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Belonging and Behaviour: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 18, 2020
Isaiah 45:1-7
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

There’s a famous line from the comic actor Groucho Marx (the one with the glasses and cigar): “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.” In the news right now (which is to say, in the world today) there is a lot of clubishness; people aligning themselves with one group, or party, or movement or another, and questions of who’s in and who’s out, or just the reality that so often one club is presented as the opposite, or the remedy of the other club. In our polarized society there is not much droll self-ridicule, like Groucho, but a lot of loathing of those who are not part of our club.

Our clubs (and I mean that in the broadest sense) can give us meaning. We recognize our views in theirs; we recognize ourselves in others, and in turn, don’t feel so alone. They can stir up inspiration, or collective outrage; provide answers to our questions, and uniforms, or at least dress codes. Not to mention codes of conduct. The epistle today, probably the earliest-written book in the New Testament, has Paul mentioning “you became imitators of us and of the Lord” right near its opening. This group has changed their ways; they’ve ‘turned from idols to God.’

What ‘clubs’ can we find in the gospel reading we just heard? Explicitly there’s two of them, and they’re strange bedfellows: the Pharisees and the Herodians. The former is a religious reform movement (with most of the ones we hear of in the gospels being quite intense in their practices), while the latter is a bit of a mystery, but probably something like a group that was loyal to the leader of the territory, or maybe representatives from his court. One was mostly concerned with their relationship with God; the other mostly concerned with maintaining a smooth relationship with Caesar. So you’ve got both religious and civic leaders that have joined forces in this moment not to ask Jesus for a clearcut view on political theology, but trying to trip him up… they “plotted to entrap him in what he said.” This isn’t as dignified as an awkward pre-election conversation over brunch; it’s an explicitly predatory move. And even though these groups are so different, there are certain forces in the world (then and today) that can be used to unify. Namely, fear and hatred. When it’s weaponized we call it scapegoating, and Jesus and his group of followers are the scapegoats.

The violence will come just a short time later (and we know that it does), but the time has not yet come. So they ask a question that has no possible right answer, at least not one that could be agreed upon by both the Pharisees and the Herodians. So Jesus asks for a coin. Note that they have it; he doesn’t. And as he draws attention to the ‘graven image’ they identify the likeness on it.

Basically, it seems that they are a lot more familiar with, and invested in, the emperor than Jesus is. They were hoping for a caricature of an answer that would locate him on the fringes, either as a seditious rebel that threatened the civic authorities, or as a Roman-collaborator that scandalized the religious leaders. But he doesn’t give them either. Again, I don’t think that this is a story that gives us a thorough and air-tight treatment of how Christians relate to government. It is an episode of trickery, jealousy, competition, and entrapment. And to this, Jesus says ‘no.’ He gives an answer that can’t be turned against him. It’s an answer that shows that he recognizes that he, and his people, can’t escape from living in the world, with its demands. And what he also does is invite us into the story and start to explore our relationship to life’s demands. If some things are owed to the emperor and some things are owed to God, what is it that we owe to the emperor, and what is it that we owe to God?

What claim over our lives can the emperor legitimately make? What claim over our lives is rightly only God’s?

Putting this story, again, in the context of his Passion, we’ll see that Jesus will indeed submit to authority. It is an imperial cross on which he will die. But he doesn’t submit to this authority because it’s right… He doesn’t submit to this authority because it’s bad form to question it… (In fact, he engages with these authorities quite brazenly, but with the same spirit of detachment he has displayed here.) Some important questions for us to ask, and to linger on, are these: after the hearings, after the flogging, after the nailing, and after the last breath… from what authority, from what power, does new life come? Which authority deals in death? And which authority can bring unexpected, everlasting life?

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter