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Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost

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Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Matthew 22:17-22 (The Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus), "Tell us, then, what do you think? Is it against our Law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor, or not?" Jesus, however, was aware of their evil plan, and so he said, "You hypocrites! Why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin for paying the tax!" They brought him the coin, and he asked them, "Whose face and name are these?" "The Emperor's", they answered. So Jesus said to them, "Well, then, pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

What Shall I Do?

A nine year old girl who returned from Sunday School and as her father was sitting down with the Sunday Mail after Sunday lunch, she asked him some questions.

"Daddy, why did God make all the leaves green?" He thought a moment and replied, "I don’t know."
Then she asked, "Daddy, if God made the world and everything else, who made God?" Again he said, "I don’t know."
She asked him another one: "Father, how did Noah catch the two snakes and put them in the ark?" He put down the newspaper and said, "I don’t know."

The little girl sensed that her father was a bit restless, so she asked, "Do you mind if I ask you questions, daddy?" He replied, "Not at all. How are you going to learn anything if you don't ask questions?"

Like many children, this little girl was asking dad some very important questions, but questions that we adults stumble around trying to find answers. Dad was right in answering, "I don’t know" because there are certain questions for which we have no answers, at least until that day when we ask God face to face (and most likely they won’t be important to us any more).

We are faced with questions all the time and we struggle to find answers to them. The Pharisees and Herodians raise the age-old question of religion and politics. (The Pharisees resented paying taxes and the Herodians were pro-Roman and gladly paid.) They asked, "Is it right, according to God’s will, to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" This was no trivial problem. The Jews were taxed heavily by the Romans – not only was the grain, oil and wine taxed but every male from age of fourteen and every female from the age of twelve had to pay a tax for just being alive. Those who asked Jesus the question were setting him up. Whichever way Jesus answered he would get into trouble.

If he said, "Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman emperor," he would be in trouble with his own Jewish compatriots who deeply resented the oppression Rome had imposed on their nation. Moreover, the emperor was considered divine among the Romans, so paying him taxes was tantamount to worshiping him. You see, truly zealous Jews weren't even supposed to touch Roman money like this, let alone possess it. Clearly, Jesus would be a traitor to his own people, if he answered yes.

On the other hand, if he said, "No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to the Roman emperor," he would be a traitor to Rome. Whether you liked it or not, the Roman Empire had now taken control of Palestine, assigned Pontius Pilate to be its governor, and required taxes from all the citizens. If Jesus spoke against paying those taxes, he would be subject to arrest and imprisonment. Make no mistake about it, the Pharisees and Herodians were out to get Jesus.

And how does Jesus answer. He asks for a coin. Whose picture is stamped on the coin? The emperor’s! Well then it’s simple. He must own it if he’s got his picture stamped on it. You give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. But be careful! Don’t give to Caesar what belongs to God. End of discussion.

Jesus cleverly states there are those things that belong to the state and those that belong to God. Respect the state, it’s God-given authority, and the order it brings, be informed about community and state affairs, pay our taxes, protest against anti-Christian policies and laws, support policies that help the weak and downtrodden. Give to God your worship, your prayers, your service and love to your fellow human beings, support the church and its mission to the world, remind the government and its leaders, in the name of God, what its obligations are and where its limits lie. Someone summarised Jesus’ words saying, "The coin bears Caesar's image; man bears God's image, so give the coin to Caesar" - meaning pay tax – "but give yourself wholly to God." Serving God covers all of life. It also includes serving Caesar in a way that brings honour to God.

Jesus is giving some broad principles but notice he doesn’t give any slick answers about how we are to carry out this responsibility. Jesus leaves the details wide open. He refuses to give two neatly divided lists of duties relating to God and those relating to Caesar. The question about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God remains open. You and I must decide that for ourselves - assess each new situation. And that goes for the Church as whole. As each situation arises it must decide whether to speak up or not.

But isn't Jesus being a bit too hard on us? Isn't he expecting too much of us? Why doesn't he make a decision once and for all, and with authority set up percentages and limits, what is our responsibility to God, and what is our responsibility to the government and so on? We long for a clear ruling, one that is binding, one that will relieve us all the headache of making a decision. But Jesus doesn’t make the decision for us. He challenges us to find out again in each new situation what action we ought to take.

Anyone facing a moral decision knows that it is not an easy task to be clear on what to do. There may be some general rules, or principles, like the Ten Commandments, or the Sermon on the Mount, that make matters look simple and clear, but when it comes to making many decisions things aren't so clear.
For example,
whether to reveal to a very sick friend that he will soon die, or to keep silent;
whether to turn off a life support system or hope for a miracle;
whether to join an IVF program or remain childless;
whether to protest about a government policy or to remain silent;
whether to stay in an unhappy marriage or to get out,
whether to accept this new job or not because of the impact it will have on family life,
whether to be tough on a drug-addicted child or will love and support bring him to his senses.
Everywhere in life - in our marriage, in visiting the sick, as a teacher in a school, as an executive doing his tax return, as a mother or father - we have to pose the question anew everyday – "what does God wants us to do in this situation".

So often we cannot answer the questions we have, by thumbing through the Bible to find crisp, clear answers. Or referring to an answer found on Schedule C. There is no dictionary we can look up what we have to do here and now to please God. Again, the burden of making responsible decisions falls on us.

As a church, we are facing the whole issue of the ordination of women. When we had the forum here some time ago we heard that there are weighty theological arguments for and against ordaining women. Even the theologians are divided - some say that theologically there is no reason why women should not be ordained and there are those who say the opposite. Who is right? Why wasn’t this matter spelt out clearly in the Scriptures so that there could be no doubt? The plain and simple truth is that issues such as this were not issues at the time the Scriptures were written.

A question that I’m sure we will face in the not too distant future is the whole issue of homosexuality. What does the Bible say about ministering to homosexuals? How do we minister to them? How can we welcome them in our churches? What role can they play in the church?

We need to look at all these issues as people who have been made new through the dying and rising of Jesus. It’s easy to condemn, to fall in line with what others are saying, to let our own feelings or our traditions make the decision for us. In our Baptism we have shared in what Jesus did for us, we have been given a totally new life, a totally new way of looking at the problems that confront us, a totally new outlook on the moral dilemmas that challenge us.

For the born anew in Christ, the issue always is what would Jesus want me to do? The Gospel accounts tell us that when Jesus came across a prostitute, instead of quoting the Ten Commandments to her, he loved her and said, "Your sins are forgiven". When he met the white-collar cheat Zacchaeus, he befriended him and went to dinner with him. To those who were exiled from their community because of a dreadful disease, he showed love and compassion and gave them healing.

You see God does not give us a list of laws and detailed instructions for carrying them out. He doesn't lead us around by the nose in every detail of our lives, rather he desires to make us mature sons and daughters, confident of his love, confident of our relationship with Jesus our Saviour, and that in his love we discover what is the right thing to do.
We need to be diligent in coming to know God’s mind even better through studying the Scriptures.
We need to be unceasing in our prayers for the Spirit’s guidance, and knowing that there will be others with contrary beliefs seek to resolve the matter in an atmosphere of love and mutual respect.

I am sure that many of us have made and will make many mistakes as we search for the right answers to many of life’s perplexing problems. It’s ever so hard at times to know what God wants and to make a decision confidently knowing we have done the right thing.

We make decisions about some of those tough questions in life in the knowledge that he forgives us when we do blunder and bungle. It is a comfort to know of the forgiving love of God, otherwise we would be frightened to make any decisions at all. Let’s remember that God can even use those decisions that are poorly made.

What Jesus gives us in today's gospel is not a hard and fast rule for every situation, but the permission to struggle with the question of what it is appropriate for us to do in the world that God created. What Jesus gives us is not an excuse for withdrawing from secular society, but rather the assignment to go and love and serve our fellow human beings to the glory of God.

Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, revised Australian edition 1994.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
St Luke's Lutheran Church, Nambour - 17th October, 1999
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