Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Place for everything ...

Deuteronomy 8:11-20
Matthew 22:15-22

"Everything we have is a gift from the Lord. What we do with what we have is our gift to the Lord."

I have no idea who coined this phrase, but it makes a good point. Whether we are given much or not-so-much by human standards and terms, we are equally entrusted with certain treasures and gifts that are useful for the Kingdom of Heaven to the same purpose for which Jesus called forth His disciples: "You did not choose Me; I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit - fruit that will last" (John 15:16). In other words, fruit from good seed that will reproduce.

More to Jesus' point in Matthew's story, however, it might be more appropriate to say "everything we ARE is a gift" rather than to say "everything we have" because "to have" implies sole custody and personal ownership rather than "faithful stewardship". "To have" comes dangerously close to suggesting that the so-called "have-not's" are not so valuable in the eyes of our Lord. A disciple of Christ who recognizes that we are "nothing" apart from the Lord must surely realize that anything we "have" is at our disposal but to a much greater end than merely pleasure and comfort of self. The very same is equally true of those who have "not so much". The value, then, is in who we ARE - not in what we HAVE.

The question that is put upon Jesus, however, is a question we face daily not only in taxes we must pay on all levels but in choices we make each day toward what we do with what we "have" - or with who we "are" ... and for what reason; that is, what we expect to come from the choices we make. It is reasonable to suggest, then, that more often than not we make choices based not on what Scriptures teach us but rather based on our own human experiences and desires. We consider what we know to be true according to our experiences, what will likely work, what will come of the decision we make, and how such a decision will personally benefit us and further our own personal goals. It is what we do because, quite frankly, it better defines who we actually are ... and ignores or denies who we can be.

I've been asked before why the lectionary calendar does not appropriate this passage to be read on or about April 15, the drop-dead date the IRS puts on us to pay our taxes ... or else! It is a fair question, of course, but it completely misses the point Jesus needed to make beyond simply putting the Pharisees or their political allies, the Herodians, in their place. There is much more to this encounter than tax day or even money. It is entirely about "being" rather than "doing".

Everything we have and everything we are within the Covenant of the Lord has already been claimed and fully paid for in advance just as it is written in Psalm 24:1 - "The earth is the Lord's , and all its fullness" - but what we choose to do with who we are and what we have each day of our lives is not unlike the commitment we make at Confirmation or when we are baptized as older children and adults, assuming we were not baptized as infants. We make a statement each time we come forward to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, and we make a similar statement each time we are given an opportunity to offer our gifts to the Lord during the Offertory.

Where we tend to go wrong, however, is whenever we compartmentalize our faith according to religious and non-religious ideals. We fail to realize that the very same choice we make at Confirmation in church is the very same choice and statement we make in the check-out line at the store. We actually believe, judging by our actions, that there are parts of our lives we believe to be uniquely our own. And this, I think, is the point Jesus is making.

Of course the Pharisees and the Herodians are trying to trick Jesus with what they believed to be a trick question. There is also a more sinister element at play in this encounter; the very unholy alliance between the religious Pharisees and the secular Herodians. Up to this point I think it fair to say the Pharisees, the chief priests, the scribes, and the Sadducees have used every religious trick in the book they could think of to counter the overwhelming popularity of Jesus; popularity that threatens their perceived authority in what they believe to be their own unique territory; things they "have" for their own use. Having failed so miserably, then, they must try another angle. To do this, they needed a new ally, ironically an ally they actually despised: the Roman political authority.

Judah's king Ahaz faced a similar dilemma and made the same mistake (Isaiah 7). He was assured by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah that Ephraim's evil intent to invade and destroy Judah would not stand, and Ahaz was specifically warned to trust the Lord in this: "If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all" (Is 7:9). Rather than to trust the Lord alone, Ahaz reached out to other military and political alliances with which to counter the threat from the north. Ahaz had a chance to save Judah "by faith". Instead, he became only one more stone in Judah's shoe that would hobble - rather than save - the nation of YHWH.

I suppose it was as true for Ahaz then as it is for us now. There is a time and a place for religion. There is a time to pray, and there is a time to play. There is a time to trust, and there is a time to take action. All rational and perfectly logical. In our minds, our consciences inform us of what we should do and when we should do it. It all seems to come so easily, so instinctively - and it does because it is here where we are informed primarily by our experiences. But our consciences are also those places in which our sense of right and wrong are informed not only by our experiences but also by acquired knowledge; knowledge of moral standards, knowledge of civil law, and knowledge of the divine law. How we respond in any given situation, then, is going to depend in large part on what we devote to our experiences. And ultimately, how we respond and choose to act will define who we are - and Who is the better part of us.

It can be very confusing to try and determine what we will be or do - or should be or do - in any given situation. Each of us - without exception - has much to offer not because we've spent a lifetime acquiring and accumulating but because we are all created in that divine image of the Lord. Every opportunity we are faced with, however great or small, is an opportunity to make a confession of faith and do what we are each called to do within the perfection of that divine image ... OR ... respond instinctively, almost "animalistically" according to the "dust" from which we all come - and to which we will all return.

St. Paul expresses it best in 2 Corinthians 4; "We have this treasure (the Gospel of Christ) in earthen vessels (our bodies) that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair ... therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward person (our bodies) is perishing, yet the inward person (our souls) is being renewed day by day." I will add: by the choices we make.

So it falls to us to pay more attention to the much better and far-more-enduring part of ourselves, that part which is not "perishing" by nature but which is being "renewed day by day" - that is, each day we devote ourselves in totality to the sovereignty of our Lord; the Holy One who calls us to daily spiritual renewal; the Holy One who owns everything; the Eternal One who calls His faithful to eternal life in Christ Jesus. He is, in fact, our Emperor, our King. He is, indeed, our very Life.

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