Proper 24a, October 19, 2014

October 20, 2014

Rendered To Life
Matthew 22:15-22

22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Jesus touched a lot of nerves as he went about his ministry in Israel, and the tension was high when he arrived in Jerusalem for Passover. This is fourth week in which our Gospel lesson is set in the Temple during that huge annual festival and Jesus is addressing his Jewish adversaries. For those of you who can’t get enough of the same thing over and over, we’ll have the final of these encounters next week, but today we aren’t dealing with a parable or an allegory as we have for the last 3 weeks (but who’s counting). Today we’re looking at some straight dialogue, and this conversation had some interesting dynamics.

It was a remarkable thing for the Herodians and the Pharisees to collaborate on anything, but Jesus brought them together. Under normal circumstances the Pharisees and the Herodians couldn’t stand each other. The Herodians were Jews who supported the Roman occupancy of Israel. They were rewarded by Romans with positions of authority within Israel, and the Romans used the Herodians to collect the taxes and to help maintain the kind of order within Jewish society that the Romans desired.

Herodians were considered to be horrible collaborators by the Pharisees and the other sects within Israel who longed for independence from Rome. The Herodians and the Pharisees were as far apart on the political spectrum as they could be, but both of these interest groups were challenged and threatened by Jesus, so they got together to ask Jesus about the thing that always gets people stirred up – taxes.

The Herodians were beneficiaries of Jewish taxes. You might say the Romans provided them with lucrative government contracts. They managed the tax collection program, and they were appointed to the highest offices. The High Priest was actually appointed by the governor as were all of the other priestly positions associated with Temple functions in Jerusalem.

And the Pharisees hated those Roman taxes. The Pharisees were out to create religious purity within Israel, and they were highly offended by the control that Rome had over their state. They considered Roman coins to be dirty money because the Romans worshiped Ceasar, and they considered Herodians to be dirty collaborators. For the Pharisees, paying taxes to Rome was like bowing down to a false god. And they represented popular opinion within Israel. Not everyone who hated Roman taxes were associated with the Pharisees, but there were many different sects that felt the same way about those taxes.

So it was a rare day when the Herodians and the Pharisees got together on a plan, but neither of these groups had any affection for Jesus. The Herodians considered him to be an insurrectionist, and the Pharisees considered him to be an infidel. Both groups feared his popularity, so they shared this interest in getting him to say something unfortunate. This was an interesting political alliance that approached Jesus to ask him about taxes. They didn’t know what he was going to say, but they thought his answer would either result in his arrest or in the loss of his popular support. They thought they had him between that proverbial rock and a hard place.

I’m reminded of my friend who was once the pastor of a struggling congregation. It was a church that was largely financed by one couple, and they became unhappy with the nature of my friend’s preaching. My friend wasn’t hostile to the affluence of his primary contributor, but they didn’t see eye to eye on some things, and this couple got in touch with the District Superintendent about getting my friend moved to a different church. Unfortunately for the District Superintendent, when the word got out that my friend was going to be moved the bulk of the congregation let it be known that they would probably stop coming to that church. So the District Superintendent had to decide if he wanted to have a financially stable church with one family, or a poor church with a significant congregation.

I hate to own up to taking pleasure in the discomfort of others, but I was a little amused by the dilemma of that District Superintendent. I think the affluent couple ended up going to another UM church, where they were properly appreciated I’m sure, and they stuck that struggling congregation on with another church.

Religion, politics, and money – that’s a powerful brew. You mix those elements and you produce some interesting situations. It’s a combination that moves people to do unusual things, and it reveals raw agendas. When Jesus stepped in to the Temple people were compelled to decide what they valued the most, and much of what emerged wasn’t very pretty.

Newer versions of the Bible don’t use the word, render, to describe what Jesus said to his questioners. The New Revised Standard Version has Jesus saying that we should, give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s and to God what is God’s, but older English translations say we should, render under to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s and to God what is God’s. I think this speaks to the fact that most of us are pretty far removed from any kind of rendering process, but older Americans were more familiar with the term.

I’ve never done any rendering, nor have I ever toured a rendering plant, but I’ve driven by one, and I can testify that it’s an aromatic process. A rendering plant is a place where they basically cook animal carcasses down until they are reduced to their elemental materials. It’s not a pleasant process to ponder, but it’s very useful in a utilitarian sense. I’m not saying the way we treat animals is right, but it happens and most of us probably use some products that are somehow connected to that process.

And our Jewish ancestors were very familiar with that process. In some ways the ancient Temple had as much in common with a slaughterhouse as it does with a church sanctuary, and holy rituals were very much connected to what we might think of as butchering and rendering. So I think it’s helpful for us to think about the rendering process. It was how they used to separate the most precious form of fat from the less valuable animal byproducts.

In some ways you can think of rendering as the process of reducing a creature down to it’s essential elements, and in a figurative sense, that’s a process that we sometimes find ourselves going through. Hard times put us in touch with what we are made of, so to speak, and that’s not an entirely bad thing to experience. A life crisis isn’t anything any of us would choose for ourselves or for others that we know and love, but it’s not a bad thing to recognize what we value most and love the dearest.

You might say Jesus created a crisis for the Jewish community, and what emerged from that crisis wasn’t all good. It turns out that there were some people who valued and loved the wrong things. Jesus revealed the truth about God, and there were these people who preferred their own illusions of God. There were people who loved their own sense of power more than anything else. When they were reduced to their essential elements they chose to serve themselves.

We live in a far different but an equally difficult world. In some ways it’s not as easy for us to identify the ways in which the demands of Ceasar are placed upon us. There aren’t people in this world who blatantly establish themselves as gods and ask others to bow down to them. That just doesn’t work so well anymore, but there are ways in which institutions and individuals continue to lord themselves over other people. And many of us often give unwitting support to these rivals to God in our world.

It’s not easy to recognize the ways in which we give our best to Ceasar and our leftovers to God, but I think this admonition from Jesus to render unto Ceasar that which is Ceasar’s and to God that which is God’s, is a powerfully pertinent thing for us to ponder.

If we were to be reduced to our most essential elements what would be revealed. To whom do we give our best, and who is it that we reluctantly give what we must.

I think Jesus was acknowledging that there are these Ceasars in the world that must be fed. It’s all but impossible to not pay tribute to some ugly entities in this world, and I’m grateful that Jesus didn’t say to ignore Ceasar. Jesus said to give Ceasar what Ceasar deserves. Ceasar doesn’t deserve much, but you’ve got to give Ceasar what Ceasar is due.

And this sounds sort of easy, but it’s not. Ceasar wants our complete allegiance and Ceasar rewards that kind of attention. In many ways, if you want to do well in this world you’ve got to give your best to Ceasar, but if you want to find true life you give your best to God. I’m speaking very metaphorically here. In fact I’m being intentionally vague about what it means to serve Ceasar or to serve God because I don’t want Ceasar to get upset with me. And I don’t feel that bad about it because Jesus was a little vague in the way he responded to this situation. You need to exercise some shrew caution when you’re dealing with powerful and hateful individuals and institutions.

To whom we choose to give our best makes all the difference. It’s the difference between being rendered to death or rendered to life. I hope we will all find that narrow way of giving our best to God and what we must to the rest. Thanks be to God – Amen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: