The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Friday, October 14, 2011

Whom will you serve?

A denarius: Worth a day's wage in Jesus' time.

Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time—A
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
1Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Matthew 22:15-21
We hear a lot today about separation of church and state. There is considerable tension between the two—and at times, either corrupt collusion or catastrophic conflict. At its core, however, the issue is nothing new. Only the circumstances have changed throughout human history.
In a very real sense, such a tug of war is our own doing. We have created the conditions under which we strain against. The real question may be: “What does this perpetual struggle tell us about ourselves, about what we value, about what we desire and strive for?”
From a biblical perspective, the sacred writers relate the answer to us quite clearly:
What does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being. … Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.
    --Deuteronomy 10:12-13; 6:6, 12-13                                 
Later, Joshua tells the chosen People of God: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” And the people respond by saying they will serve the Lord, “for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed” (Joshua 24:15, 17).
From the very beginning, humanity was not meant to be governed by anyone but God. The Lord God was King. But our ancestors in the faith, like us, had short memories. It wasn’t long before they envied what pagan nations had and chose against God. They pleaded with the prophet and judge Samuel to give them a “real” king: “There must be a king over us. We too must be like all the nations, with a king to rule us, lead us in warfare, and fight our battles” (1Samuel 8:19-20).
Samuel resisted, but God told him, “You are not the one they are rejecting. They are rejecting me as their king.” Give them a king, he told Samuel, but warn them what that will mean (1Samuel 8:6-9). So Samuel told the people that if he anointed a king over them, their rulers would become greedy, cruel tyrants and thieves, seeking to conquer only for their own personal survival and comfort. Still, they insisted: “Give us a king!”
“Crucify him!” would be the cry many years later, essentially saying the same thing: “We want a king after our own image—to rule ourselves. We don’t want God.”
So, Samuel gave the ancient Israelites a king—Saul—and nations and peoples have been torn asunder ever since (the occasional God-fearing leader notwithstanding, for even good leaders make mistakes). This scenario has played out repeatedly over the course of human history. Remarkably, God is still waiting patiently for us to choose the right path.
So what does Jesus mean in today’s Gospel when he says, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”?
First of all, the passage must be considered in context. In the preceding passages in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has entered Jerusalem, where he knows he will be put to death. He has claimed authority over the temple, and then challenged the religious leaders of the day with parable after parable about unworthy servants. They are offended and angry, and they mean to pay Jesus back everything he has coming to him.
So the question the Pharisees and Herodians ask in today’s Gospel — “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”— is not asked in good faith. The questioners are not interested in the answer, but only in finding a way to do away with Jesus, to put him to death and get him out of the picture. Their malicious intent is evident in the fact that the Pharisees and Herodians had directly opposing political views (the Pharisees resisted Roman rule; the Herodians favored it). But they were willing to join forces to get rid of Jesus, and the question they asked was meant to entrap him. There was no right answer.
But Jesus saw through all this, and therefore refused to engage the evil present in the question. Instead, he asked for a coin and asked a question of his own: “Whose image is this?”
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Here, I can envision him flipping the coin back to the group).
With this answer, Jesus is not taking any position on the issue of separation of church and state. He is not advocating any human government or revolutionary movement. Instead, he implies that the very conditions giving rise to the question are a result of our own sinfulness, our turning away from the God who made us. He may as well have said, “You asked for a king!”
And that is the key to the whole episode. The religious leaders still want a human ruler, a king, even though the King of Kings, God of gods, stands directly in front of them. Like Joshua, Jesus again is asking the question, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
So, whatever choice is placed in front of us, we must ask ourselves in Jesus’ own words: “Whose image is this?” If it is “Caesar,” then we must act accordingly. However, what it all boils down to is this: Each one of us—even “Caesar”—is made in the image of God. God’s image is imprinted on every human heart, just as Caesar's image was imprinted on ancient Roman coins. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it is God to whom we belong and whom we must love and serve—with all our heart, soul, and mind.
As Jesus says elsewhere: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

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