“An Uncompromising Revolution of Love”
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, October 18, 2020 Rev. Dr. John Henson
In these weeks and days just before election day, candidates are in the throes of doing two things: trying to educate people about who they are or dodging questions because they don’t want people to know who they are. Sometimes a reporter or a rival candidate will ask a gotcha question with the hopes that the answer will go viral and turn people away from her or him. What we have just heard in our gospel readings informs us that gotcha questions aren’t anything new. As we look into this text, we hear not only the question but an answer that turns the gotcha back on the people asking it.
We are still in Jerusalem, at the temple with Jesus and the religious leaders. Jesus has been interacting with them and their responses to his demonstration at the temple with a series of parables. Now, as Matthew describes it, “. . . the Pharisees went and plotted to trap him in what he said.” They were no doubt fearful that he was a revolutionary in the long line of others like Judas the Galilean who resisted Rome and refused to pay taxes to anyone but the true God. So they intended to draw him out as either a revolutionary or a compromiser like one of them by asking him a question about taxes. Jesus approaches the question by asking them for a coin, a clever way of involving them in his response. He calls them out for their hypocrisy and then replies with this, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Some commentators view this response as Jesus’ espousing his view on the separation of church and state. Others see Jesus here giving instructions about civic duties and compliance with governmental authorities.
One view I find most helpful is from N.T. Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God. He sees this text to be less about if people should pay taxes and more about the part of Jesus’ response about what to give God. He maintains that Jesus’ response to the religious leaders encapsulates his thinking and work for bringing God’s kingdom to be in the world through Israel as a revolution of reflecting the love of God into the world. This was rather than compromising with Rome, worshipping Caesar, or violent resistance. Violent protests like the recent one by Judas the Galilean (p.502, Wright) clearly did not work and were not the answer. What he was saying, doing, and would do was the answer.
The religious and political context of Jesus is similar to ours today. We know all about taxes—who pays them, who doesn’t, and what they really are. We are familiar with dueling empires, revolutions, conspiracies, power grabs, and all kinds of protests. We also are aware that there are differing ideas among religious folk about how to follow God in this world and whether that should be done in resistance or with compromise. Since the context of Jesus then isn’t that much different than ours today, so the message in all of this is relevant for us just like it was for Jesus’ audience. And that message is also the same: The real way to live out the kingdom of God in this world is with God as our one and only king. We are to do so not by compromising with the powers of this world nor by violent resistance. Our method, rather, is to be that of Jesus who advocated through his words and actions a whole different kind of revolution. We need only to remember that he was at the temple, just after kicking over tables in a nonviolent protest against temple authorities who had compromised so much with worldly powers that they were neglecting to love the poor among them.
Now that we’ve seen how Jesus modeled kingdom living, how do we imitate it in our world today? One way is by doing so in our individual lives. This requires each of us to be disciplined in nurturing our own relationship with God, going deeper in understanding who God is. This nurturing and deepening happens when we get alone with God and also when we get together–online or in-person–with others as a church in our Worship of God.
But we also must move out of reflection to action. To revolutionary love. This is where we apply that part of Jesus’ answer of giving to God what is God’s. That’s what Jesus did with his life, pouring out himself into the things that mattered to God in the world. And that’s what we must do. What matters to God is all around us, right here in our neighborhood. We give what belongs to God when we feed the hungry, give clothes to people who need them, help homeless veterans, serve people with chronic mental illness, and volunteer at our local schools. And we can give more to God when we work on efforts to dismantle systemic racism, work with others to change police policies on force and accountability, and eliminate the healthcare disparity between Black and white people in our city by ensuring access to healthcare for everyone. These are kingdom things much on the mind of our King, efforts to bring a bit of heaven here in our part of earth.
One funny thing about how Jesus answered the gotcha questioners was by asking them for a coin. They had one, actually carrying the coin with an image to a god other than their own. So he did a kind of gotcha on them and called them to give to each what is due. The same is true with us today. Whose image are we carrying? And to whom will we give our lives?