Monday, October 23, 2023

You're In Before You're Out

 Sermon preached at Church of the Redeemer, Addison on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 22, 2023:  Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.

           The religious authorities had made their decision:  Jesus must go. It had been one thing when he had been roaming around the countryside, but now he had come to Jerusalem, and the crowds had received him as a liberator, in what we call Palm Sunday. And once in the city, Jesus went straight to the Temple and drove out the moneychangers.

           So, angry, they had challenged him in the Temple the morning after his arrival.  “By what authority are you doing these things?  Who gave you this authority?”

           Instead of simply answering the question, Jesus told a series of stories, each one in its own way a not-so-subtle condemnation of them.  We’ve heard these stories over the last few weeks.

           The first was about the two sons whose father asks them to work in the vineyard.  One says “yes” but doesn't go.  The other says “no” but changes his mind.  Jesus says, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.  They were willing to change their minds and believe and you were not.”

           The second:  The landowner who leased his vineyard to tenants, but when it came time to collect his share of the produce, the tenants kill his messengers and even his son.  “Therefore I tell you,” Jesus says, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits of the kingdom.”

           And third, the king who threw a great party but those invited refused to come.  So he invites everyone on the streets, the good and the bad, to enjoy the party.  Those who said no find themselves in outer darkness.  “For many are called, but few are chosen,” says Jesus.

           “Then,” Matthew tells us, “the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.”

           No small wonder after what they had just heard.  They had just heard their condemnation.  It was clear that Jesus was against them. But also, how sad.  Sad because of what they hadn’t heard.  Their hearts were so hard that their ears could only hear the condemnation.  But they could have heard more.

           In each of those stories the condemnation had come only after the invitation.  And, furthermore, the condemnation had been the result of a clear choice against the invitation.

           You have been invited to work in the vineyard, to share the produce, and to come to the party.  You said “no.”  But even when you said “no” you still had the opportunity to say "yes.”

           In each case in those three stories, it was made crystal clear that they were being included, they were invited to join in, to be a part of God’s vineyard and the party to end all parties.  And the invitation was stubborn.  It did not want to take “no” for an answer.

           Their exclusion had only come after their inclusion.  Their condemnation came only after their invitation.  But they had not even heard the invitation.  And in the end, their exclusion was their own choice.

           Why was this?

           Because they had the formula backwards.  The formula they adhered to was “exclusion before inclusion:  You're out before you're in.”

           And Jesus kept saying, over and over again:  “No, you’re in before you’re out.  Inclusion before exclusion.”

           Jesus:  God’s love and acceptance come first.  Anything we do to respond to that love is simply by way of saying thank you.

           The Pharisees:  God’s love and acceptance come second.  You must first follow the letter of the law in order to be acceptable to God.

           Jesus:  You poor fools!  No one can follow the letter of the law.  If the law is the standard, everybody’s out, eternally out.  Besides, you hypocrites, you don't understand the law anyway.  You spend so much time haggling over the small details, you have forgotten the very reason the law exists:  to teach us to love God and our neighbor because God loved us first.  I know, I was there when it happened.

           But the Pharisees and the religious authorities could not hear, because to hear would have turned their whole world upside down.  They could not think the way Jesus was thinking.  It seemed all backwards.  And because they could not think backwards, they could only imagine that what Jesus was saying is that they were out and he and the tax collectors and the prostitutes were in.  And that they knew was preposterous.  Who had obeyed the law all these years?  Who had worked harder than they to keep society in order, to please God?  Who had held up God’s standards of behavior?

           I believe the Pharisees not only rejected Jesus, but the God whom Jesus was representing.  And in a way their seeking to trap him and kill him, that was, of course, successful, was a plot to trap and kill Jesus’ God.  God does not work like that.  This God we do not want.  We can’t have prostitutes and tax collectors walking around thinking that they're loved by God.  We can’t have a God who invites the good and the bad to parties.  There will be chaos.  Our whole way of life is threatened by this kind of God.

           And so the traps begin to be set.  The first attempt is the Gospel reading for today.  The plan is to make Jesus take sides concerning the Roman occupation of Palestine.

           “Tell us what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

           A very clever trap indeed.  If Jesus says “yes” he will alienate himself from many of the Jews.  The crowds may turn against him.  If he says “no” he will get himself into trouble with the Romans.  That would be the best thing of all.  They have the power to put a man to death.

           One problem:  Jesus doesn’t answer yes or no questions.

           He asks for a coin.  (I find it interesting that he didn't have one himself.)  “Whose image is this, and whose title?”  It is obviously the emperor’s, Tiberius’s.

           “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.”

           Ah!  He has taken sides!  He says we must pay the tax!

           But wait, here comes the curve ball.

           “And give to God the things that are God’s.”

           The story says that the Pharisees were amazed and went away.  The trap had failed.

           But why had it failed?  It seems as if Jesus is saying something like you pay your taxes to the state and your tithe to God.  And we hear that too because of the neat separation of church and state that we are used to in this country.  Jesus seems to be saying that we are right in that separation.

           But this time we aren’t listening and the Pharisees were, and that is why they went home disappointed.

           “Give the things that are God's to God,” Jesus said.  The question is, “What belongs to God”?  The answer is, “Everything”.  The question is, “On what is stamped the image of God?”  The answer is, “Every human being.”

           So Jesus didn’t answer the question at all.  He left them and us with another one.  What has priority for us?  What comes first?

           The Pharisees’ trap is based on their way of thinking:  exclusion before inclusion.  We have to prove that he’s wrong about something.  Because if we prove that he is wrong than we can prove that he is an outsider, who must be excluded under the law.  We must define him as an outsider.  It’s an old political trick.

           But Jesus doesn’t think that way.  The coin is stamped with the emperor’s head, the image of Caesar.  What Jesus’ answer says is that he will not be defined by this image.  The only image that will define him is God’s.  And that image is not something he can get or not get by giving the right answer.  It already is.  You cannot define whether I am in or I am out, he is saying.  God has already said I am in.  I bear God’s image, not Caesar’s or yours or anyone else’s.

           The Church over the centuries and still today has continued to be tempted by the way of thinking of the Pharisees.  You are out before you are in.  We have, unfortunately, given into it more often than not.  And in doing so, we reject the very one we claim to follow.

           The biblical story is that God did not say in the beginning that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  God said, “Let there be light.”  God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”

           Original image.  Original blessing.  We were in before we were out.  And it’s still true.  We can say “yes” or “no” to God.  But God has already said “yes” to us and has kept on saying it, and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has erased no from his vocabulary.  Jesus is God's eternal “yes” to us.

           The only “no” we can receive is our own.

No comments: