Revised Common Lectionary reflection for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Proper 24
October 22, 2017
Lessons: Isaiah 25:1-9, Psalm 96:1-13, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people recognize that they and all they have belong to God.
Key Scripture: For great is the LORD, and greatly/ to be praised;/he is to be revered above/all gods./For all the gods of the peoples are/idols,/but the LORD made the heavens. Psalm 96:4-5
Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Matthew 22:21b
What’s in your wallet right now? My wallet’s contents are pretty predictable: driver’s license, debit card, insurance information, corporate Visa, a couple of discount cards, a few coins, and, right now, four dollar bills. I make it a habit not to carry much cash so that I am not tempted to spend my money frivolously. It helps me to avoid confusing my needs and my wants in the face of an assault of dazzling displays and alluring advertisements. I don’t want to be defined by the clothes I wear, the car I drive, or the stuff I possess. In short, I do not want to have any American idols.
False gods abound in our culture. I isn’t difficult to rattle off an impressive list of the people and things that vie for our allegiance. We revere and try to emulate successful celebrities in everything from our fashion choices to our home decor. We spend hours and dollars on following our children’s sports teams and providing them with equipment. We tune in religiously to our favorite TV shows every week and hang our hats on the words of our most trusted pundits. Even the cross can become a false idol when it is reduced to “bling” and a hollow symbol/fashion statement.
In this week’s gospel lesson, the religious leaders are still trying to entrap Jesus. He’s upset their temple-market apple cart, exposed their inconsistencies, and thoroughly ticked them off. Finally, they come up with the idea of asking him how he feels about paying taxes to the Roman Empire, the evil oppressors. Does paying tribute to the state cause one to break religious law? Since Caesar set himself up as “god” one might assume a good Jew should not acknowledge this title by monetary tribute. In fact, it was unlawful for a Jew to carry Roman currency into the temple.
I suppose that to 21st century Americans, the practice might be like supporting executive bonuses and pay raises on the broken backs and empty pocketbooks of the elderly and impoverished or buying the products of a company whose corporate values are in opposition to one’s moral and ethical beliefs. These examples are not exact analogies, but maybe you can find links and examples beyond tax reform and politics that work in your context. I think the text goes much deeper, to the very heart of our allegiances.
Jesus asks for a coin of the realm – a denarius. It likely featured the bust of the emperor Tiberius, serving as a tacit and annoying (for the Jews) reminder of just who held the power. Jesus’ answer is priceless: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Huh? What does this mean?
Well, for one thing, it got the religious leaders off his back for a verse or two. It’s given scholars and preachers a lot of fodder for discussion. It is also a question that’s all too easily dismissed. I think we need to wrestle with this one in light of our “American idols,” our false Gods, and our notion of whose we really are.
As Christians, we confess that we believe in “God, the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” We ask God’s will to be done in the Lord’s Prayer, and we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” I guess we need to figure out if this is lip service or a life of service. Is God really Lord of all creation–including us?
The implications of answering this question could have us, as the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, “amazed” and exiting stage left, or it can change our lives and bring about radical transformation in our discipleship walk. Answering this question also requires that we spend some time figuring out what it means to live faithfully in the world but not be of the world. Finally, it means clearing out whatever “idols” prevent us from giving to God the things that are God’s–i.e. everything.
For me, the challenge to acknowledge and break the power of their sway is a process that requires regular attention. Wise preachers and teachers might do well to call their faith communities to do the same. After all, idols are not real; they only have the power we give them.
Sing as many songs of praise as you can fit into the order of worship today as a reminder that praise is our proper response to the God of all creation. Consider hymns like Marty Haugen’s “Soli Deo Gloria,” “O God beyond All Praising,” and “Let All Things Now Living.” Consider a pre- or post- worship “selfie” opportunity with large wooden frames with labels like “We Belong to God” or “I’m a Child of the Living God” or “I’ve been Re-Framed by God’s Love.”
The classic rock music group, The Who, recorded the song “Who are You” that later became the theme song for the popular television show C.S.I. We learn about who we are in light of who God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are in the words of the Apostles Creed. Maybe another question we should be asking is “Whose are you?” The answer, of course, is God’s. We all belong to God, and that is very good news. Facilitate a discussion about what it means to belong to God rather than to focus on what might belong to us. How does this reframe our lives and our approach to everyday living?
Whose are we, and in whom do we trust? Children like to belong and feel secure. If you ask who they belong to, they may relate the question to being part of a family. The same goes for a question about trust. Give each child a shiny penny. Ask whose picture is on the penny. Older children may know that Abraham Lincoln’s image is on the penny. Ask them about the language on the front of the penny. What does it say? The answer is “In God We Trust.” Relate this to the gospel lesson where Jesus tells the religious leaders to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Remind the children that everything truly belongs to God—the earth, all that’s in it, even each one of us. That means we can indeed put our trust in God and not be disappointed. A penny may not look like it’s worth very much, but in God’s eyes all of creation is of priceless worth—especially each beloved child of God. Finish with a simple prayer like this one: Dear Jesus, help us always to remember that we belong to God and that God loves us. Help us to put our trust in God and know that God will never leave us. Amen.
Weekly Stewardship Bulletin Insert
Would you consider yourself someone who is “brand loyal”? Do you instinctively choose Starbucks over filling-station coffee? Do you have a preference for Ford or Chevy, or are you a loyal Subaru owner? This week’s gospel lesson reminds us that our loyalty is to God and God alone. After all everything is God’s—including us.
Stewardship at Home
This week spend some time reflecting on what it means to belong to God. For example, instead of saying, “I don’t have any time this week to do what I want!” consider reframing your perspective by saying, “My time is a gift of God. How am I using God’s good time?” Instead of saying, “I don’t have enough money to get what I want” consider “I am blessed by God with so many things—a place to live, a car, a job, family I love. I am rich indeed!” When we view all of life through the lens of belonging to God, it makes a big difference in what we see.
Photos: Paradise Nazarene, Taymaz Alley, Creative Commons. Thanks!