Sermon – Sunday, October 19, 2014
Lower Bermudian Lutheran Church – East Berlin, PA
I started pounding on the door and then yelling for help. I couldn’t get out. I was on the third floor of the office building and there was no escape. At first I tried to stay calm as I tried to unlock the door, but it was stuck. The door wouldn’t budge. It was Friday, and everyone had gone home for the weekend and soon my calm reserve turned to panic. I started yelling – louder and louder – wondering if I would be stuck in the bathroom all weekend. Suddenly, someone was still in the building. They heard me and opened the door. I was free! And I was ever so grateful!
For anyone who has ever been trapped – in an elevator, in a room, in terrible relationship or situation – you know exactly what I am talking about. Minutes seem like hours and panic eventually prevails. Eventually, you do whatever you have to in order to get out of the situation. Being trapped is not a place anyone wants to find themselves in and Jesus was no different.
Over the last few weeks we’ve heard in Mathew’s gospel how the Pharisees are becoming increasingly more agitated with Jesus. His parables are hitting a nerve with them. When Jesus told the parable of the wicked tenants Matthew says the Pharisees “wanted to arrest Him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded Him as a prophet.” Jesus was becoming a trouble maker in the eyes of the Pharisees and the other religious leaders. They felt he had to be stopped. And so in today’s text we hear that the Pharisees and the Herodians plotted to entrap him.
This is an interesting alliance that is important not to overlook. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees and Herodians were not friends. They had strong differences of opinions, particularly about taxes. The Herodians supported the rule of Herod, who was given authority by the Roman rulers and cooperated with them. The Pharisees on the other hand were the legalistic Jewish leaders who believed in obeying their own interpretation of the law. The Pharisees didn’t support the paying of taxes to the emperor. The annual payment of this tax to Rome was a painful reminder of being in lands occupied by foreign powers who worshiped false gods. The tax could only be paid with Roman coins which were not just legal tender but also pieces of propaganda. The coinage with the emperor Tiberius Caesar’s image on it along with the title of divinity – son of a god, was considered idolatry by the Pharisees. Yet as Jesus so honestly pointed out, the Pharisees themselves paid into the system that they so adamantly criticized. Despite these differences, these two groups had one common enemy, and his name was Jesus.
The Pharisees and Herodians felt that if they trapped Jesus they would be able to arrest him and stop him from causing any more trouble. Jesus was preaching a new way to live and worship and this was a threat to both the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman government. If Jesus responded that they should pay the taxes, then He could be accused of promoting allegiance to the Roman Emperor who proclaimed himself as a god vs. the true God whom the Jews and early Christians worshipped. If Jesus responded not to pay the taxes, then the Roman authorities could arrest him for being a subversive and encouraging people to fight against the government. Either way, Jesus was trapped.
Jesus however did not respond to this entrapment with panic. Jesus did not respond in anger. Jesus responded with a wisdom that flowed from the Father and the Holy Spirit. “Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus said. While the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders proclaimed to worship only one God, they in fact were using these Roman coins and proclaiming with their actions differently. They were, as Jesus pointed out, hypocrites. And no one wants to be exposed as a hypocrite. Their plan was to trap Jesus, yet Jesus revealed that they were the ones who were really trapped, yet they didn’t even realize it. Do we?
We today are trapped as well; trapped in a multitude of ways. Some are trapped in poverty and as hard as they try they can never seem to get ahead – lack of health insurance and rising costs are leaving people either bankrupt or homeless. Some are trapped in isolation. In a culture that is more connected online than ever before via social media, people are feeling more and more isolated from one another. Others are trapped in fear. The recent outbreaks of diseases like ebola and the violence in our own country and around the globe instill fear in thousands of people. And there are many fears we cannot see or even name. Silent fears we keep to ourselves. We often feel trapped with no way to escape.
The very systems of justice in our society set up to help us often add to our problems; they trap us. Our society seeks vengeance instead of reconciliation, war instead of peace, hatred instead of love, and ultra-independence instead of community. Different forms of media bombard us with a gospel of greed, materialism, and consumerism. The more we obtain, the happier we will be – at least that’s what we are told. While it’s true that extreme poverty is a crime against humanity and is something that must be overcome, an overabundance of wealth will not make us happier or more secure either. We are trapped by the systems of our own societies and we are a part of those systems.
Money itself can entrap us. Money is a gift from God, yet we, like those in today’s story have made money itself our very god. Instead of using money to help bring about God’s kingdom on earth – to feed the hungry, to free the poor – money has become a symbol of what we worship – a false god. There is a danger in wanting to hoard it instead of using it for the work of Christ’s mission on earth.
We too are guilty of idolatry, and like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time either we don’t realize it, or we no longer care anymore. We have become trapped by the false idols we lift up. We, as a society are obsessed with sports, and celebrities, and status and they can become idols. Even our church buildings can become idols if we are not careful. These trappings slowly cause us to forget who we are and to Whom we owe our allegiance. Yes, as our own confessions claim, we are in bondage to sin – trapped – and we cannot free ourselves.
But there is a way out. There is a way to freedom and it is through our Savior, Jesus Christ. Through our baptism, we Christians, have been made children of God. We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. It is not the images on our American coins, or our bank accounts, or our clothing labels, or our status that defines us. It is our identity as children of God that defines us. And we have the promise that God will be will us forever. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus.” And if we are not yet baptized or know others who are not, the Holy Spirit invites all to accept this gift of grace and forgiveness. It is this inclusion into the family of God that will bring us lasting peace, not the peace promised by fleeting things.
In Jesus’ time, the Roman government promised peace – the Pax Romana. They promised peace if people would pay their taxes to Caesar. They would be allowed to practice their own religion as long as they did not cause any trouble. As long as they did not upset the status quo. But Jesus challenged the status quo then and He challenges us as disciples to challenge it today. We must stand up against these false idols, these false gods that try to entrap us. They lure us into a false sense of security and peace, but the only true peace is found in the one true God. The God who cares so much for all of creation that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus died so that we might be free. He died so that we would not be held captive to sin and death. And He is risen!
When Jesus said to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s, He is asking us to think deeply about what things are God’s. What things belong to God? The answer is everything. Everything and everyone belongs to God, the Creator of all things. Understood in this light we no longer are trapped by trying to own things. We cannot own what is not ours. All things and all people are God’s.
And the good news is that if all things belong to God, then God will work all things together for good. Even Cyrus, the king of Persia, in our first reading from Isaiah was used as an instrument of God to set the Israelites captive in Babylon free. He may not have known that God was using him, but God uses even the most unsuspecting people to bring about good. Evil will not ultimately triumph because God has already won the victory.
We may at times feel trapped, but there is a way out. Christ is the Key and He has set us free and through the power of the Holy Spirit we have nothing to fear. We may not see where the future leads us, but we know Who is guiding our future.
Let us pray, “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.