10/16/11, In God We Trust

In God We Trust (October 16, 2011)  Isaiah 45:1,4-6, I Thessalonians 1:1-5b, Matthew 22:15-21


Each of you that has occupied a blue chair this evening will have noticed that there’s money on your seat.  Money??? Have we now become so desperate that we need to pay people to come to church?

Well, no… that was hardly the point I hoped to make!  What I do want each of you to do is to take a close look at the side of your coin that displays a president’s head.  What phrase is on each coin?

That’s right- each coin displays the motto “In God We Trust.”  It is interesting to take note of this in light of the gospel we read today.  In Jesus’ time, people had coins with images on them too.  People who used  coins for commercial trade had in their money sacks a constant reminder of who claimed authority over them.  When you jingle the coins in your pocket or purse, do you ever wonder who ultimately has power over you?  Is it the God of your spiritual faith that you trust in, or do you depend more on the god of economic and political security?  Just something to reflect on when you jingle those coins.

Over and over in the gospel of Matthew this year, we’ve noticed Jesus challenging the status quo of his day.  His challenges rub the religious leaders the wrong way, because they know he is pointing a finger at the inadequacy of their strict rules to make changes that will bring the Kingdom of God into present reality. Where he heals the sick and feeds the hungry and forgives the guilt-ridden, they question his authority and try to find ways to discredit him.  So it is once again in today’s passage.  A group of Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus with a question that is meant to trap him.  After flattering him  with some complimentary words acknowledging his integrity and commitment to truth, they ask for his opinion on the rightness of paying taxes to the Roman emperor.

Jesus sees right through their hypocrisy.  He knows that their external praise of him only masks their internal malice.  They figure that no matter what answer he gives will create trouble with some part of the population, who will then have reason to imprison or kill him.  The Pharisees reason that if Jesus says the tax should be paid, the Jewish people will be unhappy because this implies that the Roman emperor Caesar, who has claimed to be the god of the world, takes priority over their one true God.

But if Jesus says the tax should NOT be paid to Caesar, then the Herodians, who represent a portion of Jewish elite who cater to Rome, will accuse him of being a traitor to the Roman government. That will upset Roman authorities.  So these religious leaders believe they have put Jesus into a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

Jesus often answered with parables, but this time he used an object lesson instead: the Roman coin. On the Roman coin is an image of Caesar and an inscription that says he is the Son of God, the pontifex maximus or high priest.  “Pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” Jesus said.  The coin looks like it belongs to Caesar, doesn’t it? Hmmm… but both Pharisees and Herodians, educated and faithful Jews, know full well that all of their scriptures and tradition declare that EVERYTHING belongs to God.  So it doesn’t matter if Caesar gets some of their wealth, because the kingdom he rules ultimately belongs to their God.  The summary verse of this passage says, “When they heard this, they were amazed, and they left him and went away.”

 

The short passage that was read to us from the book of Second Isaiah also affirms the presence of God working through people and circumstances that seem to have goals that are in opposition to God’s purposes.  We hear today about the Persian king Cyrus.  Some 70 years before his reign, the Babylonians had destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and carried off a large number of Jews into exile.  In 536 BC, Persia overcame the Babylonian empire.  When Cyrus defeated Babylonia, he freed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple.  In Isaiah 44 and 45, God refers to Cyrus as his chosen instrument for the salvation of Israel from captivity.

44:28 “Cyrus is my shepherd, and he shall carry out my purpose.”

45:1 “The Lord says to Cyrus, his anointed…I will go before you… I have called you by name…

45:13 “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight.”

We know Cyrus had no allegiance to the one God of Israel. He paid homage to the many pagan gods of neighboring nations in order to win political favors.  Yet in Old Testament literature God names him with titles that have definite messianic overtones:  shepherd, the anointed one, righteous.  This is amazing language for both Jews and Christians to hear.

However, if you were to read the entirety of chapters 44 and 45 of Isaiah, you would notice that they aren’t primarily about Cyrus’s good works.  These chapters describe God’s attributes and actions. They are about God’s plan to return Israel to her homeland.  Because God is the owner of everything in the world, he has complete freedom to utilize all of creation and any human being to accomplish his purposes. 

And so God uses Cyrus to get his work done. God does this with Caesar too. Just so, God can use any present person or situation.  This is another one of those major God-mysteries to us.  We are caught in our puny 80-year life span in this particular era of history.  We haven’t the longterm vision or imagination to understand how this happens: how what seems negative and painful in the present can sometimes work out to a beautiful purpose.  But our ancient book of scriptures affirms this truth over and over in the stories of human beings and events and in the witness of faithful saints. 

The world we live in today is increasingly pluralistic.  Where once we citizens of the United States could look at our coins and think that the God we trust in had our Christian identity, now we are having to come to grips with the fact that others know God through their Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist spirituality.  Some people claim to know what they can of God through nature alone. 

Today’s ancient lectionary readings speak a vital truth into our contemporary experience. That truth is that God is in it all.  He is speaking and working truth through a diversity of religious perspectives and cultural systems. She is working in all the intellectual discoveries and scientific processes that have been unfolding for billions of years.  With those who questioned Jesus, I am left in simple amazement.  The one thing I can say with all my heart is this: in God I trust.

By Sandi DeMaster