Sunday, October 19, 2014

What's left for us?

Romans 13:1-7
Matthew 22:15-22

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." 

Moses commended this "great" commandment to Israel before they were to cross into the Promised Land.  As much as they were about to be given, it would come at great risk.  They could (and did!) get too full of themselves and forget Who made their entry into "the land of milk and honey" possible.  They would be taking possession of "large and beautiful cities you did not build, houses full of all good things you did not fill, wells you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees you did not plant - when you have eaten and are full - then beware, lest you forget The Lord who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, from the house of bondage" (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).

Jesus affirmed this commandment as the "first and great" commandment (Mt 22:38), the commandment upon which all else in the Covenant is established - "You shall have no other gods before Me".  This commandment, however, is meaningless without a full understanding of and deep appreciation for the depth and breadth of the love which is called for in this commandment.  We may also do well to think more deeply about what constitutes "gods" in our lives, what or whom we really pay homage to.

Thinking through Jesus' admonition to render appropriately what belongs to "Caesar" and to The Lord, it is hard not to think specifically about money - especially since Jesus is referring to a coin with the emperor's image.  On the surface, money is the issue because it is what we use to pay taxes.  However, we are compelled to think more broadly than simply paying taxes to the "empire".

By the text itself, we may be led to believe all currency with any image belongs strictly to that image - meaning that even though we earn it, someone or something else can legitimately claim it.  Actually, it seems strictly by Jesus' words, the currency is never really ours since it bears an image ("You shall not make a carved image") - and government has the authority to tax per its need to provide for the "common defense" and good order.

Human words can be deceiving, however.  There is a much broader context - AND - the reality of the "Word made flesh" offering something that cannot be found in a literal reading of the words on the page.  In fact, there is no interpretation and no depth in reading literally.  The words are the words, and there is no more to see than what is on the surface.

"My ways ... and My thoughts", The Lord says, demand that we move beyond the human interpretation that is the English translation from the original Greek text that was rewritten in Latin and then back to Greek and then finally to English (in its many forms!).  The Holy Scriptures require that we get over our own "awesomeness" in claiming "common sense" (which is actually human tradition from generations past) when it comes to understanding the depth of Jesus' many lessons and the greater context from which these lessons come.

Money in our economy and culture is our primary currency.  We trade the money we earn for the goods and services we need, and to pay our taxes.  Money is also the tithe we offer in our worship of The Lord, the gift we bring in thanksgiving.  The "empire" cannot have it all.

Yet Jesus commends to us an abiding respect for the "empire" and its authority.  St. Paul (and St. Peter) both write of respect for the legitimate authority of the "empire", the state.  St. Paul goes so far as to give credit to The Lord as having "ordained" and "appointed" this authority.  In our system of representative government, however, we appoint our own authorities and make our own laws through our chosen representatives.  So if something is wrong, we have no one to blame but ourselves.  We cannot call out "tyranny" without exposing ourselves as the "tyrants".  Sometimes, however, we question the usefulness and meaning of what is written when we remember Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, and so many others who abused their authority and utterly failed in their "divinely appointed" mission.

But the question of what rightly belongs to the "empire" commands our attention since Jesus gives legitimacy to this claim.  The bigger question, however, is what belongs to The Lord.  This is a big question, too, because the "empire" - as per Jesus and Paul and Peter - can take as much as it claims to need!  The implication by Jesus that the whole of the currency belongs to "Caesar" - because of the image it bears - suggests there is something much more substantial and enduring which belongs to The Lord.

Going back to Moses' "great" commandment, remember Moses was speaking to a whole new generation, the old generation which lived Torah, created "The Story", having died in the wilderness.  The old generation suffered the trials and tribulations of making the difficult transition from "slave" of the "empire" to "servants" of The Lord - AND - one another!  What they were about to enter into and take possession of was never "theirs".  They didn't earn it.  They didn't build the cities, and they did not plant the vineyards.  Yet they were about to pick the fruit with The Lord's blessing and permission.

We are to discern between what is "given" by Divine decree and what is "acquired" by human means.  In this discernment as well, we still have that tension between what belongs to "Caesar" and what belongs to The Lord - and THEN try to decide what is left for us!  Where, when, and how do we get ours??

That's the rub, though, isn't it?  In the 21st century, we are very aware of what is "mine".  While many are generous with what they have, there is still an undeniable cut-off point at which we draw the line.  We will not jeopardize our financial well-being for anyone.  We will not give beyond our capacity - and willingness - to give.  And while we may loathe the proliferation of the misleading so-called "prosperity gospel" in our modern culture, we cannot deny a remnant of that false teaching in our own lives.

When Jesus encounters the "rich, young ruler" (Matthew 19:16-22), we are often shocked at what Jesus requires of those who express a desire to follow Him.  To sell "all" we have and give it to the poor makes no sense to us because our culture - which is undeniably dominant in our lives - calls this "foolish".  The "prosperity gospel" suggests it is also unnecessary.  It is also undeniable that we are exposed by the "ruler" who, when told by Jesus that he must "keep the commandments" in order to enter into eternal life, still tries to negotiate with The Lord; "Which [commandments must I keep]?"

Thus we miss the point of what it means to "love" The Lord with all we have and with all we are.  The "empire" can and will take what it thinks it needs, but we must remember that which can be taken from us was never ours in the first place.  This includes our very lives ("Fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell", Mt 10:28b). 

Once we are finally and completely freed from the tyranny of stuff and money, we will be able to realize and appreciate that what we thought were "blessings" were only chains and shackles keeping us from "perfection", from true holiness.  This is what is left for us; and it is more than we will ever need in this life or in the Life to come.  Amen.

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