Archive for October, 2014

MATTHEW 22:15-22

October 19, 2014

Today’s Gospel offers us a cornucopia of things to learn.  Here are three quick ones.  First, Jesus can spot hypocrisy, no matter how much flattery surrounds it.  Second, you cannot trap God or put God in a corner; God is always free to move as God pleases.  Third, Jesus can turn any event, however unpleasant, into a teaching opportunity, as he does here.

One other learning might go by unnoticed, and it would be false.  The Evangelist suggests that the Pharisees were Jesus’ enemies.  Not so.  Jesus and the Pharisees saw eye to eye on many points, and Jesus respected their adherence to their faith.  Matthew wrote his Gospel many decades later, when tensions had arisen between the Jews who followed Jesus and those who followed the Pharisees.  Matthew retrojected the animosity he felt toward the Pharisees into the account he gave of Jesus and his times.  The result over succeeding centuries has been tragic for Jews, of course, but also Christians.

That being said, I want to turn now to what may be Jesus most profound teaching.  “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Let us ask three questions.  First, how do we give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s?  Second, how do we give to God the things that are God’s?  Third, is there a connecting link?  In other words, do we have two separate compartments inside ourselves, secular and sacred?

Here is a story we can refer to as we consider those three questions.  A Catholic nun, Mary C. Boys, tells this story about a photograph she took when she was attending a conference in Cape Town, South Africa.  She writes,  “The photo’s context is political: the wretched system of apartheid was in effect; Nelson Mandela was still in prison; the government had declared a state of emergency; troops patrolled the streets; danger was in the air.  Supporting the violent status quo, an unknown hand, no doubt white, had used thick black paint to scrawl this graffiti: HANG MANDELA!  But wait – someone else, probably with a darker hand, had come along and penciled the word ‘on’ between the two painted words.”

Now let’s try to imagine our own selves on that street in Cape Town.  Envision that heavy-handed black message: HANG  MANDELA.  That image conjures up thoughts and those thoughts arouse feelings of anger, hatred, judgment, fear, and so on.  Now envision that same image with the little word, “on” inserted: HANG on MANDELA!!  Seeing that, feelings of hope, courage, faith, possibility, purpose, trust, even love course through us.

So first question: how do we give to the emperor?  Well, who is the emperor?  Wouldn’t the emperor stand for the controlling forces of that whole political and economic system in which we live?  We give to the emperor in a tangible way by paying our taxes and in general by following the law.  But we also give to the emperor in a less tangible way.  We give over our minds.   We become embroiled in political conflicts.   They stir up thoughts that arouse anger, contempt, loathing or blame.  We let the media stir us up, sparking feelings of danger and threat — from Ebola, for instance.  At the end of the day we need a stiff drink and we twitch in our sleep from all the conflicts we are aware of, or even involved in.

Second question: how do we give to God?  One, we give to God by centering ourselves in the present moment — not becoming puppets to the thoughts and feelings that the emperor throws at us, but becoming aware of our bodies, our breathing, our blood coursing through us and our connection to all of creation.  Two, we give to God by giving thanks — as the Prayer Books says, “always and everywhere give thanks.”  Three, and above all, we give to God simply by being conscious of God’s presence.  Think of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace of God’s burning love.  That is just as much our truth — we are completely immersed in God’s intense love, a love that can never die down or burn out.  Our tragedy is this: too often we let the forces of the emperor screen us from that awareness.

Are these two separate compartments in us?  Secular and sacred?  Are we like computers with a binary switch: it’s either one or zero?  Or are the secular and the sacred somehow linked in us?  Think of the graffiti, HANG MANDELA.  Omit the “on” and we’re solidly in the Emperor’s world.  Pencil “on” in the middle, and we are in God’s world, but not necessarily separated from the Emperor’s world.  Too often people who are drawn to the sacred isolate themselves from the secular.

The answer is to create our own, inner graffiti: HANG ON SUSAN.  Hang on to your awareness of your body and the present moment.  Hang on to your awareness of your connection to all creation.  Hang on to your awareness that you are burning with life in the fire of God’s furnace where the fuel is only love.  The answer is to write that graffiti again and again on the wall of my mind.

Gradually that awareness will take over.  I’ll go through my day, and I’ll give to the emperor right enough.  I’ll give myself to healing the wounded, taking a stand for justice and integrity; modeling peace and forgiveness.  I’ll give to the emperor on my terms.  And at the end of the day?  No twitching.  No tension.  No stiff drink.

This will be our story.  We’ll be a lot like Jesus.  First, we’ll be quick to spot the hypocrisy of the emperor’s world and it won’t seduce us.  Second, we won’t be trapped or put in a corner, by any longing for the things of the emperor’s world.  Third, we can turn any event, however unpleasant, into a teaching opportunity for ourselves, simply by giving thanks.

We’ll become a lot like Jesus who befriended the people who tried to trap him.  In return, he gave them a beautiful teaching, one that would open for them the gate to eternal life.  We can live like Jesus in the Emperor’s world.