Sunday, October 19, 2014

Time and Identity

Jesus before Caiaphas
We have a gospel today where Jesus seems to be giving us tax advice, and we may be tempted to say, "Jesus, that's not really your area of expertise, why don't you just go back to telling us to be nice to each other." But Jesus is driving at an important point about how to properly order the world and put everything in its right place, so we should look deeper at it.

Our readings this time of the year come from near the end of Matthew's gospel and they seem to constantly involve confrontation with the Pharisees. Jesus is in Jerusalem, the time of his Passion is drawing nearer, and the Pharisees are becoming increasingly agitated by his teachings and the followers he's attracting. So now they're trying to trick him and trap him in legal arguments, and that's what we see today.

Today is interesting because we see enemies teaming up to try to bring down the Messiah. The gospel says that the Pharisees and the Herodians approached Jesus, now the Pharisees were the religious zealots, no fan of the Roman occupation, but the Herodians were supporters of Herod, the local governor ruling by Caesar's permission, and they were in power only by Caesar's favor. So the Pharisees and Herodians hated each other, but were willing to work together to bring down Jesus.

Their method today is to try to get him in trouble with either the Roman authorities or the Jewish crowds. If he speaks in favor of the tax, then he would appear to be in favor of the Roman invaders and so the crowds would turn on him, and if he speaks against the tax then the Romans would view him as a rebel and arrest him. Others with Jewish nationalistic tendencies who had opposed the tax before had been brutally executed, so they think they've got him for sure this time.

But Jesus is having none of their business, because their whole line of thinking misses the most important things. So Jesus asks them to show him a coin, and the Pharisees show him one. They're opposed to paying the tax, but apparently they're cool with carrying the money and using it for other purposes. Jesus cleverly avoids answering directly by pointing out that the coin belongs to the emperor in the first place so you might as well give it back, and then Jesus uses it as an opportunity to discuss one's duty to God. The danger for the Pharisees is that, in their dealings with the Romans, they were in danger of giving to God what belongs to Caesar and giving to Caesar what belongs to God. And for our purposes, Caesar represents the government or nation, basically secular society. So what belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God? Jesus just tells us to give each their due, but then doesn't really explain what that is.

We know that God should get the first and the best of who we are and what we have. God gets our unconditional love and devotion, he gets our praise and our worship. These are things that we should not give to our country, at least not in the same way. Our country deserves our loyalty and support, but not an unconditional loyalty because our country is not infallible. As Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are not wed to any single country, any single political party, or any system of government. We are pilgrims on this earth and so we are at home in none of these systems.

Where do we spend more time?
And yet, even while we recognize that we are pilgrims and that this is not our final home, our country often inspires in us a deeper devotion than our God does. So I want to use our relationship with our country as a way to think about our relationship with God. We willing to perform our basic duty of paying taxes regularly, no matter what and without thinking about it, yet sometimes we're ok to miss Mass, that most basic of duties to God, just because we're tired or we don't feel like it. If we get a speeding ticket or some other civil penalty, we pay it immediately, yet we consider once a year confession sufficient to atone for our sins against our God and Creator. We read the newspaper and watch the news channels, we spend a lot of time staying conversant on what's going on in the world, and yet we think our duty to God can be fulfilled in just one hour a week on Sunday because we think it's ok to drop our kids off at CCD but we certainly don't need any further education in our faith. Now, I am not condemning anybody! This is a call to attention for all of us. Consider whether God is calling you to be more involved in your parish, beyond just Sunday. Consider if just an hour a week is enough to sustain you on this pilgrim journey. Consider if your role in the Church, your efforts to be involved, should look more like your role in civil society.

When we recognize ourselves as pilgrims on this earth, we should start to ask questions about our identity, and what we place our identity in. We like to apply lots of labels to ourselves because they help us to form an identity and to feel at home in a group. This is not a bad thing. So if I were to ask you "What are you?", after you stare at me blankly for a time for such a strange question, you might start to tell me "I'm an American, I'm a Wyomingite, I'm a fan of this or that sports team," or you might tell me about your job. Like I said, none of these things are bad. Maybe you would say "I'm a husband or father or wife or mother." These are better answers. But how many of us would answer the question "What are you?" with "I'm a Christian" before we said anything else? I suspect that not many of us would. But if we give to God what belongs to God, if we give God our first and our best, then that has to include the most important part of our identity. We should find our identity primarily in God. We have to know and believe that:

I am a beloved son or daughter of God our Father, and that is my identity and the source of my worth. I am saved and redeemed by Jesus Christ and that is the source of my hope. I am filled with the Holy Spirit and that is the source of my inspiration.

So today, reflect on what belongs to God and what belongs to our country in your own life. Make sure that your primary identity is a Christian, the primary way that you think about what you are in this life. Render to God what belongs to him in this life, and that will prepare you to live with him forever in the next.

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