By Deacon Timothy Siburg
Revised Common Lectionary reflection, Proper 24, Year A
October 22, 2023
Key Verse: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
Have you ever been asked a question that made you roll your eyes? Or one that tested your patience? A question you might hear from kids in the car after driving for a while like, “Are we there yet?” A question like an older kid or teenager might ask that begins with, “What if….?” Or a question like Jesus hears from those who are potentially trying to trap him like, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” (Matthew 22:17)?
These aren’t the same kinds of questions. There’s not the same spirit behind them either, necessarily. But I’m thinking about questions today because they are a central part of the life of being a disciple and a steward. Asked genuinely, questions help us learn and grow; help us understand.
Questions are at the heart of this week’s gospel. The Pharisees question to Jesus is not asked with genuine interest: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Jesus’ rebuttal is rhetorical: “Why are you putting me to the text, you hypocrites?” (Matthew 22:18). Jesus turns the question back on the questioners: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” (Matthew 22:20).
Whether the Pharisees know it or not, Jesus will help them learn something by connecting the dots. When they identify the emperor on the coin, Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). This answer amazes those who first heard it. And we have been left to wonder and live into it as disciples ever since.
What might this mean for us? For me, I am simultaneously a Child of God, a husband, son, father, and brother. I am also a citizen of the United States. One identifier doesn’t necessarily imply another, but all are true here. Jesus seems to suggest as much with his response about the coin, offering wisdom about life, relationships, the challenge of vocation, stewardship, and living simultaneously in two kingdoms.
As God’s people, we live in the now and the not yet – to be fully engaged in the world here and now. But we also have a call and identity to be Children of God who follow God’s call and invitation received through baptism to live out lives of care and compassion through our various vocations. Vocations that might be about relationships, but also about using what God entrusts to us that makes us each the unique person that we are, to meet our neighbors needs in some way here and now.
We do all this – as simultaneously citizens of the world and Children of God – being aware that God is up to something. Bringing about God’s kingdom in God’s good timing, which breaks into the world bit by bit. Stewardship involves recognizing this tension and asking faithful questions as we wrestle in the tension while being engaged in the world that God has entrusted to us and calls and invites us to serve and live faithfully in and through it.
How do we do this? Well, that’s where questions come in. Questions for reflection. Questions to wonder about what God might be up to and inviting us to do. Questions about what our neighbors might need so that they too might be able to live fully and abundantly. Questions that might unearth observations and experiences that can only be described through wonder, joy, and gratitude, as the psalmist declares, “O sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord all the earth” (Psalm 96:1). And as Paul writes to the people of Thessaloniki, “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly (1 Thessalonians 1:2).
Maybe I’m thinking about questions this week because next week will be Reformation Sunday. At least in the Lutheran tradition, we’ll remember that the church is constantly forming and reforming with the movement of the Spirit. And as we try and make sense of that, we’re left to ask questions. Questions like the one Martin Luther famously asked throughout the catechism, “What does this mean?”
“What does this mean?” This might be the perfect question to begin pondering or preaching on stewardship this week. To wonder what this might mean, and what it might mean for us particularly now in this unique time that we find ourselves in.
Questions for Further Reflection and Preaching:
- What are the tensions we feel in thinking about being part of two kingdoms?
- What are the tensions as we’re called into lives and vocations as stewards?
- In the spirit of Martin Luther, “what does this mean?” Or, perhaps more usefully, what might this mean now, in your context?
In Worship and Congregational Life
What might be some questions the faithful in the congregation are wondering about? What questions might they be too afraid to ask? Could you find a way to collect them? Perhaps anonymously through sticky notes posted in the narthex or paper slips in the offering plate? These questions could be used as sermon starters, or posted publicly for all to see in a creative way next week in a sort of new and current version of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses.” They could also form the basis of a new Bible study series or faith formation opportunity that would be contextually grounded based on the wonderings of the faithful locally.
If a hymn would be helpful, there is a newer hymn called, “Ask the Complicated Questions,” by David Bjorlin (No. 1005, All Creation Sings, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2020), set to the familiar tune of “Restoration” that could fit this particular theme and focus well. A couple of the verses that stand out:
“Ask the complicated questions. Do not fear to be found out;
for our God makes strong our weakness, forging faith in fires of doubt.”
“Seek the disconcerting answers, follow where the Spirit blow;
test competing truths for wisdom, for in tension new life grows.”
Worship with Youth and Children
Have you ever been so bold as to invite questions from children and youth? In worship? If you’re that bold, invite questions from kids about God and let conversation about them be the children’s sermon. There’s something biblical about having faith like children. Jesus has a think or two to say about that. Such a Q&A might just help surface where your childrens’ hearts and minds are. And as kids might be brave enough to share, their bravery might also encourage adults to share and wonder too. If so, what a holy time and space that might just create. Perhaps a closing “repeat-after-me prayer” might go like this:
Dear God. (Dear God)
Thank you for today… (thank you for today)
Thank you for your love…
and for how you share with us…
everything we need….
Help us ask the questions …
that are on our minds and hearts…
to come to you with them…
even when they might be hard…
Help us to ask questions to help our neighbors…
to show your love…
and to listen to You always…
Thank you, thank you, thank you….
We love you so much God…
In Jesus’ name we pray…