Dirty Politics

[]I didn't have a New Members Class this morning so I had some time in my office to contemplate this sermon and I sat down and actually wrote out the sermon. So, in essence, this was preached already in my office from nine-fifteen until about five minutes after ten. And so that I don't mix all this up, I'm using a script today. We've been looking at a series of teachings from the book of Matthew and I'll do a fast rewind to help set our context. I paraphrased the other stories in the series to help us see the larger picture, especially those who haven't heard the earlier parables.

We go back to Matthew, Chapter 21, Jesus' triumphal entry on a colt into Jerusalem with shouts of acclamation of his authority. You may remember that as the Palm Sunday reading. This series of parables follows Jesus' triumphal entry where all the people in the city are watching and wondering, "Who is this who is coming, and why are they shouting, 'Hosanna to the one who comes in the name of David'"?

After Jesus comes in to town, he goes to the temple where he declares that it has become a den of thieves. He throws out the merchants and overturns the moneychangers' tables. Then as he goes into the temple, he heals the blind people right in front of the priests. The healed then turn around and say, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord," those words declaring Jesus as Messiah. The priests who were watching all of this are infuriated, and Jesus leaves. When Jesus comes back to the temple, the ranking priests and elders confront Jesus and demand to know, "By what authority do you these things?" Jesus understood that they were trying to trap him in heresy and he agrees to answer their question only if they answer his question first. He asks about the baptism of John, was it heaven-sent or of human origin. The chief priests and elders knew that they were in a no-win situation because if they said heaven-sent, then Jesus would say, "Then why didn't you trust him?" And if they say of human origin, then the priests know they'll be at the mercy of the crowd if they say that John is a prophet, so they don't know what to do. When they say, "We don't know," Jesus says, "Well, neither will I tell you by what authority I teach." If you were a boxing person, you would then ring the bell. Ding, ding…round 1 to Jesus.

Then Jesus tells another parable. A man had two sons. He asked the first to go out and work in the vineyard. His son said, "Okay," but didn't go. He asked the second son, and the second son said, "I don't want to go," but he thought about it and he later went. Jesus put this question to them, "Who was the faithful one?" They said, "They second son who actually went." And then Jesus condemns the priests for not believing in John the Baptist initially nor coming around, after thinking about it, and changing their minds and listening to John's calls for justice. So Jesus then tells them, "Then neither will you enter the kingdom of heaven," and that, "prostitutes and thieves will go in ahead of you," because they listened to John. Ding, ding...round 2 to Jesus.

In the next story, the parable of the vineyard owner, a man bought and planted a vineyard and hired stewards to care for it. At the harvest, he sent servants who were mistreated and killed. Then he sent his personal servants who were also mistreated and killed. Then he sent his son, and they killed him, for they realized it was an opportunity to kill the heir and take the property. He asked the priests, "What will the owner do?" And they answered, "He'll put those wicked servants to a wretched death and hire new stewards." And Jesus responds with the Scripture about the cornerstone…and he's referring to himself there as being that cornerstone and the priests as the builders. Remember…'the chief cornerstone that the builders rejected.' So he tells them, "Therefore, God's domain will be taken away from you and given to people who will bear fruit," likening them to the parable. The priests are angered again. They want to seize him, but don't because the gathered crowds again regard Jesus as a prophet. Ding, ding…round 3 to Jesus.

Then in the parable of the wedding banquet from last week, a banquet is given by the king which results in, 'Many will be called, but few will be chosen," a dig to the leaders of the chosen people of God and a warning to the rest about preparation. All of these things have set the context for today's story when the priests ask Jesus, "Shall we pay taxes to the emperor or not?" Some background: this was not quite comparable to us paying taxes today. Things were a bit different back then. Taxes were, like today, paid for roads, buildings, the army, and the governance, but also for the construction of temples and the worship of idols and gods and deities of the Roman Empire. So, in essence, it could be seen as an affront to God to pay taxes to the emperor who is going to use them for idol worship, which is a violation of the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods before me.

So with that background, understand that it would discredit Jesus, as holding the authority of God, to suggest that people should give money to a government that is going to use it to build temples to worship other gods. However, to speak out against paying taxes to the emperor is sedition and would result in imprisonment and probably death. So the chief priests and the elders who come forth with the Herodians… that is, Herod's people who would be the enforcers of the law when Jesus slips up…think they have given Jesus an unwinnable debate. He will have to falter because there is no winnable answer that he can give that would keep him faithful but also keep him a good citizen and keep him from getting imprisoned or killed. But Jesus knows what they are up to and thwarts their efforts. He uses the picture and inscription from a coin to turn around and set up the dual responsibilities of those on earth.

I happened to bring a coin today. It's a quarter, probably worth a lot less than a denarius in those times. And, interestingly, it has the head of someone on one side, and on the opposite side it has the eagle. And our coins follow very much the pattern of coins from the Roman Empire. So we can look at this coin and think about what they were thinking. Jesus, in those moments of contemplation thinking, "I know what they're up to," and, "What will I say?" relies on what comes into his spirit. And he says, "Whose head and whose inscription is on this coin?" That was an easy answer for them and they say, "The emperor." In another Gospel, they say, "Caesar." And he says, "Give to the emperor what is the emperor's, and give to God what is God's." Ding, ding…Jesus wins again.

Here we are, in just two chapters of Matthew's Gospel, setting up the context of what is to come for Jesus. Answering that early question when Jesus came into Jerusalem helps us to understand where this is going and who Jesus is. This is a story of trickery and deception, which is commonplace to us. We see it in businesses, politics, and sometimes even in the church. But using malice to try and get what one wants only brings harm. We see that in the instances of these Scriptures. We have seen it across the history of humanity, and we even see it in our own time. Yes, there may appear to sometimes be short-term gain, but overall when one uses malice or deception, one loses one's spirit and even one's soul which should be filled with goodness if one is a child of God. It is important for us, as people of God, not to get caught up in that routine, to not become like the chief priests and the elders and the Scribes, using trickery to get what we want. And God forbid that we ever use the name of God for our own purposes.

This carries over to who we give authority to in our decision-making, not only individually, but in our families and in our nation. It is important for us, as people of God, to root ourselves in God and not participate in things that are not of God, especially when we see malice or other wrongfulness being used. Right now, this nation is in the midst of probably one of the uglier presidential elections that I've been witness to in my thirty-eight years. And in the midst of that, there is lots of deception flowing from both sides. It is important for us as people in this nation, and as Christians, to realize that we should not let ourselves get caught up in dirty politics. Let us use the wisdom within our hearts that God has given us to make our decisions.

I call for all of us, in this time of cunning and malice, to let our hearts and spirits be our guide, to let spiritual matters and leadership choice be informed in prayer, and let them be informed by truth and real facts. As people of the spirit, it is important for us to let our church also be ruled and led by the spirit of love that God gives to us, to let that be our inspiration to give us vision, to not be caught up in so many fears, but to realize that yes, we must trust in God. Doing so has a history in the Bible of having good results, and I think we'll have no different results in the long run. So let us be faithful to the truth, let us be faithful to God's love, and let us be led in the Spirit of Christ. Amen.

Read other Sermons by Pastor Steve