. Jesus shed real and red blood for the sins of the whole world. He died for all the sick, the hurting, the scoundrels and the saints. The political processes which are the world’s attempts to deal with some of the real problems visited upon us by the fall are both necessary and occasionally helpful. It was a victory for everyone when the polio vaccine removed that scourge from the lives of many children all over the world. Likewise the care of the poor, the execution of justice, the making of just laws, the protection of the vulnerable are concerns of the whole population, including Christians.
So it is perfectly alright to take a position which appears to offer the greatest chance for success. What is more, it perfectly alright for a Christian to disagree with another Christian about how to achieve those Godly goals. Christians can be either a Democrat or a Republican and still be Christian. We cannot say that one party or one approach is the only viable approach. Of course there are limits to this too. It would seem that some parties are so egregiously in error that one should not support them in any event. One thinks historically of the National Socialists of Hitler’s Germany. But the fact of it is, no process and no party will be perfect. To a certain extent we will always have to hold our nose as we engage in the political process. The Christian approaches this from a very interesting position. Because our answer is ultimately found in Christ, no political, medical, charitable, or other solution to a problem is ever final. Thus, I can campaign for a candidate as a Christian because I believe that this candidate is the best choice of the options out there. But I always have to maintain something of a detachment from the candidate. I may think that he or she is the best choice out there, but ultimately I know that the real answer is found in a first century Palestinian Jew named Jesus. This candidate may indeed help feed the poor but he is not the solution to what ails the poor. I think that the detachment here parallels the detachment which Christians can more readily see in their approach to medicine. The treatment which addresses my heart disease or my cancer may indeed “cure” me of this problem, in the best of scenarios, but it will not give me eternal life. If the cancer doesn’t get me, a stroke or stepping in front of a city bus will. Doctors eventually lose all their patients. 13
Politicians, doctors, everything except Jesus must always be for the Christian a temporary solution to the problems of the world. The eternal solution is God’s to give.
For the folks at Matthew’s time, the people to whom he was writing, this was important to hear. They had elected not to participate in a rebellion against these very Romans. As a result, some scholars think, the rebellion failed. In 68-70 AD Roman legions led by soon-to-be-emperor Vespasian crushed the revolt, burned down the temple, and brutally enforced Roman rule in Palestine. The Jewish population turned on their Christian Jewish friends and relatives with fury. They were the reason the rebellion failed, they were the ones who had caused the temple to be burned to the ground. It was their fault.
Matthew seems to portray all those forces, the Pharisees who were speaking against them, the Herodians who were long gone in the same voice. They were but part of a political reality which had passed away. Jesus, who was master of that situation and this situation, has remained. He is engaged in it, with it, through it. Pharisees will come and go, political parties will rise and fall, but this Jesus who died and rose again is over them all and yet works through the things of this world. He cares what has happened to them, he has died for these things. He also is working through the things of this world to make some things better for them. The final solution, however, is not to be found in the death of their enemies or the triumph of one political party over another, it is found in Jesus and in Him alone.
In Jesus day the spiritual and temporal realms are not distinguished. What is it that you would give to Caesar that is not God’s to begin with? All comes from God so ultimately it all belongs to God. We know a different world in which the idea of private or secular is set against a religious world. Jesus does not speak in a world in which there is a compartmentalization of life. God permeates everything.
It is important to remember that this question is not recorded for us to answer the question of whether we should pay taxes or participate in government. Jesus is in a conflicted situation, a situation in which people are trying to kill him. This answer should not be read as a normative or all-inclusive command for the living of life. This fits into the fact that in a couple or three days after he says it, these guys are going to have Jesus hanging on a cross, and he will plead with God for the forgiveness of their sin.
1. The world constantly offers us opportunities to think that it has solutions to my problems. Or at least it suggests that it has the best or the only solution. It may say that it cannot solve the problem, but it is the best option out there. I can vote for a candidate who promises to solve the problems of the economy or feed all the poor.
2. That letter on your desk you haven’t opened yet says that your pension has put all your retirement funds into Greek banks for safekeeping. ☺
3. The last weeks have been brutal for expectations. My retirement will not be guaranteed by my stock portfolio. The institutions which I thought were so solid have sometimes evaporated overnight. The politicians promise the world. But we know they cannot deliver.
4. And yet, I continue to grasp for solutions which enable me to retain a measure of self-control. I want to run this show, sometimes despite the evidence that I have made a total mess of it. The idea that my whole being belongs to God is repugnant to the old man and he resists it with all strength.
5. We know that the solutions are failures because the problems are so deeply entrenched. We will always have the poor with us, at least this side of the second coming.
6. And so our life is complex. The Bible is not going to tell me who to vote for. Nobody has the final answer, only a wide array of temporary and insufficient solutions. They will feed some of the poor, but I don’t how many of them, and I don’t know which one of them will do the best. I have to use my head, I run the risk of being wrong, and I know that it will only be a partial solution at best.
7. Meanwhile the problems don’t get any simpler. Whether you are talking about the debt crisis, the housing bubble, the recession, or anything else.
1. God does offer a one size fits all solution to the problems of the world. On a hill outside of Jerusalem he gave his Son so that he might dry every tear and right every wrong.
2. Jesus engages in the problems of the first century and this century. While we must wait with Paul and the Thessalonians for the day when we will see the rescue which Jesus has won for us, we also know that through Paul he continued to heal people, through men like Cyrus he set people genuinely free. Through terrible events like the Civil War slaves were freed in this country and in the advances of medicine untold suffering is alleviated.
3. Thus today Christians can be found doing kingdom work as governors and lawmakers, they can be found in laboratories and classrooms, businesses and homeless shelters too. Jesus presides over them all. He died for every part of this world and every part of it now presents an opportunity for his kingdom work to be done, even if it is in small part and only dimly seen. He promises us that he notices when a thirsty child gets a drink of water. He is not above that.
4. As we come to political decisions, though decisions may sometimes be difficult to make, we also have the confidence that our real king and his real kingdom will stand no matter who wins this election, no matter who governs. And while we can vigorously support one idea or another, one candidate or another, it is always with the confidence that the one who died for this world loves it still, works in it still, and all will eventually come to the blessing of his people and that the many will know, fear, and love his name.
5. The problems we face, though they are many and complex, never best him. He remains the master of every situation. Fortunes are made and lost, elections happen, scoundrels may get rich, and an honest man may lose his shirt, but that is never because he has his mastery of this situation. His governance may at times perplex us, but we can rest assured that this whole world rests in his perforated hands.
6. Jesus’ words that what belongs to God should be given to God also contain a marvelous bit of Gospel. For in my baptism God made an ownership claim over me. I am his child, that means my problems are his problems too, my whole life is his, the good, the not so good, and the downright ugly. That means that the solutions to the things that trouble me, the worries which keep me awake at night, the pains which perplex the doctors, they are all in his hands. It all belongs to him.
1. Jesus the Master of the Situation (Gospel – That the hearer would rejoice and take comfort in the mastery of Jesus over this world.)
This sermon is really about the fact that the complexities of this world have never outgrown our Savior and his understanding or power. We will find the Gospel in the fact that the powerbrokers and bad guys tried to trick Jesus today, but he saw right through them. His trip to a cross is not the result of their chicanery, but his deliberate will to save all humanity.
When we confess that he has ascended into heaven and sits on God’s right hand we mean that he has all the power and from that vantage has a much clearer picture of what is going on than we ever do. But the height of his throne is not a distance from these problems either. He engages the politicians of his day in the arguments; he has over the past three weeks made desperate pleas for them to repent. From the cross he will pray for their forgiveness. He has fed the hungry, healed the sick, and befriended the lonely. We look with eager joy to the day when he will dry every tear but also beseech him this day for some of those short term, temporary measures. Through the very processes which once took his life, politics and justice and the knowledge of medicine, we look for his help today. The Christian never can be utterly cynical about the future, after all, Jesus has that in his hands too. We always have a hope, no situation is ever beyond his ability to work a miracle and often it is in the darkest of days that his light ends up shining the brightest. Will the current elections, economic turmoil or wars bring some great blessing? I do not know exactly what it means, but I know that wise Christians will keep their eyes open. Jesus is the master of this situation and he loves to bless.
The devil thought he won on the day that Jesus went to the cross and died, but Jesus was master on that day too. He conquered sin, death, and devil when he wore the crown of thorns and hung, suspended between heaven and earth. 16
2. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. (Gospel: That the Spirit of God would through these words assert Jesus’ ownership of the hearer, an ownership which he established in saving the hearer.)
This is a sermon about vocation. The payment of taxes for the Christian is not in competition with service rendered to God. It is not like we have to choose between serving God and paying taxes, because the paying of taxes is also, for the Christian, a service rendered to God. See Romans 13 for some support there.
The NT and subsequently Luther uses the idea of kingdoms or realms in two ways and it may be helpful to keep them straight. In one sense, God talks about the kingdom of Jesus opposed to the kingdom of Satan. Jesus is wrenching people out from under Satan’s dominion and bringing them into his kingdom of light.
But that kingdom of light also finds expression in two kingdoms. A kingdom of the right which operates in grace and authority. We encounter this kingdom every time we are forgiven. God authoritatively acts through that baptized and perhaps ordained human being to forgive my sins. There are many ways he does this.
The kingdom of the left is authority and power. This is the state, this is parents, this is all sorts of things. This too is God acting for the benefit of his people. He establishes a civil order, he curbs gross evil, etc., so the kingdom of the right with its gracious authority can operate.
When we talk about vocation now, we are really saying that both kingdoms are occasions for God’s loving care for people to be expressed. To say that the kingdom of the left is opposed to the kingdom of the right is not really accurate. They are both of God. Hence to pay taxes is not to be put into some opposition to paying an offering or serving God as husband and father, child, and employee, etc.
Evangelical Christianity often talks about vocation as duty and responsibility. Luther talks about it as a gift. God has redeemed my life so I may serve God by paying my taxes (second article of the Creed’s explanation). It is not a duty as much as it is a recasting of my life. It is all serving God now, even when I write that dreaded check to the Infernal Revenue Service. Jesus has redeemed the whole of my life, now all of it is lived in relationship to him.
The title sounds like so much more command for me to obey and is indeed an expression of law, but that is not the only way to read that. It is true, God does make a claim on my life and the old sinner within me resists and rebels at the very thought that God would exercise his rule over every aspect of my being. But God’s claim over me first finds its expression in the cross where he takes my sin and my death, all the nasty stuff of my life, to himself. That means He owns it. He does not express his ownership by taking from me my best and most precious, but by taking my worst, my most painful, my most troubling. Giving to God what he owns in light of the cross first and foremost means giving him my 17
sins, my death, my fears, my pain, my sorrow of every sort. Yes, it means that he exercises a real rule in my life, but it is a rule which flows out of his grace and love to my every blessing. The old man should be afraid of this rule for it means his final death, but the new man, the man God caused to rise up from the waters of baptism, the man whom he feeds at this altar, the man who waits with eager expectation to see Jesus on that last day, that man of new life, loves the rule of God. He confesses with the psalmist that he loves the law of God. Giving God his own starts with letting him handle all the worst things in my life.
The interesting conclusion of all this is, that having taken all the garbage of my life, the whole of my life can become a service rendered to God. When I pay my taxes, buy my groceries, mow my lawn, or weed my flowers, I can say that all those things also belong to God. By being a good citizen, a good father, a good husband, and neighbor, I am also serving God. He has bought the whole package, not just the good parts, not just the moments in prayer, not the Sunday mornings, but the whole week, the whole person, the whole of me.
This sermon also shoots down the idea that I take care of myself first and if there is anything left over, I give that to God, if I happen to have a few dollars in my wallet when I get to church. It also renders the whole time issue differently. The members of the community who have learned that giving first may well have a lesson to give the rest of us.
3. Cyrus? Are you Kidding? (OT – That the Spirit of God would instill the humility and faith in the hearer which stands in awe before God and his peculiar choices.)
This sermon wants to really work on the idea that Cyrus was such a strange choice to be Israel’s deliverer. He was a pagan, a Persian king, he did not ever call upon the Name of God, yet, he is God’s instrument. God is not bound by our faith, but he loves his whole creation.
This creates some tension for the believer who wants God to be inside a box of acceptability and decency. The comments in the following verses about the pot questioning the potter seems to be the children of Israel questioning God’s choice of Cyrus. Peter discovered that Jesus was headed to a cross, the ancient Israelites found out that God can use a pagan king, what will we see around us?
We talked about how we often tell God what sort of a solution he ought to provide to our problems. Do we sometimes ask God for help, when it is sitting right in front of us? Do we demand a solution other than the sacraments? Do we look for deliverance when we have already been saved?
There is a great old joke about a guy whose home was being flooded. He prayed and was convicted that God would save him. Soon a boat comes, but he waves it off with the 18
words “No, God will save me.” Another boat comes. Same thing. Finally, from his roof top he waves off a National Guard helicopter with the same words.
Of course, he dies when the house is swept away. At heaven’s gate he demands to know why he died. God had promised to save him. God responded “I sent two boats and a helicopter! What were you expecting?”
Do we do that to God? In fact has God provided grace and mercy and help all around us but we are looking for something else? Do we need him to open our eyes? Yes, of course we do. The preacher proclaims to day the God who opened the eyes of the ancient Israelites to see His hand at work through Cyrus, and who is opening our eyes today to see that the strange God who ascended to a cross to save the world is still at work, realizing his strange upside down kingdom in our midst.
4. We wait for Jesus (Epistle – that the hearer would eagerly and joyful wait for Christ, who has come to save him, and will come to save him.)
There are two sorts of waiting we want to contrast here. There is the waiting with dread. We experience this sort of waiting as the day of surgery approaches, as a test of some sort, a day when something will happen and we fear it. Time seems to contract in those moments, the terrible thing is hurtling at us, and we are helpless before times inexorable march.
But there is another waiting. We first encountered this as children awaiting Christmas or a birthday party. We could not wait for summer vacation or the trip to Disney Land our parents had planned.
As adults our waiting has often been mixed. A bride might await her wedding day with both joyful anticipation and dread. Those two emotions are not mutually exclusive. One man may eagerly await his retirement, another might have circled that date on the calendar with a red marker and counts it as the day of his death. (I am reminded of the movie “About Schmidt” as he is sitting in his office waiting for the minute hand to hit 5 PM on his last day of work.)
Paul wants to couch our waiting for the Lord in no uncertain terms. Our culture tells us that the end of the world is an event to be feared. Consider the various versions of this which occupy our films. Aliens descend, the climate explodes, disease ravages. It is the end of all things: death, destruction, mayhem, and more. The survivors, if there are any, will lead miserable lives of deprivation and suffering, at least in the movies.
It was much the same way in Paul’s day. People imagined that God had this vast reservoir of wrath stored up. This was not just the Jews. The pagans also seem to have envisioned a terrible divine wrath poured out upon the world when the very foundations of the earth would be shaken and the world as we know it would end. 19
But we will focus on Paul’s final words of this first chapter. Jesus comes to save us from the wrath to come. Paul does not deny that God has wrath or that it is poured out upon a sinful and broken creation in the last day. There is justice. But Jesus comes to save us from that reality. Jesus role on the last day is your rescue!
The Christina therefore is enjoined to joyful waiting. It is more the bride looking forward to her wedding day, it is the man who anticipates his retirement, looking forward to doing the things his work has prevented him from doing. Paul wants us to think about the end of all things and to rejoice!
The world tells us to fear and many do. Too many inside the Church, TV preachers included, have bought that line. They know that fearful people are more easily manipulated, I suppose. God’s good news is that Jesus has already died and risen, answering the most important end of the story question we might have. We know that the story does not end as the world envisions, but it only begins that day. As Paul will later say in this letter, it is the birth pangs, the labor, which delivers us to life.