Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 18, 2020
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Here we are today, just over two weeks away from what may be the most momentous election in our nation’s history, and – of course – the Gospel is about money and politics.
This is also Jubilee Sunday, when we lift up the biblical tradition of the seventh year when fields are left fallow and all debts forgiven. This year, we are observing Jubilee when the election may literally decide whether the world’s poorest countries and our own poorest citizens are granted a Jubilee of debt forgiveness – or pushed into an even deeper pit of debt.
Today’s short reading from Matthew 22 is the first of four tests or controversies faced by Jesus. The reading follows last week’s parable of the wedding feast where all are invited. On previous Sundays, we heard stories and parables about driving out vendors in the temple, good intentions versus good behavior, labor practices, and property rights. All a prelude to today’s story about money and politics.
What makes today’s trick question so malicious or evil is that the Herodians (the Republicans) and the Pharisees (the liberal Democrats) were so desperate to get rid of Jesus that they collaborated to put Jesus in a no-win situation.
Jesus could say, “Pay the poll tax” – pay the required tax that conferred both the benefits and obligations of the Roman empire. But, in the process, Jesus would betray those devout people like the Essenes and the Zealots who pledged loyalty to the God of Israel alone.
Or Jesus could refuse to pay the poll tax – and solidify his status as a dangerous radical, a revolutionary who would invite Rome to crush what little life and freedom was left in Judea and Galilee.
But like the parables we’ve experienced in the past weeks, today’s puzzle cracks open a new reality. Jesus asks his interrogators to provide the coin, demonstrating that he doesn’t carry Roman coins. Significantly, this coin was a denarius, a day’s wages – which for most people is what they earned and then spent to be able eat that day.
Even more significantly, the Roman coin bore the image of the Emperor and the inscription, “Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.”
Jesus acknowledges Roman authority, and he accepts that this is indeed Caesar’s coin, which the Judeans and Galileans were giving back to Caesar. But Jesus says that this coin is all Caesar gets. We are to give to God what is God’s.
And what is it that we give back to God? The implication is that we give to God what bears God’s image– namely ourselves because we are created in God’s image. Thus, Jesus challenges his interrogators – and us today – to give ourselves, our entire created being, back to God.
Of course, these words of Jesus are a judgment on the Pharisees and Herodians – and a judgment on us as well. They – and we – want to be safe and secure in life. We pay what is necessary to get along. We make a deal in the hopes that political power will protect us – and maybe even provide some sense of worth and happiness.
But Matthew’s first readers knew that divided loyalties is a deal with the devil. They would remember the story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness. Even more telling, they were well aware that political accommodation in Jesus’ time led to corruption and oppression, which resulted in the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans some 30 years after Jesus’ death.
For us today, it is equally deadly to live with divided loyalties, to try to buy our happiness.
Jubilee points out how the even well-intentioned use of time and money can lead to greed and corruption that enslaves others in our own country. Predatory lending, fines that mount up, and housing costs beyond the means of most people – all cry out for Jubilee. In developing countries, debts held by banks and other countries deprive the world’s poorest people of health care, basic education, and agricultural development.
In a real sense, the trap that the Pharisees and Herodians set for Jesus feels like a trap that God seems to have set for us.
We’re put in a situation where accommodation and divided loyalties seem the only option. Even though we are created in God’s image, how can we possibly give ourselves completely to God? There are so many competing demands for our time, attention, and resources. And, to top it off, our seemingly innocent lifestyle decisions implicate us in creating a life-crushing debt burden for so many.
The good news – the source of hope and cause for joy – turns again on that word image.
In our first reading today from Exodus 33, we hear that God won’t let Moses see the face of the divine, a vision Moses hoped would confer God’s favor on him. But God does allow Moses – while also protecting Moses – to catch a glimpse of God’s back, an image if you will of God’s goodwill.
You’ll recall that Matthew’s Gospel sifts through the expectations about the Messiah who was to come and restore Israel to greatness. Matthew keeps linking Jesus and Moses, the great liberator and prophet. But, for Matthew, Jesus is always more than just another Moses, and he is greater than King David. The One who John the Baptist runs before and announces is the true Son of God – not some imposter like Caesar.
Jesus is the image of God who does give himself completely to God. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, we see what it means for Jesus to give himself to God– to heal the sick, welcome the outcast, and feed the hungry. We also see that, as in today’s Gospel, this giving of oneself brings Jesus into conflict with religious and political authorities.
And this conflict ends in Jesus’ execution on the cross. For Matthew, Jesus’ death is the way Jesus gives himself – as God’s Son – back to God. All to redeem convicts, sinners, and hypocrites. Including us.
For Matthew’s first readers and for us today, they knew and trusted that the crucified Jesus was also the Risen Christ. Risen, but very much present and active among us as they gathered for the Eucharist, as they baptized others, and as they fed the hungry.
In our baptism, we are buried with Christ and raised with him, and our image gets conflated with the image of the Risen Christ. In our baptism, we are given the wedding garment for this banquet of joy that we experience even as we gather remotely. And, what makes this banquet so joyous, is that all are invited – including those who are burdened with debts.
This banquet – our worship together even over Zoom – is truly Jubilee, forgiveness rooted in the Sabbath, the seventh day when the God of creation rested. God’s rest from creation is the source of our freedom from striving, our freedom from greed, our freedom from piling up goods we hope will make us happy. An outpouring of sheer grace, this rest and freedom are available to all.
And, as we saw just a few decades ago when the nations of the world agreed to debt forgiveness, Jubilee restores society and rebuilds the community that makes all life possible.
Yes, Jubilee – in all its forms, both personal and communal – is our comfort now and our hope for the future. Amen.