... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

PENTECOST 18 Year A, Message October 16th, 2011

The Certificate of Relationship

Text: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thess1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

This past week has been particularly eventful on the Canadian business scene. First we had the prospects of an air Canada strike averted only by a ministerial slight-of-hand to refer it to the labour relations board. Then we were struck with the Research in Motion hiccup that had many of the Blackberry users ‘up in arms’. Who knows what will be next? Yet amid it all lies a common element and that is how we maintain a right relationship within a contractual agreement. And lo! While we are experiencing this seemingly unrelated financial, business and political turmoils, along comes the lectionary for today. All four readings call us to examine the right relationship between God and humanity and by extension the relationship between the divine and the worldly, the church and state, the religious and the secular and the ideal and the actual.

As I was reflecting on the readings for today I kept thinking of budgets – not sure why but it seems to be an appropriate illustration leading into the deeper theological aspects of our relationship to and with God. We all know what budgets are and why we use them. They give us a guide line and measure of our financial spending and requirements. The problem is there is all too often a disconnect between the budget and the actual. As regional dean I get to see the financial picture for all the parishes in our Deanery and I must say they are eye-openers. Comparing the budget for a given year and then the actual income and expenditures illustrates how difficult it is for us to gauge ourselves. Usually we are pretty good on estimating the expenses which will be facing us but when it comes to the income – wow do we misjudge!

In much the same way there is the disconnect between righteousness and sin. God the ultimate in righteousness has entered into a covenant with Israel and as the Exodus passage points out Israel is a sinful lot. Despite how well they might desire to be righteous the reality is that their sinful nature prevents them from truly living up to the covenant. As we witnessed last week righteousness can be a frightening force with which to contend. God realizing full well the possible annihilation which can result from the clash of righteousness and sin tells Moses he will never dwell with the people. Moses becomes the mediator who tries to hold the two in balance. He is not to be seen as the superior of one or the other but the voice of reason to bring the actual to an appreciation of the ideal. As such Moses becomes the instrument of God’s mercy coaxing a people bent on a self destructive behaviour to see their liability and to change their ways.

The psalm highlights the righteous attributes of God including the divine justice and righteousness demanded of the people. It also shows the arbitrator or mediator status of the great leaders who were able to call the people to turn from their wicked ways to live in a way of righteousness. At the same time they had been able to call on God’s mercy to buy the people time so that they might change.

Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians opens with a protracted thanksgiving both to God and the people: to God for God having chosen these gentiles and Jews to be in covenant through Jesus Christ and to the people for their open reception and responsiveness to the gospel. They had come to see the folly of their ways, their sinfulness and their liabilities. They had also been exposed to the budget of righteousness and in that light changed to become aligned to the covenantal requirements.

The gospel story of Jesus’ being tested by the Pharisees and Herodians is an explicit interchange which highlights the very real separation between the divine and the worldly and between the ideal and the actual. To appreciate this even more we need to realize that there was very little agreement between these two parties – you might say it would be like the Republican Party and Communist Party in the US during the McCarty era coming together to govern. Yet we are told they agreed to this test of Jesus’ authority. It was a joint effort to trap this upstart and protect their own traditions. The issue they placed was that to taxes. Israel being a theocracy was adamant that taxes to a foreign state – Rome – was against the laws of God. The Herodians on the other hand were very much in favour of the tax as it was – what kept them in power as state leaders. So together they posed a question – a yes or no question – to Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” If Jesus were to answer that it was – in support of the Herodians, he would be seen as traitor to Israel by both the people and the Temple authorities. If on the other hand he said ‘no’, he would be labelled as a seditionist and traitor to Rome. Either answer would land him in prison or worse. If that had happened the import would have negated salvation because it would have put Jesus’ death in a worldly cause and not a divine or heavenly one.

Jesus, knowing this entrapment scheme, chooses to turn the tables and asks to see the coin – a denarius on one side of which was the Emperor’s image. He asks, “Whose image is this?” The right answer by both the Pharisees and Herodians gives Jesus the chance to insert the theological cause – “give to the Emperor the things that are the emperor’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” He doesn’t answer their question directly. Instead he highlights the reality that both kingdoms have a call on our allegiances and we are to hold them in balance.

By its context Jesus’ response recalls to his listeners the three kingdom parables and in particular the one concerning the absentee landowner whose tenants refused to give to their liege the fruit that rightfully belonged to him. The implication of this to the Pharisees and Temple hierarchy was that their stiff-necked adherence to their practices and edicts had caused them to fail God’s call for them to be a light to the world.

To the Herodians Jesus’ admonition calls to their attention the obligations required both to God and to the state. He tacitly reminds them of the separation of the two kingdoms and that obligations are required for both. There is no call to insurrection but at the same time no call that requires a state to be governed temporally by the religious establishment.

To both however Jesus demands that the separation of the divine and worldly, the church and state, the religious and secular, as well as the ideal and actual, must be kept in due balance working together in a way to benefit both. The real key to understanding this is Jesus’ question, “whose image is on the coin.” The material image belongs to the world and the tangible but the divine image belongs to God and the heavenly, and remember, each and every one of us has been made in the divine image and so we belong to God while at the same time the world. Our obligation to God is to love God with all our hearts with all our souls with all our minds and to the world is to love neighbour as self. Do you know to whom you belong? And what you owe to both?