Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy Jerusalem (Oct 16, 2011)

Homily:  Yr A Proper 29, October 16 2011, St. Albans
Readings:  Ex 33:12-23; Ps 99; 1 Thess 1:1-10; Mt 22:15-22

Occupy Jerusalem

Anyone have a coin?  Come on up here for a second.

(hold up coin)  Can anyone tell me whose image is this?  (Answer:  Queen Elizabeth)  That’s right, it’s the Queen, the head of state, our Caesar if you like, at least symbolically.

Now, can anyone tell me whose image is this?  (gesturing to Jill, who is standing beside me)

Not sure whose image this is?  Let me read to you from the book of Genesis:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”  So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.’

Jill is God’s image.  You are God’s image and you and you.  Each of us.

Caesar’s image (holding up coin).  God’s image (gesturing to Jill).

Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s.”

It is one of Jesus’ most memorable lines.  “Return to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and return to God what is God’s”.  But what does it mean?  Yesterday hundreds of people met in Confederation Park to launch Occupy Ottawa.  They too were wrestling with what it means to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to give to God what is God’s”.

At one level this is about money.  After all, Jesus’ words are spoken in response to a question about taxes.  But if we dig a little deeper we’ll find out that there is much more to this than just finances.

The exchange in today’s gospel is set in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The previous day, Jesus had occupied the Temple.  He drove out the buyers and the sellers, he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and he declared “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.”  This was the last straw for the religious authorities.  From that point on they are actively seeking a way to arrest Jesus.  So today’s exchange between Jesus and the authorities about taxes and money has to be understood in the context of what happened the day before.

When Jesus said “My house shall be called a house of prayer” he was quoting the 56th chapter of the Book of Isaiah.  If you read that chapter, you will see that the LORD through his prophet Isaiah is calling for people to maintain justice and do what is right.  He is calling for the inclusion of all peoples, including foreigners, including those who have been marginalized and oppressed, he’s calling for all to be included in God’s house of prayer.  It is a radical call for justice and inclusivity.

When Jesus then says “but you have made it a den of robbers” he is quoting the 7th chapter of Jeremiah.  Again, if you were to turn to that text, you will find that it is a call for repentance, a call for the people to amend their ways and return to God.  It is a call to end the oppression of the widow, the orphan and the outcast. I is a call to return to acting justly, for this is what God requires of those who seek to worship in his Temple.

And so the whole system of money changing in the temple that Jesus reacts against in anger is symbolic of the oppression of the powerless, the exclusion of the marginalized and the wrongheaded priorities of those who think they are worshipping and offering prayer to God, but in reality are making God angry because of their complicity in systemic injustice.  To restore the Temple as a house of prayer, the people will have to return to God by acting to restore justice and end oppression.

This is why Jesus occupied the Temple.  This is the context in which the Pharisees try to trap Jesus by asking him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not.  They challenge him with the number one political and economic question of the day.  The Jewish people bitterly resented the tax imposed on them by the Roman empire.  If Jesus answered in favour of the tax, many of them would turn against him.  But if he publically opposed the tax, he risked arrest by the Roman authorities for inciting rebellion. 

How does he respond?  First, he reveals his accusers for what they are, that is hypocrites.  They’re not interested in his response; they’re only trying to entrap him.  Then, he asks to see the coin that is used to pay the tax.

Now, we need a bit of background about coins here.  In Jesus time, there were two types of coins.  There were copper coins worth a few cents that were issued locally and used by the common people, and there were silver coins that were worth a day’s wages and were issued by the Roman Empire.  The Roman coins were resented by the Jewish people for multiple reasons.  They were resented  first of all because they were a symbol of oppression.  But even more so, they were resented because they were a violation the God’s Law, the Torah:  they had a graven image of Caesar on them, violating the second of the ten commandments, and the inscription on them referred to Caesar as divine, as the ‘Son of God’, in violation of the first commandment.  To an observant Jew, it was repugnant for these silver coins that violated God’s law to be brought into the Temple.

But we are in the Temple, and when Jesus asks to see the silver coin that’s used to pay the tax, guess who produces it?  It’s his accusers who produce the offensive coin with the head of the emperor engraved on it.  By that simple gesture, by producing the coin, Jesus’ accusers unwittingly confirm that they are the ones who are complicit in the system of money changing, that symbol of oppression and exclusion and wrongheaded priorities. 

If this had been a debate, Jesus would have won the moment that coin was produced.  He didn’t have to go on to answer the question, his accusers had already been exposed.  But he does answer the question.  He chooses to engage in the hottest political topic of the day.  And his answer takes on new meaning for us:

“Return to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”

Return to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.  Take that coin that is an affront to God’s Law and get it out of the Temple area.  Give up your wrongheaded priorities, end your complicity in this system of injustice.  Stop exploiting the poor, stop marginalizing the outcasts with your laws and your sale of sacrificial animals for profit.  All this needs to be returned, given up. 

And all you who listen, repent and return to God.   You were made in God’s image not Caesar’s.  You belong to God, you and all that you are and all that you possess.  So strive for justice, do what is right.  Stand up for the poor and the powerless and end their oppression.  Stop excluding people, stand up for inclusion, work for the good of all people, especially those who are marginalized in our society.  For it is by doing these things that you offer prayer and worship to God, and our community becomes a house of prayer rather than a den of robbers.

Return to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.  And return to God the things that are of God.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.

Some people have tried to make this saying into a justification for the separation of church and state, the sacred and the secular, but that would be a misinterpretation.

Jesus is inviting us – no, actually, he is demanding - that we should be thinking always and vigorously about how all our decisions – what we buy, how we vote, how we use our time – how are all of these decisions shaped by our faith that the whole world is God’s and that we, and all people are made in God’s image.

How does that play out in our lives?  Does your faith inform your economic decisions?  Does the gospel shape your priorities, does it shape how you spend your time, how you voted in the election two weeks ago?

Jesus engaged with the number one political question of his day.  Right now the number one political question of our day, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, and now the Occupy Ottawa movement, seems to be this:  “Is it just that a small minority of the population benefits from a disproportionate amount of income, wealth and power.”  Is it just that 1% of the population controls, in the case of the US, 35%, of all wealth?  Here in Canada, is it just that 1% of the Canadian population receives 14% of all income, double what it was a generation ago?  And globally, is it just that the richest 10% of the world’s population, which includes most Canadians, controls 85% of global assets.  And if these things are not just, what are we going to do about it?

Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s”.

To be honest, I’m not sure that I know what that means in our current context.  I think that Jesus is calling us to repentance, to act justly, to end oppression, to reach out to those at the margins. 

What do you think?  What does it mean for us today to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to give to God what is God’s?


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