This is the sermon the Rev. Canon Linda S. Taylor preached at the diocesan worship service for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, October 18, 2020.
20 Pentecost – October 18, 2020
Proper 24A: Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
We’ve just heard a story about Jesus and the Pharisees. It’s one of many stories of their encounters that are told in the Gospels according to Matthew and to Luke. It’s a good story with a snappy ending, but I think it would be helpful to have some context for the situation.
The Pharisees were an influential group of strictly observant Jews from about 270 BCE until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. They are described in our Christian testament, by the historian Josephus, and by rabbinic literature. All these sources differ in their understanding of the Pharisees—which reminds us that history is based in the perspective and lens of the observers. The Pharisees’ contribution is generally seen to be twofold: they were able to hold both the written Law and the traditional interpretations called the “oral Law”, and they laid the groundwork for the rise of rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Temple. One of ways they discerned their interpretations was to discuss the law among themselves—to argue their own perspectives on a point of the law and cite authority for their view, much as Jesus did when the Pharisees asked why he healed on the Sabbath. Whether Jesus—like the apostle Paul—was a Pharisee is an open question, but it makes me wonder whether the Pharisees were actually after evidence or simply looking for another opinion. My awareness that the Gospel according to Matthew was written about 20 years after the Temple’s destruction, when the early Christian community was pushing against Jewish and rabbinic leadership, adds to my wondering about what was really happening that day.
So. Back to today’s Gospel. The Pharisees bring a question to Jesus. They ask him whether religious law allows Jews to pay taxes to the emperor. This was a question of some controversy, because the emperor was considered by Roman law to be a god. The Jewish community questioned whether paying taxes to the emperor was in fact a form of offering, and therefore a recognition of the emperor as god. Maybe the Pharisees hope that Jesus will answer the question in a way that will add to the evidence against him. But he doesn’t go there. He doesn’t attempt to resolve the question of possible conflict between religious and civil law. He doesn’t get lost in explanations and rationales. Instead, he reframes the question and shifts the perspective. He says, “Show me the coin.” Don’t talk to me about theological questions—show me the coin. Show me the tangible reality of this situation.
On the face of it, this gospel story seems to separate church and state—religion and politics—rather neatly. I have no trouble imagining that the text has been used more than a few times down the generations to suggest that our faith has no connection with our civic life. I have no trouble imagining that the text has been used more than a few times down the generations to excuse backing away from conflict-ridden situations. But the truth is, our faith is the lens through which we see the whole world. In order to act with integrity, each of us is called to look at each situation we encounter from our perspective as baptized persons and through the lens of our baptismal promises. If we are to live fully into our faith, we cannot isolate the spiritual component of our lives from the rest of our lives. Each part of our being informs and influences all the other parts. Everything we do is an extension of who we are.
As I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, living into our baptism requires that we make choices, and sometimes those choices are difficult. It’s easy to be distracted, as Jesus might have been, by questions that pull us away from the real issues of our lives. The starting point is paying attention to the world around us. The starting point is stopping to notice what is going on. The starting point is asking to be shown the coin—asking to see the reality of the situation—asking what’s really going on here. The starting point is becoming aware of the ways each of us make choices that impact the rest of the world as well as our own lives. The starting point is looking at the world through the lens of our baptism, then choosing how we will give our hearts—how we will focus our time, our energy, the gift of life we’ve been given.
The choices we make—when we interact with others, when we vote, when we spend our money, when we decide how we’ll spend our free time, when we decide which causes we’ll support with our time, talent and treasures—all these choices are pebbles thrown into the pond. Our choices—and our behavior—change the world—and they change us. The ways we give our hearts—the ways we choose to invest ourselves—set a course for our next decision, our next choice. Every action we take makes the next action along that line—along that trajectory—a little easier. As all of us who have ever learned a new skill know only too well, hope or necessity gets us started, but practice is what gets us there.
Just like first century Christians, we are living in a tumultuous time. Who we are and what we do during this time is the result of who we have been practicing to be. Every day brings us a new opportunity to grow into being the persons we are called to be. In this year that’s unlike any other year in our experience, we are called to live into that opportunity with courage, clarity and faith. I encourage you to look at the coin of this time through the lens of our baptism—to live into your baptismal covenant promises—and to vote your values.
May God be with us all in the days and months to come.