David A. Davis
March 13, 2022
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“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s.” Who hasn’t heard that before? Who hasn’t found themselves repeating that once or twice? Just last Ash Wednesday as I ushered for the noon service and stayed in the narthex, someone left out the front door and came back a few minutes later. “Had to render to Caesar”, he said, referencing the parking meter. We’ve all heard it. We all know Jesus said it. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It’s a memory verse of sorts. Maybe without the Luke 20:25 citation; or Mark 12:17. Maybe we can’t quote with chapter and verse, at least the Presbyterians probably can’t. But you know Jesus said it. You remember Jesus said it.
But do you remember this part? “They wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.” They, being the scribes and the chief priests. The religious leaders want to “lay hands on him at that very hour.” Or who remembers this part? “They [the religious leaders] watched Jesus and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said. so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor.” They sent spies to trick Jesus, to trap Jesus so that they could “hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor.” “Hand him over” which, of course, means hand him over to be killed. Does anybody who can quote “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s,” remember that the words of Jesus come in response to the religious leaders who wanted to lay hands on him, sending spies who intentionally lied, then tried to trap him so that they could hand him over to the power of the Roman Empire to be killed?
Yes, there is way more going on here than some sort of Ben Franklin Poor Richard’s Almanac pithy kind of phrase that you drop about having to pay the IRS. There is way more going on here in Luke than providing a snappy quote from Jesus often cut and pasted into a conversation about how faith and politics don’t mix. On the face of it, Luke writes that the whole “set a trap to hand him” over scenario came in response to Jesus telling the parable about the owner of a vineyard who sent his own son to collect the owners share of the produce from the tenants. The tenants, who had rebuffed two prior attempts by the owner of the vineyard threw the son out and killed him. Luke says that the religious leaders wanted to lay hands-on Jesus because of that parable. But when you begin Lent at the cross, you know that the response of the religious leaders and the leaders representing the empire, their response to Jesus is a lot more insidious, pervasive, and complicated than a reaction to one parable. What were they so afraid of? Why were so threatened by Jesus? What he said, what he did.
The ending of this particular encounter between Jesus and the spies with everyone else listening brings some cognitive dissonance, at least for Luke’s casual reader. “Being amazed by his answer, they became silent.” Amazed. Mark’s version ends with “they were utterly amazed.” The King James in both gospels says, “they marveled.” It is almost like the spies, the religious leaders, and all who were listening to Jesus were saying to themselves, “wow, he’s really good.” Or like someone in the back is so impressed with Jesus’ answer, how he “perceived their craftiness”, how he rhetorically avoided the trap, that someone in the back starts one of those slow claps. Amazed. Marveled. But a close read, a backwards read, points to a reaction to Jesus that has absolutely no positive connotation. Why were they so threatened by Jesus and what he said, what he did, who he was?
Yes, Jesus was a threat to their religious authority. Yes, Jesus was a threat to their power, privilege, and esteem within the community. Jesus was a threat to how they understood the Law, how they interrupted the Law, how they lived the Law. But Jesus was also a threat to how they understood God, their life before God, their worship of God. Jesus was also threat to how they viewed and treated others. Jesus was threat to their very way of life; to all they understood and assumed a faithful life to be. Jesus was a threat to even all the best intentions of the scribes, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees. But to be fair, to be honest, the religious leaders were far from the only ones who found themselves threatened in some way by the life and teaching of Jesus. When the gospels describe other reactions to Jesus with words like “amazed, astonished, marveled”, maybe like the spies, it doesn’t always come with only positive connotations. There were others astonished and amazed by Jesus. And it couldn’t have all been positive.
Some will remember last week I cited the words of the old man Simeon quoted in Luke who took the child Jesus in his arms. “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” When Mary and Joseph found their young son sitting among the teachers in the synagogue in Jerusalem listening and asking question, they, like everyone else, were amazed and astonished. But with the astonishment had to come anxiety and fear. In Luke when Jesus goes to Nazareth, after he stood and read from the scroll of Isaiah, all were “amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But in a but a breath, in Luke, when the teaching became difficult, when Jesus began with “the truth is”, the reaction changed on a dime, and all were “filled with rage” and took him to the edge of town to throw him off a cliff.”
Then in Luke when Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue in Capernum on the sabbath, it says “they were all amazed.” They kept asking one another “What kind of authority is this?” It wasn’t just “positive amazement”. You will remember that when that storm blew in as Jesus and the disciples where in the boat, Luke doesn’t use the word “fear” until after Jesus calmed the storm. When the wind stopped and the waters settled, then the disciples were “afraid and amazed”. The disciples in fear at what Jesus did. Right afterward in Luke, when they all arrived at the other side of the Sea of Galilee and healed the one labeled as “the Gerasene demonic”, the rest of the people in Gerasene “asked Jesus to leave them, for they were seized with great fear.”
No, the religious leaders were not the only ones threatened by the life and teaching of Jesus. The religious leaders were not, are not, the only ones who find the gospel of Jesus Christ to be threatening. What Jesus said. What Jesus did. A threat to authority, power, privilege, and esteem. A threat to understandings of God and life in relationship and worship, and how others are viewed and treated, and understandings and assumptions about a faithful life. And yes, the gospel of Jesus Christ can be a threat to even the best intentions of humankind. When is the last time you found yourself amazed, astonished, and marveling about something Jesus said or did? Amazed, astonished, and marveling at something in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And like Luke, I don’t mean that all in a positive, warm, and good way. Because if we are being honest and fair, the threatening gospel hits awfully close to home sometimes. And if it doesn’t, it should.
Some will come away from Jesus and “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God’s”, with the affirmation that all things, including creation, you, and me, belong to God and that the emperor, at the end of the day, is left with relatively little, very little. Another’s take away could be that in every generation and in every different context in time and place and for every single follower of Jesus, the matter of one’s relationship to Jesus and to human authority is cause for careful, prayerful, spirit-filled discernment. And yes, some may be struck by the divine wisdom of Christ who refuses the trap of blasphemy on the one hand and disobedience to the empire on the other. But you and I know how the story ends. They did hand him over to be killed by the empire in that spectacle of the cross. They handed because he was threat. The gospel was a threat. Maybe Christ is calling you and me to turn from the sacred page this morning and ponder how and where the threatening gospel of Jesus Christ causes a bit of discomfort, a bit of a stir, a bit of a squirm. What Jesus said, what Jesus did hitting just a bit too close to home, too close to the heart, too close to our way of life. Part of the discipline of Lent perhaps. Your life, my life, confronted by all that Jesus said. All that Jesus did.
Because when you read Luke backwards, the gospel of Jesus Christ, you have to be amazed.