19 Pentecost A—10/19/14
Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
[A little background to today’s reading from Matthew: The Herodians believe in big government and paying taxes. The Pharisees are for small or no government and opposed to the tax. This morning, Jesus has a conversation with the Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Listen to his message for each group Read Matthew 22:15-22.]
I stopped in at Fred Meyer a couple of times this past week and at checkout I was asked if I have my Rewards card. Well, it used to be that I had the Fred Meyer card and one or two others, but then every store got in the game so now I have all these handy rewards keychain tags from other merchants. Some stores now have phone apps so I don’t have to carry the cards or the tags; at checkout, I just scan my phone!
I use these rewards cards out of self-interest. When I use them I get discounts and sometimes rebates. It’s a good deal for the merchants because they can track what I buy and they can hook me into coming back again and again. In fact, these “rewards programs” are sometimes called “loyalty programs.”
Our lives are filled with loyalties and money is one means of attracting our loyalty–but it’s by no means the only one. Loyalties can be as unimportant as which airline or car company we prefer. Other loyalties stir up passions, like sports teams or even the company we work for. But then there are loyalties that represent our deepest beliefs, and those loyalties might be to a political party, a religious tradition, or, one’s own nation.
The problem for Christians with loyalties is that they can lead us to be rigid, narrow-minded, fearful and self-interested. Loyalties, as we learn through Scripture, easily become idols. That’s the word we find used twice in today’s readings. The writer of Psalm 96 says: “As for the gods of the nations, they are but idols.” And Paul, in his letter to the Thessalonians, praises Christians for “turning to God from idols to serve a living and true God.”
The word “idol” is a problem for us in the 21st century. People who are familiar with the Scriptures might think of an idol as a statue that people worship, such as Artemis or Baal. Younger folks, or people unfamiliar with Christian faith, might think of popular talent shows like “American Idol.” So on the one hand, idols are thought of as evil; on the other hand, idols are to be admired. But neither of these types of idols helps us to understand the Christian definition of an idol.
Our Scriptures describe an idol as something in our lives besides God that holds ultimate meaning. Now, I suspect if we were to take a survey and ask how many among us this morning worship idols none of us would admit to such a thing, or even recognize it.
But even the most sincere and devout Christians can be idol worshipers. For the past three Sundays we’ve heard Jesus’ stories—parables—directed toward devout people. Each of Jesus’ parables is an opportunity for the Pharisees to learn, to grow, to change direction, but each time they refuse. In fact, they become more determined than ever to hang on to their traditional beliefs. As Matthew puts it, “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.”
The trap that the Pharisees and Herodians set was a test of Jesus’ loyalties. Was he loyal to God and country, or, was he loyal to another country? These are familiar questions, aren’t they? They’re modern questions. The problem with the question is that it’s about loyalties, and loyalties easily can become false gods—idols.
The reading that makes this point most powerfully is today’s first reading: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him…”
Well, who is this Cyrus guy? Cyrus, as it turns out, was king of the Persian Empire, and as an ambitious large country a threat to the nation of Israel. The thing is, Israel at this time was subject to the Babylonian Empire. Like many small countries in our day, Israel was caught between superpowers fighting with each other. Not only was Israel occupied by Babylon; most of its citizens had been uprooted and sent to Babylon (Iraq). King Cyrus of the Persian Empire was determined to defeat the Babylonian empire, and he did. What happened next is one of the most important stories among Jews to this day. After conquering Babylon, King Cyrus sent the Jews back home to Israel. In today’s first reading the prophet Isaiah gives glory to God for unexpectedly using Cyrus to send the Israelites home.
Now, don’t get the idea that Cyrus was a nice guy. He didn’t believe in Israel’s God, and he was no freedom-loving king. His Persian Empire occupied the land of Israel. And yet, he is regarded as a hero among Jews for freeing them from the Babylonians and returning them to their land.
That’s all a nice history lesson, but what does it have to do with us? Well, the story of King Cyrus asks this question: To what extent are our loyalties so rigid and so narrow that we refuse or are unable to recognize God’s presence and power in the world, even among our enemies?
A similar story plays out in our gospel reading. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Jesus answers (in the traditional version), “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” This is not a statement about the separation of church and state. Notice what Jesus doesn’t say: “Give to the emperor the things that are yours and unto God the things that are yours”—that would be an American way of thinking. Jesus makes no mention of you or me because…We. Own. Nothing. Listen to the radio waves—or maybe the voices inside you—talking about “my hard-earned money, my Social Security benefits, my this, my that.” One mark of a Christian, whether its taxes or giving to charitable organizations, is a spirit of joyful generosity. Disciples of Jesus recognize that both taxes and benevolent giving are opportunities to serve God by serving our neighbor. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “God loves a cheerful giver.”
Our loyalties—whether to a company, a political party, a sports team or a nation–tend to represent our self-interest. Christian faith proclaims a different way: although loyalty to various human interests and institutions comes naturally to us, worship becomes the test of how we live—and I don’t mean just showing up for church on Sundays. If every moment and every opportunity of every day is understood to be an opportunity to worship the Living God, then all our loyalties are tested against a vision of God’s kingdom of heaven on earth. This vision is spelled out in our Scriptures again and again, including in last week’s readings: you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress. Christian faith sets aside loyalties and self-interest to seek justice for the poor, and to practice love, mercy, peace and compassion toward all people.
It’s a good time of the year to hear these readings. Election Day is coming up in a couple of weeks, a good opportunity to do some soul-searching about the place of loyalties in our lives and the place of the Living God. May our hearts find an opening for the Holy Spirit to do its work.