Sermon: Pentecost 18, 22 October 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 22nd October 2017

Rev. Paul Weaver

CURLY QUESTIONS AND BIG ANSWERS

 (Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1; Matthew 22:15-33)

“Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” It’s the classic question asked to public figures designed to get them into trouble. To answer “yes”, you are admitting that you have beaten your wife. To answer “no”, you are getting yourself into even deeper trouble.

It seems to me that the best interviewers on radio or TV are not those who browbeat the public figure; who don’t get over-emotional; who don’t cosy up to the person; but who politely lead up to the vital question, the one which will get them into trouble – if they deserve to be in trouble! In a sense they give a person enough rope to hang themselves, rather than try to conduct a lynching! That quality is sadly rather rare in the media nowadays.

In the week leading up to the Passover Festival, Jesus’ opponents were desperately looking for a way to trap Jesus: something which would finally get him out of the way, with his controversial teaching, with his obvious popularity, with his accusations against them, and with his stirring up of trouble.

In our Gospel reading we see two attempts by different groups of people to ask that leading question which would get him into trouble, or perhaps make him look bad, or at least make him look weak or third-rate.

The first question was asked by a very odd group of people: people who generally had nothing to do with each other, and who would have had a low opinion of each other. The Pharisees were the pious religious people, who made great efforts to keep God’s laws and to live as God’s faithful servants. They made it their business to try to be good people, but fell into the common trap of “good people”: being judgemental of those who weren’t as “good” as them, and arrogantly assuming that they had all the answers. It’s a trap for devout Christians today!

But on this occasion they were joined by the Herodians, supporters of king Herod, the local kingly figure, whose power depended on his co-operation with the Romans who occupied the land. The Herodians would have come to terms with the Roman occupation, and tried to make it work for them; but the Pharisees would have been appalled by the Romans and disgusted by Herod, who was a nasty piece of work. They would have been praying for God to set them free, so that they could again live as God’s free people.

I’m sure that when Jesus saw a group of Pharisees and Herodians coming to him, he knew that something was up. And after an embarrassing attempt at flattery, they asked their question – that question which they thought would get Jesus into big trouble for sure. “Is it lawful to pay tax to Caesar?”

If Jesus answered that it was lawful, then he would lose credibility with the ordinary people, who resented the Roman taxes: it was bad enough that they occupied their land, but even worse that they then found various ways to levy taxes from the people. The Pharisees found the system especially offensive, because the particular coin that had to be used showed an image of the Emperor, and an inscription describing him as a “son of god”. The Pharisees objected to the image because of the second commandment, and they found the description of Caesar to be blasphemous.

But if Jesus said that the tax should not be paid, that would be a seditious statement, and would certainly be reported to the authorities. So one answer would destroy his reputation, while the other would be an invitation to the Romans to arrest him. No wonder the Pharisees and the Herodians were willing to co-operate in this approach to Jesus.

How will Jesus respond? How will he get out of this one?

He asks for a coin used to pay the tax. Perhaps one of the Herodians had one: I hope it wasn’t a Pharisee, for they should have had as little as possible to do with these coins. There were plenty of other coins available for other purposes which were not offensive.

Jesus looks at the coin, I suspect with a bit of distaste. He won’t approve of its image and its wording either. “Who does this image and this title belong to?” he asks. And the answer is of course, “It belongs to Caesar”.

Then Jesus says: “Well, if it belongs to Caesar, give back to Caesar what belongs to him!” But then he goes on, “And give to God the things that belong to God.”

He answers their question in a way which they really can’t object to. But then he takes it to another level. There are things which they may owe to the Romans: why would people want to keep these offensive coins any longer than necessary? Who could argue with this conclusion?

But what about God, the Lord? What do they owe to God? Do they give God the devotion and the trust and the obedience that is rightfully his? Do their agendas matter more to them than God’s purposes and God’s call? This is the much bigger question that Jesus pointed to.

And what about us? Jesus implies that we do have responsibilities to those who have the role of government. God is a God of order, whose plan is that people should have good honest leadership as they live in their communities. And his plan is that we should make our contribution, financial and otherwise, to the common good. Taxes will be part of that contribution.

And if we are called to make that contribution, we do it not simply as part of our legal requirements as earthy citizens, but as part of our obedience to the God who provides for our needs in many ways and through many means.

Of course, that was not the only question Jesus was asked, according to our Gospel reading. Jesus had won the first bout, but perhaps the Sadducees could outwit him. They gave their attention to the five books of Moses, and regarded the rest of the Old Testament as lacking the same authority. And since they could find nothing in the Torah clearly teaching that there is a resurrection, they refused to believe in life after death. Your life might continue on in the lives of your children, but when you died, that was it. Nothing more.

The stakes weren’t quite as great this time. But if they could make Jesus or his teaching on the resurrection look foolish, that would be a worthwhile victory over this fellow who was stirring things up. And it would also be a little victory over the Pharisees, who found their ideas about the resurrection in the prophetic books, not the books of Moses, so beloved by the Sadducees.

So the Sadducees come to Jesus with this ridiculous story about a woman whose husband dies, only to be followed by the man’s six brothers who had all in turn married her in obedience to the Law of Moses. “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” they innocently ask. The whole idea to them is laughable, and I suspect that quite a few listeners have smiles on their faces.

But Jesus is not distracted by the over-the-top story. “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” Jesus knows the reality of resurrection, and indeed he knows that it will shortly become a reality in his own experience. He himself will shortly die, and three days later be resurrected. To Jesus then the resurrection is not just a topic for debate: it is the God of all life wonderfully at work.

Jesus explains that resurrection is not just resuscitation. There are new dimensions to resurrection life, which is also eternal life. Marriage, so significant on earth, is not part of resurrection life, which has a particularly spiritual as well as bodily dimension. Jesus compares resurrected people with the angels: they have a particular spiritual reality which is not part of our current experience. We don’t become angels in the resurrection, but there is certainly a new dimension to our life. The Sadducees’ cynical question assumes that resurrection means repetition of the life we know. Jesus insists that there is something to it that is much more wonderful than that. All the details we do not know: we get indications in the scriptures, but not the full picture. Perhaps we would not take it all in anyway!

What Jesus wants to emphasize is that even in the books of Moses there are pointers to God’s gift of eternal life. When God introduces himself to Moses at the burning bush, he doesn’t say “I was the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” Jesus points out that he said “I am the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” As far as the Lord is concerned, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, who had all died centuries before, are all alive to him.

How can that be? The resurrection is a reality. The Sadducees had not been open to the scriptural message: and in the process they had closed their minds to the power of God.

Two questions designed to catch Jesus out. Two questions he answered brilliantly. It’s not simply that he outsmarted his questioners. It is that he got to the heart of the matter.

Paying tax to Caesar reminds us that while we may have debts to the government and community, our fundamental debt is to our Creator God, who has given his Son to be our Saviour. The question of the Sadducees points to the reality of our resurrection hope. We trust in the power and the promise of God, and follow the resurrected Saviour who gives us true and eternal hope. Amen.                                                                  Paul Weaver