United Church of Jaffrey
October 18th, 2020
To hear this sermon preached from the back of a pickup truck in the parking lot of UCJ, please press play below:
There are certain passages from the gospels that cannot read without thinking about my mother. I had that experience this week when I read the gospel lesson that the lectionary assigned for this morning.
The passage, which I just read, from the 22nd chapter of Matthew, is taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible — the translation that I am in the habit of using.
But as I read the words “give to emperor the things that are the emperor’s” my mind immediately changed the words into those my mother used:
“Render unto Caesar…”
“Render unto Caesar” is the way the King James Version expressed it, and, I must say, for all the thee’s and thou’s of the King James version — it is often the case that the words seem to have more punch in that old translation.
Render unto Caesar.
Render unto Caesar!
What does that mean?
When my mother said it, she would say it with a sigh, as if she was unhappy about something.
As a child I was confused about this old language.
I remember thinking that.
As I got older I thought I figured it out.
I figured out that Jesus, like my mother, after him, was aware that life was filled with compromises.
Jesus, and my mother — and eventually me too — we all had to face the fact that life requires things of us that are less than ideal.
We try to hold on to our convictions, but we also have to be realistic.
There comes a time when we have to admit that our mortal lives are not entirely our own — that there are powers that control us — that demand things from us.
How do we confront these powers?
If one must “Render unto Caesar” what should one give?
This is a deeply personal question — a question that challenges one’s integrity.
Hence the hint of resignation in my mother’s voice when she invoked these words.
“Render unto Caesar” was a bit like “You gotta do what you gotta do…” or “It is what it is…” — one of those things that you say when you are a forced to accept something that you don’t want to accept.
But there is a peculiar thing about this story that we need to be aware of.
This story is concerned about power…
but neither of the characters in this story — neither Jesus, nor the Pharisees that confront him, appear to have any power.
Jesus is a carpenter from Galilee.
What power does he have?
The Pharisee’s at least have some institutional credibility — they represent the religious establishment. But that’s not really saying much. The very fact that they are so concerned with discrediting Jesus suggests that they feel that what little influence they have is threatened by this new kid on the block.
If they had any power, the Pharisees could just get rid of Jesus. But they don’t have power.
In order to get Jesus out of the way, they feel that they have to manipulate the real source of power.
The real power — at least in the eyes of the Pharisees — resides with the force that occupies the land.
The power resides with Empire.
The Roman Empire.
So, to entrap Jesus, they have to figure out how to incriminate Jesus in the eyes of the Romans.
They have to set Jesus up.
A few years ago, back when we were still getting together with family for Thanksgiving, we were down in Virginia with Cary’s extended family, and all the grown ups were sitting around with glasses of wine shooting the breeze, when someone noticed that all the kids had flown the coop.
“Where are all the young’uns?”
I got up and wandered off to see if I could find the kids. It didn’t take long. As soon as I stuck my head through the door to the basement, I heard someone gleefully proclaim:
“Marvin Gardens! Let me see… I’ve got two houses, so that means you owe me 360 dollars!”
I have fond memories of playing Monopoly when I was a kid, so I followed the sound of the kid’s voices until I found them, just as I imagined they would be — sitting on the carpet, hunched over the Monopoly board with properties and monopoly money strewn here and there.
I stood on the periphery of the game and watched for a while.
Have you ever noticed that in any crew of kids, there is usually one, maybe two kids who are really into it? That kid is usually the banker. The kid always comes out swinging, and buys property like crazy. It’s not long before that kid has things under control.
You don’t have to be smart to win at monopoly. You just have to be aggressive and greedy. I’ve won a few times, but I can’t say my heart has ever really been in it.
The kids who are really good, are the ones who get a rush out of buying properties.
They’re only using monopoly money, but it feels like a real transaction. It feels good.
To be good at Monopoly, you have to pretend that monopoly money is real money.
But, for me at least, the nice thing about Monopoly money is not real money.
Maybe that’s why I stink at monopoly. I can tell the difference.
You can fail at monopoly and still have food on the table.
Real money’s not like that.
If you fail at getting real money, you may fail at getting food on the table too.
When it comes down to it monopoly money is monopoly money, and real money is real money.
With real money the stakes are much higher.
Let’s leave the kids in the basement and go back to our gospel story.
The Pharisees, if you recall, were trying to set up Jesus.
Now if you really want to set someone up, the best way to pull it off is to really get to know them — right? Because if you really know someone you can take advantage of their weakness.
So this begs the question: Do the Pharisees know Jesus?
Listen to what they say to him:
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.
It sounds to me like they do know Jesus. They seem to know him pretty well.
They take advantage of this knowledge, because they know that Jesus will speak the truth.
So they ask him a question:
Is it lawful they ask, to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
This question puts Jesus in a tricky position.
If he says that it is lawful, he will be giving his allegiance to Empire, and he will undermine his credibility with his followers.
If he says that it is unlawful, he will incriminate himself with the Romans, and they will have an excuse to have him arrested.
Jesus wants to be truthful, but he also wants to avoid being arrested.
Truth, for Jesus — as for so many people throughout history — is an Achilles heel.
Truth makes you vulnerable.
So what does he do?
You know the story.
He says: “Show me the coin used for the tax” and when they bring it to him he asks:
“Whose head is this, and whose title?”
Now we can go back to the monopoly game because the next moment in
the story is, I think, is the monopoly money moment.
When the Pharisee’s see that the face of Caesar is on the coin, they suddenly recognize that it’s really just monopoly money.
When Jesus says: “Render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s”
It’s a bit like saying “Play monopoly with monopoly money, and live your real life with real money.”
Jesus wants to help us see what is really important. He does this by helping us see that what we think is important, is actually pretty empty.
We construct elaborate ideas of value — but these things are empty of real value — they are things that we are playing at.
Money — real money — is a construct too — its made out of paper, just like monopoly money.
It’s a game.
What is real?
What has true value?
Is it something that has Caesar’s head on it?
We know this, don’t we?
You can have billions of billions of dollars and still be spiritually dead. In fact being a billionaire and being spiritually dead tend to go together.
You can be unsure where your next meal is coming from, but if you have love, you are spiritually alive.
Spiritual well-being, in fact, has nothing to do with being “well off.” Having meaning in your life, has nothing to do with being rich.
What is wealth?
What is value?
To be Christian means that we don’t play a game with our lives.
What we render unto Caesar is just monopoly money.
The real treasure is stored in heaven — not after we die, but right here — right now.
The real treasure — the only treasure that has any real value, is love.