Kingdom of Heaven

(Proper 24, Mt 22.15-22)

10-16-05

 

Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  (Mt 15.21)

 

Most of you know that I am an avid sports fan.  So naturally I am having a lot of fun right now, because my two favorite teams for as long as I can remember, are both currently winning.  Of course that would be my hometown Astros and my alma mater, the University of Texas .

Notice how I said my teams are winning.  Fans always do that – use the first person – refer to their favorite team as “we won.”  It is as if I am actually part of the team that I root for. 

We do that.  I do that.  We are so attached to our teams that we are one with them.  Like most fans, it is one of those areas in my life that has no gray.  There is no divided loyalty.  I am exclusively a fan of my teams – and I cannot be tempted to stray from that allegiance.  It is unconditional and exclusive loyalty.

Makes me wonder why we often don’t always seem to have as much unconditional and exclusive loyalty to our God as we do the sports teams in our lives. 

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Well, maybe that is not a great analogy for what is going on in today’s gospel teaching.  But Jesus is talking about our unconditional love of God.  

Let’s look at his encounter with the Pharisees. 

We are told at the outset that their intent is not straight forward.  Although they ask a very probing question.  About how people of faith are to respond to situations in which they may be required by governmental authorities to do something that they feel is against the teaching of their faith.  Yet, they do not ask it in order to gain enlightenment, but rather to entrap Jesus. 

So two very different groups are sent with the question.  Pharisees and Herodians.  Jewish religious authorities and representatives of the State.  Two groups that have nothing in common other than a shared unease about the teachings and the following of this prophet named Jesus.

And so the question is posed to Jesus (After some flattery to butter him up, of course.)   Is it lawful (meaning lawful in God’s eyes – Jewish law: Torah).  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?

The Pharisees are already on record that they are against the taxes.  Probably for more than one reason – the main one being that it is homage to the Emperor.  And the Emperor was considered by his subjects to be a god.  Therefore, paying taxes was tantamount to worshipping a pagan god.

And of course the Herodians are the very keepers of the Emperor’s laws.  So the trap is set.  If Jesus says yes, then the Pharisees have him for blasphemy.  And if he says no, the Herodians have him for inciting his followers to break the law.

Now that seems like a pretty good trap, doesn’t it?  In fact, I am quite sure that it would have ensnared me.  However, Jesus is up to the challenge.  And he gives one of those wonderfully phrased responses of his that both answers the question and avoids it at the same time.

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s

Jesus cannot be accused of advocating civil disobedience because he as much as says that some things are the emperor’s – constructs of man in which God has little interest. 

But then Jesus says, give to God that which is God’s.  And we know and the Pharisees knew that he meant, “give your lives.”  Your lives which God has given you, give back to God.  Jesus answers the question, but he really puts the onus of responsibility for making those distinctions back on the Pharisees, doesn’t he?  A clever answer that once more foiled a plot against him, but unfortunately not an answer that provides us with particular enlightenment.

I mean, what does it look like to give our lives to God?

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I recently saw a movie entitled The Kingdom of Heaven, which presents one idea of how things of God and things of man are differentiated.  Kingdom of Heaven is probably one of the best and most thought-provoking movies that I have seen in several years.  Because it gives us a view of ancient history through the lens of 21st century technology and thought.

Unfortunately, the violence is over the top – much too unnecessarily graphic for me to be able to recommend that you see the film.  However, I can tell you about it.

The movie is historically based – and it is set in the Middle Ages.  At the time of the crusades. 

The hero is an obscure village blacksmith named Balian.  Obscure that is, until his father, a great knight named Godfrey, comes to find him.  After they meet for the first time, Balian is intrigued about Godfrey’s offer to go with him to the Holy Land .  To be part of the army that protects the city of Jerusalem from her enemies. 

As they journey together, Godfrey teaches Balian the ways of knighthood; something that was obviously already in Balian’s blood.  When Balian asks about Jerusalem – and about whether one is closer to God there, Godfrey tells him, “ Jerusalem is a new world.  You are not what you were born – but who you have it in yourself to be.”

Unfortunately, Godfrey dies on the journey, and Balian is left to discover the rest for himself.  

Balian arrives in Jerusalem at a time between the Second and Third Crusades.  It is a time of fragile peace between the Christians who live within the walls of the city and the Moslems, who occupy all of the surrounding land.  This peace prevails almost solely through the efforts of Jerusalem ’s enlightened Christian king, Baldwin IV, also known as the leper king and his friendship with his counterpart among the Moslems, King Saladin. 

But Baldwin 's days are numbered because of his disease, and the usual sins of greed, fanaticism and hatred among both the Christians and the Moslems, threaten to shatter the truce. King Baldwin's vision of peace--a kingdom of heaven—in which people of both religions can co-exist and practice their separate religions side-by-side is supported by a only a handful of knights, who swear to uphold it with their lives and honor.  And Balian’s father Godfrey was one of those – a responsibility that Balian now inherits.  When Godfrey passed his sword to his son, he also passed on the sacred oath of knighthood:

Be without fear in the face of your enemies.

Be brave and upright that God may love thee.

Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death.

Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong. 

That is your oath.

Balian’s life is forever changed by that solemn vow of his knighthood. 

As the story evolves, the death of King Baldwin is quickly followed by his successor going to war with the Moslems.  Determined that God is on their side, the Christian army leaves the relative safety of Jerusalem , and go to fight their mortal enemies. 

But Saladin’s troops are vastly superior in numbers, so it is ultimately a mission of suicide for the Christians.

And now Jerusalem is left without an army to defend her.  Only Balian and a ragtag group of civilians are left to man the walls against the thousands and thousands of the Moslem army who lay siege outside their city.

So Balian makes most of them knights and prepares them as best he can to defend the city.

As Balian makes his speech before the commencement of battle, he tells his army this,

We defend this city not to protect these stones, but we fight for the people living in these walls.

An ultimately, while inevitably losing Jerusalem, they are able to hold out long enough that Saladin is forced to offer terms for the city’s surrender.  And so the people of the city are allowed safe transport to a Christian land.

Jerusalem , the city – its walls are lost.  And to many, the kingdom of heaven, which it represented, is also gone.

But to some like Balian and those who walked out of the city to their freedom, they understand that the kingdom of heaven is here (head) and here (heart).  And it cannot be taken away by any king or any army.

The stones of the wall may be the emperor’s.

But our lives are God’s.

Jerusalem is not the stone walls.  Jerusalem is here (head) and here (heart).  And that is what we render unto God.  Before we even begin to think about what we write down on a pledge card or put into the plate.  We understand that it is our hearts and minds and souls that we first give to God.  And that must be the first order of business for each of us.

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It is one of those planned coincidences of course, that this reading comes on the first day of this year’s Stewardship season.  And as usual, we will hear from our own members about their personal spiritual experiences.  Those times in their lives when they felt drawn to God and to the church.  Those times when they really felt that exclusive love of God in their lives. 

And if you think about the underlying themes of those testimonials, what you hear is people who came to a decision in life to let God be in charge of their lives.  To try to follow what God would have them do.

We have lots of catchy stewardship slogans, but my favorite is the one that says something like, “Stewardship is all that I am and all that I do after I have said yes to Jesus Christ as Lord in my life.” 

And saying yes to Jesus Christ is understanding that everything I have is from God – and is God’s.  I am but a temporary steward while passing through this life and therefore I strive to render back to God that which is God’s. 

What is here (head) and what is here (heart).  My life.

Exclusively, unconditionally to God.