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Sermon - 20 Pentecost

In the Name...

I forget who said this, it might have been Groucho Marx, “Death and taxes may always be with us, but, at least death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.”

Our Gospel this morning takes us back to the events of Holy Week and the final confrontation with his critics which led to Our Lord's crucifixion.  This particular episode is also a very sad one because in it we find two groups - Pharisees and Herodians - who hated each other to the point of violence, uniting in common cause against Jesus.

The Pharisees were the most orthodox of Jews, zealous for the Law of Moses, learned in the Scriptures, the exemplars of what religious people should be.  The Herodians, by contrast, liked to make fun of Pharisees as being sanctimonious and obnoxious.  Herodians were secular Jews.  They would go to synagogue or Temple for high holy days but, had no problem with also visiting Greek or Roman temples with their pagan friends.  In fact, they had pagan friends to the horror of the Pharisees who practiced "holiness by separation."  Herodians really had no religion and resented those who made much of theirs.

Not surprising they felt threatened by a Nazarene carpenter who said, "Repent of your sins and practice justice, mercy and faith."  Not surprising at all that the Herodians would resent Jesus, but, it is troubling that the Pharisees would feel the same way.  More than troubling, it was a tragedy that when presented with a man who lived, worked, and spoke only the Word of God, all they could do was spend their time trying to trip him up because he wasn't living, working, and speaking the Word of God the way they wanted him to.

Now, the issue of taxes was one that divided the Pharisees and Herodians because it wasn't about money it was about loyalty.  The Pharisees felt that paying taxes to the Romans was at odds with their loyalty to God because the Romans were pagan oppressors and had no legitimacy to rule God's people.  The Herodians, who got their name from the puppet King Herod, had no problem at all with swearing allegiance to Rome.  They thought the Pharisees' objection to be quaint at best, treasonable at worst.

Now, despite all the bad press Pharisees have gotten, Jesus really thought they had a lot of potential and there are times in the Gospels when he holds them up as models for us to follow.  Not only did they go to synagogue and say their public prayers, they had disciplined private prayer lives.  They fasted, that is they practiced self-denial, and tithed, gave away a tenth of their income, a standard which few today even approach.  They studied the Scripture so that they knew the words, even if they didn't understand the meaning.  All in all, they weren't bad, but, a lot of them had it in for Jesus because, like a lot of religious folks down the ages, they equated their way with the only way.

So, a trick question.  Depending on the answer, Jesus would be open to accusation as either an enemy of the government, or as an enemy of the people.  Either way, he would be discredited with a major group.

But, they mistook their man.  This was no human teacher who might feel flattered that these rivals were seeking his advice and he called them what he knew them to be - actors.  That's all the Greek word "hupokrites" meant back then.  Just "actor."  It didn't have the pejorative and insulting meaning we give it today.  Actually, the way Jesus uses it here isn't meant as an insult but, as a warning of something not to become.

Jesus didn't have a problem with real questions.  He positively encouraged people to ask them.  But, he did have a problem with fake questions such as this one whose purpose wasn't to get at the truth but, to manipulate the answer.  And so, when he answered this one he manipulated the question.  He said that both sides were right and both sides were wrong.  

The Herodians were right that we owed certain duties to the government, even if the government didn't share or represent our values and the Pharisees were right that we should not allow those duties to compromise our beliefs.  We should be good citizens, yes, but, good government should not ask its citizens to break God's law.  Paying taxes is not a moral issue even if some of the money is used for immoral purposes.  The people who use the money badly have to answer for their use.  We are not responsible for what Caesar does.  Only for what we do. 

When I lived in New York, we had a governor, who, after the legislature had passed a bill with which he disagreed and had even said was morally wrong, nevertheless signed it into law, rather than veto it, because, he said, his public duty required him to set aside his personal opinion of right and wrong.

I seem to recall another governor who held a similar view about his duties.  I think his name was Pilate.

In Jesus' time, the issue for a religious man was how much loyalty was owed to the state.  In our own time, we've gotten very good at rendering to Caesar.  We don't do so well when it comes to rendering to God.  We live, for all intents and purposes, in a Herodian society.  It allows us the freedom to worship at the temples of whatever gods we want but, it makes fun of anybody who lets their religion interfere with their lifestyle and it resists with a passion the hint of any absolute standards.

Just glance at the architecture of our public buildings, the choice of the imperial eagle as our national symbol, and consider how these things mould our thinking.  And yes, there have been attempts over the years, by both left and right, to make the state the supreme god of our society and relegate the Creator of the Universe to either being just a personal option or a cheerleader for government policy.

In these circumstances, the Christian has a responsibility to differentiate between the things of Caesar and the things of God.  Differentiate, but, not separate.  Jesus did not say that things of God are separate from things of Caesar.  Rather, as a great bishop once commented, "Caesar's things belong to God."   Not the other way round. 

Being more like a Pharisee might not be such a bad thing, after all.  The only problem Jesus had with them was that while they did all the right things to God, like fast, pray, and tithe, they didn't have a right attitude to others.  They were narrow-minded and judgemental.  The Herodians, on the other hand, didn't do or think anything right about others or God.  They belonged to Caesar, body and soul.

So, let's live for God, then.  He's the one to whom we belong and to render to him is to render ourselves and use what we've been given for Him and Him alone.

In the Name...

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