Proper 26 A
So, we have a familiar story as our Gospel reading this morning – the one about calling “no man father.” It’s the reading that makes all Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican priests extremely uncomfortable since we have historically taught our people to call us “Father!”
I will spare you the tiresome sermon (examples of which I have preached on numerous occasions myself) about why it’s really OK to call your priest Father – just as we call rabbis “rabbi” and teachers “teacher.” Instead, I want to explain why Jesus said what he did about titles and honorifics like “rabbi,” and “teacher” and “father” and why this reading is so important and, far from being extraneous to his message, is actually a central part of it!
If I asked you to list some of the essential components of Jesus’ message, you would rightly list such things as the fact that sinners and outcasts are welcomed into God’s kingdom and that indeed God has a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized among us; that the kingdom of God is not something just to hope for in the future, but is a present reality now (the kingdom of God is among you!);
(T)hat God forgives us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us; that Old Testament ceremonial laws like Sabbath observances and kosher food laws no longer apply to Christians; and that the Temple and animal sacrifices and a Levitical priesthood have been replaced by Jesus himself and his own sacrifice.
And, as I say, you’d be right about those things. One thing you might not mention – and which is directly related to some of the things we did list – is that Jesus taught that our relationship with God is “un-brokered” and that our access to God is direct without any need for human intermediaries. What do I mean by that?
Well, the history of religions – and specifically the Judeo-Christian religions we are most familiar with – shows that human beings have always felt kind of ‘unworthy’ to approach God directly and so have relied on the mediation and intercession of particularly “holy people” to plead their cause in the presence of God. They have been called rabbis, and teachers, and priests!
From Moses standing in the breach and asking God to have mercy on his people; to Joshua taking on that role in our First Lesson today; to the mostly-unsatisfactory kings who ruled over Israel from Saul and David on down the line; to prophets who conveyed God’s word to the people and interceded for the people to God; to the long-expected Messiah; to St. Paul who told the Corinthian Christians that he had “become” their father through the Gospel; to the bishops, elders and deacons we see developing in the New Testament and which have come down to us through the centuries. And to “the saints” who we honor this weekend by celebrating the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. All these have come to be seen as intercessors and intermediaries between us unholy types and the All Holy God!
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having leaders. Every community raises up and celebrates its leaders – whether military, political, or religious. And there is nothing wrong with having exemplars – worthy examples of what it means to be all that we can be. Certainly nothing wrong with religious communities acknowledging its own heroes and heroines and even designating some of them as “Saints.”
But as soon as we begin to make the mistake of thinking that we need such figures to stand between us and God – to plead our cause before God and be the sole interpreters of the Word to us, we begin to be in error. We begin to have a “brokered” relationship with God rather than the “un-brokered” one which Jesus taught and exemplified.
The “cult of the saints” has been so misused in our history. First, we have spoken of Jesus as “our only Mediator and Advocate” before God. Then, as Jesus gets more and more exalted, Christians began to feel unworthy to call directly on him so we began to ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede with her Son on our behalf. I have even seen prayers which invoke another Saint to speak to Mary so that she might, in turn, speak to Jesus for us who will plead our cause to the Father!
Even the Sacrament of Confession has been misinterpreted as “confessing your sins to a priest” (the intermediary) when Anglicans have always been clear that we can confess our sins directly to God in prayer and in the Liturgy and, even when we use the Sacrament of Confession, that we are not confessing our sins to a priest, but confessing our sins to God in the presence of a priest, who is there for counsel and direction as well as pronouncing Absolution.
So even as we sing our hymn “For all the saints, who from their labors rest” this morning, let’s remember that those saints were women and men just like us. Yes, they loved their God and accomplished great deeds on God’s behalf. But they were also flawed human beings just like ourselves who relied on the grace and compassion of God every bit as much as we do.
And let us never think that we need anyone – prophet or saint, bishop, priest, or deacon – to stand between God and us. Jesus came to shatter all those barriers and to assure us that our access to God is unfettered, un-“brokered”, and that God is “always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than we either desire or deserve” (to cite one of our famous Collects BCP 234).
And why is God ready to do all that? Because God loves us…and is as close to each one of us as life and breath itself. We need no intermediaries!
Archive for October, 2014
Proper 26 A
Our Collect, or prayer for today, mentions three aspects of the Christian life that are sometimes called the three “Theological Virtues.” And those virtues are faith, hope, and love. The Collect says “faith, hope and charity” which many of us grew up hearing (in fact, I used to know a family with three little girls they named Faith, Hope, and Charity!) but St. Paul did not use the Greek word “caritas” when he first linked those Theological Virtues in First Corinthians 13.
When he wrote “faith, hope, and love abide; these three, but the greatest of these is love”, he used the word “agape” – God’s love, the kind of love God has for us and the kind of love we are to have for one another. Besides, the word “charity” has taken on such a specific meaning in modern English that the even the Latin word “caritas” is probably better translated as “love” not charity. Benevolent giving to the poor (which is what we usually mean by “charity” today) is not really what Paul meant in First Corinthians 13.
In any case, one of the wonderful things about the Bible is that it provides stories and describes characters who demonstrate spiritual concepts like the “Theological Virtues” we have today. And we couldn’t have three more illustrative figures for faith, hope, and love than the three our Lessons hold up for us today – Paul, Moses, and Jesus!
St. Paul is, of course, the great Apostle of faith. It was his discerning insight that we are “saved,” brought into eternal relationship with God, not by our good deeds or good works in this life, but by radical trust in God (which is what the NT Greek word “pistis” or “faith” means). We are not going to earn our way into heaven by impressing God with our moral purity or even our charitable works. How arrogant to think that we could “earn” God’s love in that manner!
We don’t ‘earn’ our parents’ love by “being good.” That love is freely given from birth. Of course our parents were pleased when we did good things, but their love didn’t depend on it. (If it did, then they really weren’t very good parents, were they?) God’s love is freely and unconditionally given. Our response must be to “trust” (have faith) that that is so – and to rejoice in the saving relationship with God that that love makes possible. That’s what it means to be “justified by grace through faith.” Saved by trusting in God’s love.
The theological virtue of “hope” is perhaps best seen today in the person of Moses. He was, of course, the heroic military commander who brought the people of Israel out from under the yoke of slavery in Egypt. Yet, in our First Reading today from Deuteronomy we see that this great leader died before the tribes of Israel were able to cross into what they had come to understand as their “Promised Land.”
He got to see whole land from the top of Mount Pisgah across from Jericho, but he could only hope that they would one day possess the land. Yet, he was a man full of hope, and always had been. So he put that hope into action by choosing his brave lieutenant, Joshua, to succeed him and make that hope a reality for his people. Hope leads us to action!
The Gospels, of course, are filled with the Good News of God’s love (the third Theological Virtue) and we see it “incarnated” (made flesh) in Jesus. Has there ever been a person in all of history who lived a life of love more completely than did Jesus of Nazareth? He taught that we could fulfill all the commandments, and be all that we were created to be, by simply loving God and loving our neighbor.
He lived out his days showing us something of what that would look like – by worshipping God in the synagogue and on mountain tops, by respecting the dignity of every person (no matter how different they may be from ourselves), by working for healing and wholeness in the lives of those who are in “trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity” (as our Prayer Book liturgy has it), and by teaching us to forgive those who have wronged us intentionally or unintentionally by his very words from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
So, dear friends, “faith, hope, love abide; these three, but the greatest of these is love.” I invite you, if you have not already done so, to take that “leap of faith” by trusting that the God of this Universe is a loving God and that that love is intended for you – whether you think that you “deserve” it or not. Because it doesn’t really depend on you! It is God’s very nature to love!
I invite you to hope (even if you cannot “know”) that God’s love for you is eternal and that, when your earthly life is over “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” you will be “raised imperishable…For this perishable body must put on imperishability and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (I Corinthians 15:52-43)
And finally, most importantly according to Jesus and Paul, I invite you to live a life of love. To decide to love your neighbor as yourself (because love is a decision not a “feeling”) and to respect the dignity of every single, human being you ever run across. Because that’s what Jesus did…and because that’s what he commanded us to do.
And that’s why we pray today, “Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
So, we have a very familiar story as this Sunday’s Gospel reading – the question about paying taxes. The problem with familiar stories like this is that we hear the first few lines and assume we know what it’s all about and have a tendency to jump to the conclusion immediately. In this case, Jesus’ summary: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
The reason that jumping to that conclusion is dangerous is because of the way this incident has been interpreted so many times, a way that robs it of its power and really softens what was a completely revolutionary challenge by Jesus to the powers that be. The way I grew up hearing this story interpreted was, “Well, some things in the world are ‘secular’ and some things in this world are ‘religious.’ What Jesus is saying is that we need to figure out which is which and give our allegiance to secular things when that is important and to religious things when they are! The main thing is to know the difference.”
One of the corollaries of that interpretation, however, is that religion and politics are two different things, that separation of church and state means that Christians should stay out of politics, and even that we can live by one set of standards on Sunday morning, and another standard the other six days of the week!
Well, beloved, that could not be farther from what Jesus is trying to teach us in today’s Gospel! Let’s take a little closer look at it. First of all, the context for this is that Jesus is in Jerusalem and nearing his death on the cross because of conflict with the Roman government and the religious leaders of his own faith.
He has already ridden into Jerusalem as a staged protest against the occupying powers during the feast of Passover, he has overthrown the tables of the money changers challenging the complicity of the Temple authorities to the Roman government, and now he’s engaged in a series of conflicts with those who are trying to get him to make a mistake so that they’ll have a legitimate excuse to get rid of him.
Matthew is clear that this is not some idle theological question the Pharisees are asking about taxes.
He writes, “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians…” (Matthew 22:15) Well, from what we know about the political situation at the time, that itself should be a dead giveaway. The Pharisees and the followers of Herod did not get along at all. Specifically, with respect to the “head tax” (read “poll” tax!) of one denarius required by the Romans on all subject people, they were in fundamental disagreement.
The Pharisees were opposed to paying the tax because it suggested capitulation to the authority of the Romans. The Herodians – who were in the pocket of the Roman government anyway — had already sold out so badly that they saw no problem with the tax and, in fact, encouraged it as a way to keep the peace…and their own privileged position as pawns of the family of the Herods who ruled as Rome’s puppets in Jerusalem.
So, you see what’s going on: if Jesus sides with the Herodians and says it’s OK to pay the tax, he will alienate not only the Pharisees, but all those among his followers who were longing for Israel’s freedom. If he sides with the Pharisees, it would leave him open to charges of subversion by defying Roman law…and hasten his death. So, what does he do?
First of all, he asks to see the coin which was to be used for the tax, a denarius. Somebody brought him one. It would be interesting to know whether it was a Pharisee or Herodian who produced the coin because devout Jews weren’t even supposed to carry Roman money. Jesus shows us why: ‘Whose head is this (on the coin) and whose title?’ he asks. ‘Caesar’s (the emperor’s)’ they reply. Well, he’s already nailed them because a coin with a depiction of Caesar on it (and probably, his title “the Son of God!”) was a blasphemous thing for a Jew to have. It was a “graven image” forbidden by the Second Commandment!
So he ends up throwing the answer to the question back on them (as he so often did in his parables) challenging his audience to make a decision, not letting them off the hook by providing an easy answer, but making them think! “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:15-22)
Which, of course, really begs the question, “What do the powers that be in this world really “own” that does not already, and legitimately, belong to God?”
The answer is…NOTHING!
So what Jesus is really saying is, “Give this idolatrous piece of money back to the idolatrous king who made it. And give everything else to God!” That message is consistent with the primary message Jesus Christ came into this world to bring. He came to preach that the Kingdom of God was at hand. And that meant that God and God alone was Sovereign and that the rulers of this world were not!
The message is the same today. God is Sovereign and the rulers of this world (be they in Washington, Chicago, or Ferguson, Missouri) are not!
So go ahead, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…
Just remember to render unto God…the things that are God’s…