“Get over it” It’s not that complicated

Pentecost 19
Matthew 22:15-33
Marian Free

In the name of God, in whom and of whom are all things. Amen.

Sometime ago, I was part of a Parish that took life and faith very seriously. I could tell a number of stories, but three in particular come to mind. One concerns a woman who was a member of a group that had convinced her that the Star of David was a source of evil. The poor woman was distraught not because she had such a star in her home, but because she was afraid that she might have one of which she was unaware. Her plan – until we had spoken at some length – was to go home and turn her house upside down until she was sure that it was safe. To this day I’m not sure what sort of theology promotes the idea that inanimate objects are evil and it frightens me that there is someone out there sowing seeds of fear in the name of Jesus who casts out fear.

Another story relates to an elderly couple. One of their pleasures in life was to create beautiful teddy bears. They poured everything they had into making these bears using exquisite and expensive materials. The bears were of such a high standard that they won prizes at a number of shows and cost more than I could afford to pay. One Sunday morning this pair stopped me after church. On the previous day they had attended a seminar and had been led to believe that they should give up their hobby because it was not holy or religious enough. Needless to say they were very distressed – not only because they might have to give up something that they loved, but also at the thought that for so long they had been doing something contrary to the will of God. Again, I was surprised that anyone could imagine that making teddy bears was in some way offensive to God. After some discussion, I managed to persuade the couple that in making such beautiful toys they were sharing with God in the work of creation and in case that was not convincing enough, I added that every time they completed a teddy that they should say a prayer for the person who would one day own it.

Perhaps the most shocking story of that part of my life was the day I entered the church to see a flyer headed: “Ten reasons why Santa should be shot”. Now I realise that most of us are distressed by the commercialisation of Christmas and that we might wish that Jesus received more credit and more attention than Santa Claus, but to promote that sort of violence in Jesus’ name was to my mind an extreme and unnecessary reaction.

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” The stories I have told suggest to me that the those who see evil in inanimate objects, who believe that only some activities are worthy of being called holy, or those who encourage violence have not only misinterpreted this passage, but have seriously misunderstood the gospel and the relationship between the holy and the mundane.

In order to understand the debate in today’s gospel, we need to understand the background. As we have seen, in these chapters of Matthew various church leaders engage Jesus in debate. Their intention is to expose him to ridicule and to re-establish their authority in the eyes of the people. In this instance it is the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians who try to trip Jesus up. (The Pharisees representing the religious establishment and the Herodians representing the Romans.) “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” There were many taxes in first century Palestine, but tax in question is one that Rome imposed on its subject peoples in order to support the occupation. That is the Romans expected those whom they had subjugated to pay a tax to support their presence. Needless to say, there was a great deal of resentment in relation to this tax – not least among the crowds – the followers of Jesus. The tax was a constant reminder of their status as a conquered people.

A special coin was used to pay this tax, a denarius or the Tribute penny. Like all Roman coins it had a picture of the Emperor on one side with the inscription Son of God. For the religious leaders paying the tax implied that they acknowledged Caesar as God and this was an affront to their piety.

No wonder the questioners thought that they had Jesus backed into a corner. If he said not to pay the tax, he would have the crowds and the Pharisees on his side, but would be risking his safety by committing treason against the Romans. On the other hand, if he said that the tax should be paid, the crowds might well have turned against him. It appears to be a no win situation. However, Jesus sees through the question and sidesteps the issue. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus’ response suggests that paying or not paying the tax is a trivial detail in the scheme of things. Ultimately all things are God’s – that includes the Emperor and the Emperor’s coin. The distinction between worldly and other-worldly is a false distinction. What is important is our attitude to the things of the world and the value that we give them. Essentially, the question about the taxes is a distraction. The more important question is the question about being true to God in a hostile and difficult environment.

Non-Christian symbols, teddy-bears, a secularised Santa – all of these things are irrelevant diversions. Worrying about such things takes our focus off God. We become so absorbed in fretting over whether or not something is holy or not, that we lose sight of the bigger picture – our relationship with God. Essentially Jesus is saying to his sparring partners and therefore to us: “Get over it. Concentrate on the things that really matter. Real evil is much more subtle than taxes, teddy bears or Santa. Believe that everything is God’s, place yourself and your life in God’s hands and let the rest look after itself.”

It is just not that complicated. If we put God first in our lives everything else will fall into place.

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