Jesus Christ Unifies!
Exodus 33: 12-23
1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10
Matthew 22: 15-22
“Because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” 1 Thessalonians 1: 5
Tena koutou katoa e te whanau o Te Wairua Tapu.
In today’s gospel Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
It sounds simple enough. We should be able to divide a piece of paper into two columns, one for God and one for our emperors and then start making our list. That’s often how this text gets interpreted and applied. We hear Jesus saying there are things for God and there are those things for the emperor. Then we try to divide our life and our world between church and state, religion and politics, sacred and secular, saved or damned, tithe and taxes, spirit and matter, heaven and earth, human and divine, as if all these things are completely separate and unrelated, as if they are in opposition and have nothing to do with each other.
That separation or duality is at the heart of the question the Pharisees and Herodians ask Jesus. The Pharisees, as you know, were the religious leaders and authorities. The Herodians are important because their loyalty to King Herod suggests they willingly cooperated with the Roman occupiers of the time, while the Pharisees distanced themselves from Rome. The only thing that brings the two groups together is their shared dislike of Jesus. They come to Jesus with a question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” They want to know whose side Jesus is on, the emperor’s or God’s. It’s a trap. Either/or questions and situations almost always are. Whichever way Jesus answers the question he will have incriminated himself with either the Pharisees or Rome. That’s dualistic thinking. Sound familiar?
So how does Jesus answer their question? Is it the empire or God? Yes it is. That’s his answer. They never expected that answer. They set a trap for Jesus and they were the ones who got caught in their own trap. In so many ways, we live with either/or, dualistic, thinking which only entrap ourselves. We too often fragment or split our lives. We have our prayer life, our religious life, our family life, our work life and our economic life. We talk and live as if there is no integrity or coherence between them. When we do that, we end up excluding God from a large part of our lives and our world. In other words, we think like the Pharisees and Herodians and plot to entrap Jesus and we rightfully end up being called hypocrites. Maybe that’s why much of today’s culture distrusts the church and finds it to be irrelevant. The church has lost it’s voice and has no credibility. It has nothing to offer. Simplistic answers are no match for the complexities of life today. The last thing we need is more fragmentation and division in our lives. That’s not who we are to be or how we are to live. It’s certainly not who Jesus is or how he lived, especially when he was both fully human and fully divine.
You see, Jesus is not trying to divide our lives or our world. He’s not asking us to divide our loyalties. Instead, he’s holding before us the reality of God and the reality of our emperors. Both are real. Both are a part of our lives and our world. Jesus is asking us to step into and live in the tension of those two realities. That’s what he did. That’s where he lived. To stand in that place is to stand with Jesus. That’s where life gets real. That’s where life is really lived. It is neither a comfortable nor an easy place to be. There are no easy answers. Go on, make up your two lists. What would go in God’s column? What would go in the emperor’s column? What criteria determine whether something is God’s or the emperor’s? Are God and the emperor mutually exclusive and always in opposition? Can they complement each other? Is the emperor always bad? Must we choose one over the other? Who is God in our life? Who are our emperors?
I don’t have answers to those questions. Why? Because I struggle with them just like most of you do. Of course I want to have clear cut answers and I want to be able to give you an answer. But at the end of the day, I don’t have any answers. I can’t tell you what to do but I can stand with you in between the tension of God and the emperor and you can stand with me. That struggle, the tension of living with and between God and my emperors, continually pushes me inward, to examine my life, to reflect on who I am, what I do, and whose image and title I bear.
I wonder if that’s Jesus intention in today’s gospel. I wonder if that’s why the Pharisees and the Herodians were amazed. His answer to them creates an unsolvable problem and maybe that’s the point. Maybe when we recognise, accept and struggle with this insolvable problem, maybe that’s when we really begin to follow Jesus. We stop searching for answers and begin seeking life. That’s when and where the church has something to say, faith makes a difference and lives are changed. If we are not struggling and wrestling with issues that we face then we may not really be living. To avoid or stand outside the struggle is, in some way, to stand outside our own lives. It avoids the reality of our lives and the presence of Christ who lives in that reality.
To simply divide life between the empire and God is too simplistic, too easy. It avoids the struggle. It’s an over simplification of Jesus’ life, your life and my life, the mystery, beauty and wonder of God and the holiness of creation. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Amen.
Archdeacon Kaio Karipa
Almighty God, you reign over all things and have created each one of us in your own image. Assist your people to give to earthly rulers and powers what belongs to them and to give our allegiance and ourselves to you alone, the one whose image is imprinted on every human soul. Through Jesus Christ our Liberator, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen
The Venerable Kaio Karipa
Sydney Maori Anglican Fellowship Church of Te Wairua Tapu