Friday, October 17, 2014

Divided Loyalties (Oct 19 2014)

Homily.  Yr A P29.  Oct 19 2014. St. Albans
Ex 33.12-23; Ps 99; 1 Thess 1.1-10; Mt 22.15-22

We’re pretty good at giving the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s.  We stand when the national anthem is played.  We support our troops when they go to war.  We turn our noise down at 11pm, or if we don’t and we get caught, we pay the fines.  We license our cars.  We pay our taxes – in fact, not only do we pay our taxes but we spend a considerable amount of time and money collecting receipts and filing our tax returns every year.  We may resent these things, or disagree with the politics, or maybe we only do them because we feel we have no choice, but whatever the reason, overall, we’re pretty good at giving the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s.

How good are we at giving God the things that are God’s?

Now some might argue that the reason we respond well to the Emperor’s demands is that the Empire is pretty good at making clear to us what we have to do.  The problem, perhaps, is that maybe we don’t know what God requires of us?

Except that it’s pretty clear what God requires of us.

The prophet Micah in response to that very question puts it quite simply:  “The Lord has told you what is good and what the Lord requires of you:  to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”

When Jesus was asked what God requires of us, he too gave a clear answer:  “Love the Lord with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

And just in case we still have doubts, Jesus was even more specific:  Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, take care of the sick and visit those in prison.

We know the things that God requires of us.  And sometimes, there doesn’t appear to be any conflict with the demands of the Empire.

But there is a conflict going on in today’s gospel, a conflict that is a matter of life and death.  The day before the scene in the gospel reading we just heard, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and was acclaimed by the crowds as Messiah and King.  He then went straight to the heart of Jerusalem, entered the Temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling, overturning the tables of the money changers.  The following day he had the chutzpah to return again to the Temple, and when he was confronted by the religious authorities, he proceeded to tell a series of stories each of which directly challenged the authority of the chief priests and religious leaders and turned the crowds against them.  The leaders were both angry and afraid:  angry enough to want to arrest Jesus and put him to death, but afraid of the crowds who sided with Jesus.

Conflicts occur when something important is at stake.  When loyalties are divided. When values that are important to us are threatened.  What’s at stake in the conflict which is at the heart of today’s gospel?

We know what was at stake for the Emperor.  History teaches us that the Roman Empire valued two things in an occupied province:  stability and tax revenue.  Jesus was a threat to both of these imperial values.  His temple action had disrupted the collection of taxes, and the crowds that acclaimed him as king could easily turn to riot and rebellion.

But what was at stake for the Jewish authorities, the Chief Priests and Elders, the Pharisees and the Herodians?  They weren’t Romans, they were Jews, and maintaining the religious and cultural identity of the Jewish people even in the midst of the Roman occupation was their priority.  They wanted the people to follow God’s Law, they wanted to preserve Temple worship.  But in order for them to do these things, they had to deal with the empire.  In fact, they only stayed in their positions of leadership and authority by permission of the empire, and that meant that they had to buy in to the empire’s values of stability and taxation, even if that made them complicit in the economic and political oppression of their own people.  Even if that meant that they would have to put to death an upstart preacher from Galilee who was too unsophisticated to understand their delicate situation with the Roman authorities.

And you know what?  I’m in no position to stand in judgement over those religious leaders.  I’ve been in situations where I’ve compromised my values in order to try to make the best of a difficult situation.  They were trying to protect their people from the very real threat of a confrontation with the Roman army that would lead to death and destruction.  Sure, maybe they were also trying to protect their own positions of privilege, but we all do that don’t we?

But that sort of divided loyalty wasn’t good enough for Jesus.  For him something else was at stake, something important enough to put his own life at risk by his words and actions in the Temple.

Let’s go back to the previous day.  When Jesus enters the Temple, he says “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”

With those words, Jesus quotes 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. It is a call to return to acting justly, for this is what God requires of those who seek to worship in his Temple.

These are the things that matter to Jesus.  They ask about taxes.  Jesus asks to see a coin.  It is a Roman coin.  In whose image is the coin made, Jesus asks.  The emperor’s, they respond.  “Then give to the emperor what is the emperor’s”.  Is it an instruction to pay the tax?  Or is it a call to take that coin, that Roman symbol of oppression, and to get it out of the Temple area.  The coin is made in the image of the emperor.

But you, in whose image are you made?  You are made in God’s image.  God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them.  The coin may belong to the Emperor, but you belong to God.  And so does the person sitting on your left and on your right.

So give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s; but give to God the things that are God’s.

Some people have tried to make this saying into a justification for the separation of church and state, or the sacred and the secular, or a way of categorizing our actions or dividing our loyalties.

But for Jesus there is no divided loyalty.  He is demanding that we should be focused always and at all times about how our decisions and actions – how we use our money, how we use our time, how we treat others, how we set our priorities – how all these must be shaped by our faith that the whole world and all that is in it is God’s and that we, and all people are made in God’s image.

We’re pretty good at giving the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s. 

How well do we give God the things that are God’s?


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