Knowing how to respond

Pentecost 18

Matthew 22:15-33

Marian Free 

In the name of God, whose wisdom surpasses human knowing. Amen.

Even if you don’t have a degree in English literature, you will be aware that writers of novels use a variety of techniques to grab our attention, to develop a plot and to build tension. We are all so familiar with the Biblical texts and so used to reading the Bible in small, designated amounts, that we do not often appreciate the skill with which the writers tell their story.  Each of the gospel writers has carefully arranged and drafted their account of Jesus’ life so as to gain maximum effect and to ensure that the listeners are drawn into the story and, more importantly, brought to faith.

This is most clearly demonstrated in the Gospel of John that gathers impetus and builds dramatic tension until the story reaches its climax in the raising of Lazarus. It is also true of the Synoptic gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all organise the stories of Jesus’ life in the way that most suits the message that they wish their listeners to hear.

Our weekly diet of selected readings means that we often miss important connections and fail to see how the author has been building an argument or a point of view. Last week, for example, we saw that Matthew’s account of the parable of the banquet is the final parable in a series of three in which Jesus has been attacking official Judaism – in particular that of the chief priests and the scribes who had been questioning his authority.

In today’s gospel, we begin a series of confrontations between Jesus and the Jewish leadership.  The Jewish leaders – first the Pharisees (and Herodians) then the Sadducees, then the Pharisees again try to trick Jesus with clever questions – should one pay tax to Caesar, what happens in the resurrection and what is the greatest commandment? These confrontations serve two purposes in the narrative of the gospel. Firstly, they expose the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders and secondly they demonstrate Jesus’ wisdom and discernment. The debates reveal that not only are the leaders of Judaism unable to trick Jesus, but that they are ignorant in regard to the workings and teaching of their faith.

The two questions are carefully thought out. They are designed to trick Jesus into saying something that will expose him as a radical or as someone whose teaching is contradictory to the teachings of Judaism. The first question is about taxes, but in fact, as Jesus is aware, it has nothing to do with taxes. It is in reality a question about the Empire and about Jesus’ attitude to Rome.  Romans coins were, from Caesar’s time onwards, stamped with an image of the Emperor. Very often the image was presented in such a way as to make the Emperor look like a god. The coins were the only coins that could be used in trade and their use was associated with Emperor worship. Some Jews, particularly the Zealots, refused to use the coins. They felt that having in their possession a coin that depicted someone who claimed to be a god would compromise their faith.

The Pharisees thought that if Jesus responded by saying that taxes should be withheld, that they could accuse him of being a trouble-maker, a revolutionary and that this would put Jesus in a difficult position with regard to the Roman authorities. On the other hand, if Jesus argued that the taxes should be paid, it could be made to look as though he supported the Roman rule of Palestine or even the worship of the Emperor. This response would lose him the support of the Jewish people. However, Jesus is aware that his questioners are trying to entrap him, so he side-steps the question. He makes it clear that he belongs in neither camp – ‘give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s’.

The second question is about the resurrection. In the first century, the matter of resurrection was of some contention. The Pharisees believed that the dead would be raised and the Sadducees did not.  So the Sadducees bring a question to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to believe in the resurrection. According to tradition if a man dies childless, his brother must take his wife as his own to try to ensure that his brother’s line continues. If seven brothers all die childless a woman would, in effect, have seven husbands in heaven.

Jesus responds by pointing out that it is not that the resurrection is a foolish idea, but that the Sadducees do not know what they are talking about. Heaven, Jesus says, is vastly different from earth, and heavenly relationships will not be the same as earthly relationships. As to the resurrection, Jesus quotes God speaking to Moses ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? Thus he use scripture to  prove that the dead will be raised.

We live in interesting times. Not only do we live in a culture in which many faiths are represented, but we also live in a time when atheists such as Richard Dawkins are becoming increasingly aggressive and antagonistic to Christianity.

Very often, those who reject the faith, reject things that you and I would not even consider to be a part of our faith and that, if we ever believed them, we have long since ceased to do so. What I have seen of Richard Dawkins leads me to believe that he is operating from a number misapprehensions. That I consider these people to be wrong, does not alter the fact, that among a number of people it is considered not only OK, but cool or smart, to denigrate the Christian faith as irrational and un-scientific, and to dismiss God as judgmental and demanding.

We can no longer count on sympathy, tolerance or even blithe indifference to our beliefs. For this reason it is beoming increasingly important for us to have a clear understanding of our faith and of the scripture that lies behind our faith. There are many texts that on the surface are difficult to understand and that may be used by our opponents to discredit us or to turn others against us. It is important that, like Jesus we learn not to be caught up in the agendas of other people and to engage in fruitless arguments. We need to learn to make our case clearly and directly and not to be distracted by arguments that are not relevant to our core beliefs or that are designed to trick us into saying something that we might regret.

We can no longer assume that our neighbours share our faith, that they have an accurate knowledge of our faith or that they know anything at all. We must be sure of what we believe and equip ourselves to share that knowledge with friend and foe alike.

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