Proper 24a, October 22, 2017

October 23, 2017

Rendered To Life

Matthew 22:15-22

 

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. I’m probably the only one counting the number of encounters we’ve examined over the past few Sundays, and I’m very aware of the fact that this is the fourth week in which our Gospel lesson is set in the Temple during that huge annual festival. Once again, Jesus is addressing his Jewish adversaries, but today we aren’t dealing with a parable or an allegory as we have for the last 3 weeks. Today we’re looking at some straight dialogue, and this conversation has 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 the Jews who actually 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.

 

Under normal circumstances, the Herodians were considered to be horrible collaborators by the Pharisees along with other groups 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 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 these people were generally considered to be Herodians.

 

The Pharisees hated Roman taxes and the people who benefitted from those 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 coins were inscribed in a way that portrayed Caesar as a god, so they considered Herodians to be dirty collaborators. For the Pharisees, paying taxes to Rome was like bowing down to a false god. And the Pharisees represented popular opinion within Israel. Not everyone who hated Roman taxes were associated with the Pharisees, but there were many different groups 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 that couple 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 if they moved the pastor. 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. The situation sort of resolved itself when the affluent couple moved to another UM church, where they were properly appreciated I’m sure, and they stuck the 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 Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, but older English translations say we should, render under to Caesar what is Caesar’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 previous generations 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 the process 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, 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 it turns out that there were some people who preferred their false illusions of God. In fact there were people of every different political and religious persuasion who loved their false understandings more than anything else, and Jesus functioned as a spiritual rendering plant. People who came in contact with Jesus were reduced to their essential elements and unfortunately many of them were shown to have more love for their own personal interests than for God.

 

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 Caesar 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. False understandings of God continue to exist, and many of us often give unwitting support to the false gods of our day.

 

It’s not easy to recognize the ways in which we give our best to Caesar and our leftovers to God, but I think this admonition from Jesus to, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’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 Caesars 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 Caesar. Jesus said to give Caesar what Caesar deserves. Caesar doesn’t deserve much, but you’ve got to give Caesar what Caesar is due.

 

And this sounds sort of easy, but it’s not. Caesar wants our complete allegiance and Caesar 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 Caesar, 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 Caesar or to serve God because I don’t want Caesar to come after me.

 

But we all have critical decisions to make in regard to who it is that we love the most. It’s impossible for us not to engage with systems and institutions that have no regard for God, and because of this it’s critical for us to understand who it is we seek to serve. It would be nice if the only relationship we had to pay attention to is our relationship with God, but this isn’t possible, and Jesus seemed to be acknowledging this with his clever answer.

 

The one to whom we give our best is the one to whom we truly serve. And who it is we love the most determines whether or not we will be rendered to death or rendered to life when any form of heat gets turned our way. Jesus didn’t give us a magic formula for how we organize our lives, but he did provide a clear message about how we will find true life, and the message is that we need to be clear about who it is we live to serve. We live in a messy world and it’s not easy to find that narrow path that leads to true life, but Jesus spoke true words and the Holy Spirit is on hand to help us understand what he was talking about.

 

It’s tricky business to navigate through the godless traps that are easy for us to fall in to, and the enemies of God have many advocates who try to lure us in to giving to Caesar what belongs to God, but we aren’t on our own in this messy world. The Lord, our God is with us, and by the grace of God we will choose to live in a way that will keep us close to the source of true life and out of the grip of Caesar.

 

Thanks be to God – Amen.

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One Response to “Proper 24a, October 22, 2017”

  1. Earl Says:

    Sounds like what may have happened to a friend of ours and a wonderful preacher.


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