MATTHEW 22:16B-22

Reflection for October 16, 2011

Reverend Marguerite Sheehan, First Parish of Northfield and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Winchendon 

Focusing Scriptures:  

1 Thessalonians 1:8-9
For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak of it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God. 

Matthew 22:16b-22
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. 


For the past few weeks we have been seeing in the “book of life” how an ever growing number of people have been standing up to Wall Street idols and choosing, through non violent protests to serve a living, true, and ultimately more just and merciful God. It is amazing to see young people and elders, workers and the unemployed, clergy of every faith, and folks like you and me just sitting down and refusing to move until the voices of the majority in this country are heard. We pray that someday a preacher like Paul will say that in every place the faith of the 99% will be known, so that we will have no need to speak of it. But for now, it is amazing and hopeful to hear about. 

In the Gospel today, Jesus heard the malice behind their words when the religious leaders of his time said that he taught the way of God and showed deference to no one. He heard them twist this truth into an attack when they asked him about “the law” about paying taxes. Jesus, as he often did in his ministry, said “Back at you!” and had them put themselves on trial so that it was they who were left to admit who their own god was. They were amazed to be caught in their insincere trap and rather than kneel and admit that they had fallen off the true commandments, they left him and went away. Remember the “rich young man” who did the same thing when Jesus told him to leave his idols behind and follow the true and living God? He, one of the 1% of his time, walked away, amazed and weeping because he was not willing to distribute his riches amongst the poor. 

These stories talk to us about how we prioritize our lives, what and who we own, and who in the end owns us. Or, as Unitarian Universalist ministers have been asking themselves in their local districts “Whose are you?” Are you the emperor’s or are you God’s? Do belong to your profession or denomination or your familial role? Are you owned by your fears, your cravings or your insecurities? Whose are you? And when you figure out (again and again) just whose you are, what do you owe the one who owns you? These are the questions of a lifetime and are the root of questions like whether we agree to pay taxes or whether we find the courage to stand up to the dictators in our country. It is impossible to answer questions about the economy without diving deep into the first; “Whose are you?” 

The 17th century Quaker mystic Isaac Penington, wrote about the spiritual work that is required when we ask these questions. His instruction is as follows. “Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be anything, and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee, and act in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience, that the Lord knows that, and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is God’s portion.” In order to find the wisdom to know what is the emperor’s and what is God’s and in order to have the courage to step out and sit down in the face of the Wall Street, we followers of Jesus are called to give over what is currently running our lives. We are called to practice sinking down and letting the Christ seed grow. This is how we shall know how to act. And when we do this, we are graced with the sweet experience that God knows, loves and owns our hearts and our inheritance is life itself. 


Oh living and true God we have turned from idols to you. Help us to sit down so that we might bear witness to your sovereign love. Here, on the streets and in our homes, in our places of worship and in our places of work, we find the courage and the wisdom to sink down into the seed which you have sown in our hearts. In love, devotion and humility, we submit to you and you alone. And you shall raise us up.