“ Then the Pharisees went off and began to plot how they might trap Jesus by his speech ….they asked is it lawful to pay taxes to the Roman emperor, or not ?…..At that, Jesus said to them give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. (Matt 22:15-21)
This Sunday Jesus tells us to give to God what is God’s. And what is God’s is his sole focus even as he deals with those who do not “get it” once again. In this text we see Jesus artfully dodge another bullet and evade still another trap the religious and political leaders set for him. The context for this new trap is that Jesus has passed triumphantly through the gates of Jerusalem a short while ago. In doing so, he fulfilled Messianic prophecy and also continued in his way of turning the world of power and religious piety upside down. He entered not as royalty but in humility sitting astride a donkey’s colt. The people were wild for him. Then, he entered the Temple and literally turned it upside down, freeing the sacrificial animals and birds and throwing the vendors and the money changers out. He claimed God’s house as a house of prayer and also defined what it was not for-not for commerce and animal sacrifice. Now, one can speculate, the authorities were really livid at him. To add to that he told three parables about the untrustworthy workers in the vineyard, the need for the work of the vineyard to be done, and a commentary on the people killing the prophets that God sends, including the son of the vineyard owner. The religious leaders were getting furious by this time. Yet the people followed him, so the leaders looked for a way to discredit him with the people who were tired of oppression and not wanting to pay taxes. If he said it was not according to Jewish law to pay Roman taxes the authorities would have him. If he said it was lawful the people would lose faith in him. The religious leaders and the Herodians (those who uphold Rome’s power) fail to trap him and retreat. The zealots who want to overthrow Rome may not have liked his answer about what belongs to Caesar (the Roman coins) but he succeeds in telling the leaders and the people to give to God what is God’s. Jesus knows that he is coming down to the finish line. He has explained what God is like and what God wants of God’s people: justice seeking, compassion, and inclusion: love. Soon he will boil all 613 Jewish laws down to loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. Although some midrash, rabbinic commentary, does the same, these religious leaders just don’t get it. And now he says “give to God what is God’s”.
I am not sure how the people in Matthew’s first century church thought about what is God’s. (Nor Mark’s or Luke’s intended audiences for this account and the preceding events described above are consistent in all three synoptic Gospels). They may have known Psalm 24:1 “The earth and everything on it-the world and all who live in it-belong to YHWH.” They may have known that all life belongs to the God who gave it. It is important for us to struggle with how we hear “what is God’s” today. The first reading (Isaiah 45:1,4-6) shows God calling a foreign power, King Cyrus of Persia to liberate God’s people from the Babylonians. The text reads that Cyrus’ role is messianic and God IS Cyrus’s God. “Apart from me, all is nothing. I am your God, there is no other”. Here God is calling an “outsider” to do God’s work and making the way clear for him to do it. So the whole world is God’s even those that do not know God. All life belongs to God. And yet, how careless we are with all things living from the green earth to animal and even human life, how complicit in destroying life.
The Psalm (96) asks the people to pay tribute to God, to bring offerings and recognize God’s reign, to recognize that God is coming to rule the world with justice and truth (96:13). What kind of tribute, what offerings are pleasing to God? Matthew’s listeners would have known the words of the 8th century prophet Amos who, preaching in a prosperous time, said that God did not want burnt offerings(animal sacrifices) or endless hymns, liturgy, but justice and righteousness (Amos 5: 23-24). Amos was concerned about greed and religiosity while “they trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (2:7) and “they oppress the poor and crush the needy….”( Amos 4:1). God wants us to work for justice for the poor and needy and all those who are oppressed and exploited. God wants what Paul calls in his letter to the church at Thessalonika, our labors of love. “We call to mind before our God ….how you are proving your faith by your actions, laboring in love, and….hope” ( I Thess. 1:1-5).
What is God’s? All of life is God’s. What does God want from us? That which is life- giving instead of death- dealing-for all, especially those on the bottom and the margins of death dealing structures. God wants our labors of love and hope to build God’s reign of justice here and now. That is our tribute to God, our lives filled with love and activities for justice. And that is not so easy to give, it is much easier to give a money tithe or other in kind donations than labors of love. For each of us the answers to the questions “how can I live my life for God, and how can I live love and justice?” are unique. Look around and see what you see that speaks to you of that which is not life- giving and that which exemplifies injustice. Then find ways to speak up and speak out and act for justice and life.
Early this week I was in New York City, home for my first 43 years, where ordinary people are priced out of housing and space is at a high premium like never before. Neighborhoods that housed low income people and their communities have been “gentrified” and are now “upscale”. Crowds gather to celebrate these new areas. But where do the ordinary folks and poor folks find housing? Even the massive housing projects have waiting lists that are years long. Unemployment continues to be highest in minority communities. Added to that is the death-dealing systems of drug trafficking, sex and human trafficking and the exploitation of “illegal” labor. All of this demands a justice response. Once again homeless men and women and families are sleeping openly on the subway grates for warmth and you can pass by the same ones day after day. For a while in the 1980’s many helping systems were developed and homeless people were truly housed and helped. Now their presence is painfully obvious once again. But this is true of almost every city and some rural places as well. It is true in other countries. When I was in Medellin, Colombia in 2012 I drove down a main street with a religious young man and other priests. As we drove I noticed rolled white plastic everywhere. Intuitively I asked about it, and no one knew what it was. One roll of plastic moved, turned over, feet visible but nothing more and I said to them these are your homeless, who is serving them? The young man tried hard to name someone he thought was serving them and came up with a mission that he knew about. Addicted, or mentally ill, or just poor, lost and homeless, we did not know and it would not have mattered if we did. They were there, rolled in white plastic, un-noticed in the middle of the day. And here in Fort Myers, the bushes and woods and deserted houses are alive with homeless people. Violence toward homeless people is often in the news, a few weeks ago a thirteen year old boy killed a homeless man in what appeared to be a rite of gang initiation. And, the violence is also in tolerating homelessness. Once our Good Shepherd pastors went to pick up a homeless man to take him to his new home, subsidized housing for the physically disabled in his case. We picked him up at his abode-a garbage dumpster and waited as he said good-bye to the cats he had befriended there who were too feral to come with him. Our ministry is dedicated to homeless and hungry people and to eradicating homelessness one person at a time. We do try to include homeless animals in this effort as well. We are approaching the housing of nearly 100 people and their children and pets in the seven years that we have been doing this ministry. It is only a dent in the problem. It is a justice issue that remains.
Another justice issue in our area, as in other areas where there are gangs and drug traffic, is violence and murder. This week a fifteen month old girl in New Jersey was playing with her little siblings and giggling as she jumped on the bed. They had just moved into their new apartment home. Suddenly shots rang out and this baby was immediately killed by bullets coming through the wall. Instead of the house warming party there is a funeral. Again, this week in Fort Myers a beautiful and active five year old boy, Andrew Faust, Jr. was killed as a drive by shooting sprayed bullets into his home as he played. This precious child was a cousin to two of our children. This type of random horrific violence has already hit our church community two other times this year with deaths of young adults to drive by shootings. In order for this to stop the community has to rise up and seek justice by telling what they know about the murder. And much is known here but like the people in New Jersey, the people are afraid to tell. Andrew’s family is rallying the community to come forward to name the killers. Barely able to bear their grief, they call for courage, hope and faith with zero tolerance of gun violence. I will be doing the same on Sunday. And as I work with my youth in the Sunday school I will be very clear that to follow Christ is to turn your back on gangs and violence. I will ask them to give their lives back to God and to God alone, turning away from death- dealing loyalties. And we will pray.
Let us pray together that each of us may find the way to honor life and the God of life in our own communities.
Love and prayers,
Pastor Judy Lee, RCWP
Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community of Fort Myers