Sermon: Pentecost 20, 22 October 2017, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

Sunday, 22 October 2017, Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

Matthew 22:15-33

-Do you ever get suspicious when all politicians agree on something?

-Usually it’s to do with a pay rise.

-On Thursday there was a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald that said,

-‘Labor could back Malcolm Turnbull’s Energy Plan.’

-What would,

-‘Liberal Party endorses Greens policy’,

-Get you thinking?

-Or ‘Tanya Plibersek loves Tony Abbott’s Medicare ideas’.

-You wouldn’t believe it,

-Or you’d be wondering what they’re up to.

 

-Well that’s exactly the situation Matthew describes in today’s readings.

-Remember the story so far,

-Jesus has told three parables that basically skewer the religious hierarchy for their failure to lead the people to God.

-They’re described as a sycophantic son who says ‘Yes, yes’ to his old dad,

-But goes off and does his own thing.

-They were like tenants in a vineyard who refuse to give the rightful rent to the owner,

-Even killing his son when he comes to claim what is his Father’s.

-The final put down is Jesus’ description of them as invitees to a wedding banquet,

-Whose rejection of the generosity of the King,

-Demonstrates a dishonouring indifference that gets them a violent retribution.

-Each of these parables is an unambiguous attack upon the failures of a leadership,

-Who are more interested in their own position and power,

-Than the welfare of God’s people.

-And as each of these parables is told,

-The hierarchy is more and more incensed at being the targets of Jesus’ judgements.

-So they go away and plan their counter attack,

-Conspiring to trap Jesus in his own words.

 

-Two traps and three groups are involved in their nefarious plans,

-Three groups who on any other occasion you’d describe as odd bedfellows.

-But they come together with a common cause and a political expediency,

-That would best be described by the aphorism;

-‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend!’

-It would appear that the Pharisees were the brains behind the first attack.

-The Pharisees were an ultra religious party within Judaism.

-They were the sticklers for the Law.

-Their rigour was based on the belief,

-That if everyone in Israel was obedient to the Law for just one day,

-Just one day,

-Then the Messiah would come and rescue his people from their godless foreign oppressors.

-You can see why tax collectors and sinners were not their favourite people,

-They believed it was their immoral behaviour stopping the Messiah from coming.

-They took the Law and traditions of Judaism very, very seriously.

 

-Unlike the Herodians.

-They were another sect or party within Judaism at the time,

-Who got their name from their friendliness towards Herod’s family dynasty.

-Herod the Great was an Edomite whose family converted to Judaism,

-And who’d been installed by Rome as a puppet king over Judea around 40BC.

-It was this pro-Roman bent that infuriated the Pharisees.

-So in what may have been recognition of their antipathy to the Herodians,

-The Pharisee leadership doesn’t go along themselves,

-But send their disciples to execute their dirty deed;

“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” Matthew 22:16

-Talk about sycophantic sons.

-They begin by ascribing Jesus the title ‘teacher’ or ‘rabbi’,

-But rather than being polite,

-They’re setting Jesus up to force him into answering the question.

-If he really is a teacher or rabbi then he’ll have to show it by answering.

-If he spots the trap and walks away ignoring them,

-Then clearly he’s not willing to answer and so fails as a teacher.

-But the Pharisees then lay it on with a trowel,

-Praising Jesus for intellectual honesty and rigour,

-Not being afraid to challenge strongly held views,

-Nor bowing to position and power.

-Again all fine sounding words but designed to bind Jesus firmly to whatever answer he gives.

-And the question is designed to hang Jesus whichever way he jumps;

“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Matthew 22:17

-Heresy or treason,

-Two unacceptable answers.

-A devilishly clever trap.

 

-The communications guru Marshall McLuhan coined the now familiar phrase,

-‘The medium is the message’.

-He argued that whatever medium carries a message has an influence over how that message is perceived.

-So often we miss this subtlety of communication.

-But Jesus doesn’t and he’s instantly aware of the medium,

-Who it is that’s delivering the message.

-It’s two groups of people who hold an antipathy to each other,

-Two groups of people who have opposing views about their Roman overlords,

-Two antagonistic understandings of church and state.

-So he’s immediately aware of their malice,

-Which he brutally confronts;

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” Matthew 22:17

-He got that in one, hypocrites

-But now he’s about to turn the table with his call for a coin;

“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Matthew 22:20

-The Romans liked to get their tax paid with Roman coins,

-Which Jesus draws their attention to.

-The Roman denarius had the image of the emperor Tiberius on one side,

-With the inscription,

-‘Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus’.

-In essence ‘son of God’.

-On the flip side was the inscription,

-‘Pontifex maximus’ or high priest.

-Can you see how offensive that would be to a strict Jew?

-This would have been seen as idolatry and blasphemy of the worst kind,

 

-But that’s not the point of Jesus’ question or impending two point answer;

-Rather it’s a pragmatic and theological response;

“Give (therefore) to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:21

-Jesus neatly slips through the reductionist trap of the Pharisees and Herodians.

-Neither one can pin heresy or treason on Jesus.

-In amazement they leave Jesus and slink away.

 

-Whether they were disappointed by the failure of the Pharisees and Herodians,

-Or smugly thought they could do better,

-The Sadducees don’t let the sun set before they trot out another snare,

-Embroiling Jesus in a theological debate in which he must choose sides.

-If the Pharisees’ partnership was hypocritical,

-The Sadducees conundrum is breathe takingly duplicitous.

-Although they were a religious party,

-The Sadducees held two distinctives from the Pharisees,

-That they didn’t believe in the resurrection,

-Nor in angels or other spiritual beings.

-They were the ancient equivalent of those modern day liberals who claim to be Christian,

-But deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus,

-Decry miracles as scientifically impossible,

-And distort the word of God for their own ends.

-Now with all that in mind listen to the scenario they pose and ask yourself,

-‘What is wrong with this picture?’

“Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. 26 The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. 27 Last of all, the woman herself died. 28 In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.”

 

-Did you see it?

-They don’t believe in the resurrection,

-But they’re positing a scenario they don’t even believe in?

-They don’t believe in angels or a spiritual existence,

-Why are they even asking about life after death?

-Again the medium is the message,

-And Jesus sees straight through their words to the people carrying them.

“‘You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” Matthew 22:29

-Notice where Jesus appeals to challenge their false understanding of God and his purposes for creation,

-The scriptures,

-God’s revelation to human beings.

 

-Immediately after Jesus was baptised,

-He was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit where he was tempted by the devil.

-Each time Satan posed a temptation to prove himself as the Son of God,

-Jesus counted it with an appeal to the scriptures;

“It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Luke 4:4

“It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Luke 4:8

“It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Luke 4:12

-And he alludes to the exact same practise here.

-‘You don’t know the scriptures.’

 

-But of course they did know where to find the biblical evidence of the resurrection.

-How much clearer evidence would you need for the resurrection than this from Isaiah 26:19;

“Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” Isaiah 26:19

-Or Daniel 12:2;

“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Daniel 12:2

-Or Job 19:27;

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; 26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God,” Job 19:27

-Clear references to a bodily resurrection.

-But for their own reasons,

-They chose to ignore the scriptures.

-Nothing has changed in two thousand years.

 

-But it’s not just a refusal to take God’s word seriously that’s their problem,

-It’s that they don’t take seriously God’s power.

-They underestimate him.

-Just think through what lies behind their denial of the resurrection and angels.

-It’s a materialistic rationalism that says if I can’t see it and scientifically verify it,

-It can’t be true.

-Well for a start that proposition can’t be scientifically verified.

-But that aside,

-The Sadducees presupposition must be that if God does exist,

-He either chooses not to intervene in his creation or he’s unable to,

-He’s powerless,

-Because how hard would it be for the creator of the Universe to give a new body to the dead,

-Just like Isaiah, Daniel and Job stated?

 

-But the most damning of Jesus’ arguments is not the physical attributes of a resurrected body,

-But the relational;

“As for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” Matthew 22:31

-Jesus is describing a present reality,

-‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’

-Not ‘I was the God’,

-Implied in that is the ongoing relationship between God and those men who have died to this life,

-But if God is still their God,

-Then Jesus is describing a living relationship that is continuing even to this day.

-‘He’s not God of the dead, but the living.’

 

“And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.” Matthew 22:33

-I want to ask,

-Are you astounded by the words of Jesus?

-Are you astounded by the authority of Jesus?

-Are you amazed by Jesus like those crowds as they saw him confound the Pharisees?

-Or do other things grab your attention and avert your eyes from our Lord and Saviour?

-You see that command of Jesus to the Pharisees and Herodians,

-Those religious zealots and spiritual compromisers,

-Was not just a clever repose to slip a devious trap,

-It’s a command that asks where does your loyalty and affection lie,

-To whom does your heart belong?

-You see it’s easy to give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar,

-When your heart is firmly committed to God.

-But if your heart belongs to the world,

-You will never be able to give to God what belongs to him,

-Your whole self.

-The Pharisees, the Herodians, the Sadducees all had an affection to something other than God.

-For the Pharisees it was their religious practises,

-For the Herodians their political allegiances,

-For the Sadducees their intellectual pride,

-When what it should have been was the God who chose them to be his people.

-A similar choice faces us.