Tough Questions

First United Methodist Church — Omaha
Rev. Dr. Jane Florence
October 22, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22
Sermon: “Tough Questions”

Don’t you hate it when you are asked a trick question? Like, “do these pants make me look fat?” Chances are if you are being asked that question, there is no right answer. Either you lie and say, “No,” and you are called out for being a “Liar!” or you speak the truth and say, “Yes.” Trust me, that’s not going to end well either. Sometimes, there is just no good answer.

The religious leaders are asking Jesus, “should we pay the Roman taxes?” At least that appears to be the question, but of course, there’s more here than that. The question was a trick, a trap The question comes in Matthew’s story after Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. He enters the city knowing the religious leaders are there and trying to kill him. After Jesus reclaims the Temple and reminds them it is a House of Prayer, he throws out the vendors taking advantage of poor. The question comes when he spends his last week teaching and arguing with authorities. He denounces the religious leaders who are trying to have him killed by telling parables packed with jabs at his opponents.

His opponents are trained in rhetoric, scriptures, and argumentation. They have devised a great trap. Will he fall into it? He’s given a choice: pay taxes or not? To pay the tax is to name Cesar as divine; that’s what it says on the coins. That’s a bad answer to give the Jewish priests who teach only worship the One God of Israel. To not pay the tax is sedition, which is another bad answer to the foreign occupying power Roman army. Caught between two bad options that raises a conflict of principles between government requirements and religious devotion to God, which will Jesus pick?

What do we do when torn between our government and our principles of faith? When the our government advocates use of torture by our military forces, or diminishment of women’s reproductive rights, or preemptive war strategy, or reducing aid to poor, elderly, mentally ill or disabled when that conflicts with our religious tenets?

Rather than getting tricked by choosing one bad option over the other: Jesus poses a counter question and maneuvers into a Third Way.

Mathew writes in his gospel:
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’
When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Give to the Emperor what is due to the Emperor but give to God, what is God’s. They had no reply to this because Jewish teaching is clear about what belongs to God: everything. What does not belong to Caesar? Our conscience, our worship, our principles and values, our care for creation and one another. Patriotism and nationalism do not supersede our devotion to God.

They would like to make this a dualism with God and Caesar equally demanding, but Jesus is overturning their dualism. God and Caesar’s demands are not equal. It’s not a question of God or the Emperor. Everything belongs to God, so what we give to the emperor can and must be an expression of our deeper allegiance to God, God’s ways always. Jesus isn’t allowing division of the world in two separate spheres that don’t overlap. We like to think dualistically. Our country talks about separation of church and state. However, we are not called to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God,” on Sunday only then rape, pillage and plunder the earth and our neighbors the rest of the week.

If we are God’s beloved (and I believe we are), and if all are God’s beloved (and I believe that’s so), then we are God’s 24/7, 365, all the years of our lives. This conversation is deeper than the coins in our pocket or the boxes on our 1040 tax return. It’ how we live in all things. Jesus doesn’t give us easy answer. He tells us to work it out, wrestle with it. But, he does give us standards to help us in working it out. In the stories of his life, we find the plumb line used to help us make the difficult decisions; it is a plumb line of Compassion. That marker is Love. Love must be the utmost standard against which our choices are measured.

The Jewish law said, Jewish men don’t talk to women in public. How many times did Jesus disobey that law? He broke it by talking to the woman at the well (who was also Samaritan which was a double violation.) He broke it by talking to the bent over woman and the hemorrhaging woman (another double violation). When the “woman of ill repute” anointed his head, he affirmed her as an example to the men present who objected.

The Jewish law said, no work on the Sabbath. Yet, he healed the man with the withered hand, and he plucked grain to eat on the Sabbath.

The Jewish law said, don’t touch the unclean, the diseased, or the dead. Jesus placed his hands on leprous skin, ailing bodies, and the dead corpse. Jesus always chose compassion over and against the religious laws.

So the Pharisees ramp it up. Jesus is clearly willing to disobey their religious laws, is he also willing to disobey the Roman law? Because the penalties for that are a matter of life and death.

We learn from Jesus when facing law that opposes values: choose Compassion as the ultimate law. Still that’s not always easy. The truth is that Christians of good faith can disagree on the best way to live into God’s way of Compassionate Love. Today those who believe they are following Jesus who differ widely on how to Love. Some understand that choosing Compassion means Pro-life only while others find compassion extends for the mother during difficult circumstances as well. Some understand that choosing Compassion means tax cuts for small business owners while others find compassion in tax dollars that feed the poor, provide for disabled, and heal the diseased. Some understand compassion means lessening fears by building a wall; others prefer to build relationships to ease fears of Others.

Maybe choosing love means listening to those with whom we disagree and opening our hearts and minds to try to understand our opponents. Choosing love means wrestling with the hard questions and remaining aware of places government and values collide then do what you have to: take a knee, take a stand, march in protest, write. All the while realizing that others are doing what they have to also in their own way.

Let all our actions be done in kindness not anger, in peace not anxiety, in desire for good not revenge or destruction of others. Choosing love means following Jesus, as best you can to let God’s love be shown. It means risking the hostile stare from those who don’t see love your way. It means using your faith to reshape the world all around us, and it means daring to live boldly in God’s Compassion .

May it be so.