Proper 23

I am thankful for this Sunday’s Gospel because it reminded me that I had to pay for my car insurance!

I was absorbed by the readings, trying to figure out this well-known passage where Jesus invites us to: “Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s” aka “Give to Cesar the things that belong to Cesar”, wondering what was the deep spiritual meaning behind all of this, when I was reminded that maybe this is all there is to it, or that at least it is really the starting point: You have to pay your taxes, and you have to pay the bills – and so maybe I needed to interrupt my meditation to actually catch up on my payments and send my check before reaching the deadline.

The Gospel is very real life oriented, isn’t it? It’s actually not the first time that the question of taxes shows up in Matthew’s. If you go back to chapter 17, you will find this funny and strange passage where Jesus pays his taxes and Peter’s taxes by sending him to retrieve a coin in a fish’s mouth! I wonder how many sacred texts in the world, how many religious books and how many theological essays deal with the problem of taxes. It seems so trivial, doesn’t it? When we think of spirituality, we may think more easily of Moses on the top of the mountain, like in this passage of the Old Testament we have just read: Moses praying and pleading for God’s presence, asking God to show God’s glory, asking God to show God’s face.

But so much for spirituality: In the Gospel today what Jesus shows us is a coin, and a coin with the Emperor’s face on it.

So is Jesus just making fun of us – at least making fun of the Pharisees and the Herodians – or is it the beginning of something? Could paying your taxes be the beginning of spirituality? Well, it reminded me the whole issue about finding out whether the President of the United States pay his taxes or not. Certainly, to be the President of the United States you have to do much more than pay your taxes. Yet, if the President of the United States does not pay his taxes, that does not reflect well, does it? That may mean there could be more problematic issues behind that – if he is not able to do this little thing. And so maybe, this is the same for us, as children of God: If we don’t do this little thing that is called pay our taxes and bills, and deal with real life problems where money is involved.

It is very interesting if you pay attention to the text, that the Pharisees ask Jesus if it is “lawful” to pay taxes to the Emperor. That should be the other way around, right? Rather, they should ask: “Is it unlawful not to pay taxes”? But of course, the Pharisees aren’t talking about civil law – in Matthew’s when it comes down to the law, it’s always about God’s law, the Torah. And of course there was a conflict between God’s law and the civil law, the only God of Israel, and Cesar Augustus who claimed to be God on earth. Yet I guess, it was also a good excuse for the righteous ones – to criticize the Emperor so they could get away with the rest. A good excuse not to pay taxes, a good excuse to keep their money.

And that’s what the Pharisees did, didn’t they? We saw that a few weeks ago, when they started to question Jesus’s authority because they didn’t want to listen to what Jesus had to say. Well, in the same way, they questioned the Emperor’s authority – probably not so much because they were such religious and God fearing people who were afraid to do an unfaithful deed by supporting the Emperor in sending him money, rather my guess is they didn’t want to pay taxes because they didn’t want to pay taxes! They question the fairness of the taxes because didn’t want to give out their money. This is what we do as well, I guess: When we don’t want to pay for something, we always find a reason why we should have it for free: the meal was cold, the shirt was torn, I only parked there for ten minutes…

Well, in response to all those arguments, Jesus grab a coin and shows it to them, show it to us today.

To discuss money, Jesus grabs a coin and shows it to us. Take a good look at it. He makes it real and what I hear when I hear him saying to give back to the Emperor’s what’s the Emperor’s is this: It’s just money and money is just a thing and the Emperor can have his thing, why do you care about it.

This scene in the Gospel actually reminded me of a scene in a movie I re-watch recently: In The Wild. This movie tells the story of this young man, Christopher McCandless, who decided after he graduated from college to leave human society as an act of defiance towards his father but also as he pursues a more authentic way of living. And so there is this scene when he gets ready to leave for a new life in the forest: After abandoning his car, on the side of the road he tears down his credits cards and he burns up his money. And then he grabs his backpack and he is on his way – and you can’t help thinking of course: What is he going to do? How is he going to live? But I think what’s really striking and shocking for us is this message that comes across: Money is just a thing after all, a thing among so many others in the world. Like paper it can burn, credit card can be destroyed, you can lose your wallet or your purse and still be alive and on your way.

And to me, although the passage of the Gospel has been used many times to talk about church and civil society, the difference between God’s commandments and federal law, and what’s really moral or not, deep down to me this passage is probably just about money. To me, Jesus does not let the Pharisees and the Herodians catch him in their trap about religion and politics, because to me Jesus knows that in the end the real problem is money. And this is the lesson I believe Jesus teaches them by showing this coin to his audience, and to us: Jesus reminds us that money is just a thing.

Money is a thing that people use and if all belong to God, Jesus, not without a good sense of humor, casts a doubt on the fact that maybe money just belongs to the Emperor because God really does not care for money. At least to me one thing is sure: Jesus really didn’t like money. He despised it. You cannot serve two Masters, he said many times to his disciples.

And so, I wonder what it would be like for us to think of money only as a thing. A thing we need, of course, especially when we live in society, but just a thing among other things. To see money as a thing rather than seeing all the fantasies we attach to money. When I see a few bills, I don’t see a piece of paper, you know, I see dinner outside, a new pair of shoes, maybe a plane ticket. I see entertainment, freedom and peace of mind. Some see power, influence and success. But it’s like whatever you dream of, money can give you. And so to most of us money is not just a thing, it’s the means, the magic mediator between where we are and where we need to be. Without even realizing it, we make it our God.

I grew up in a household where money was sacred. Not that we had so much of it. But I remember vividly one day I had a few cents sitting there on my desk and as I didn’t know what to do with them, I put them in the trash can. Somehow my father found out and gave me a lesson I would never forget. He had worked hard to make this money, he told me, it was insulting to his work that I would get rid of these coins, this money could buy us gas and food and clothing. I didn’t know, I was a child – for me, these coins were just a thing. As I look back on this episode, I am sure that had I had gotten rid of a few dollars toy, it wouldn’t have mattered at all. But it was money. And like so many of us, my father didn’t see a thing, a few dirty coins of little to no value. Rather, he saw, like so many of us, all the fantasies we attach to money: work, duty and suffering but also life, freedom and maybe even salvation. In my household we were very devoted Christian, yet I realize we also worshiped money.

And I imagine our hearts were torn between what money could buy us and what God could give us.

And so to me that’s why Jesus reminds the Pharisees to pay their taxes. Because by letting go of this money they find good reasons to hold on to, they can let go of what they think money can do for them. Send back the money to the Emperor’s because money is just a thing – it’s not your God and it’s not your king. And this could be the beginning of spirituality. Money is powerful, but only in its own realm. If we’re looking for God, if we’re seeking God’s face, maybe we don’t need to grow a bear and go hike on a mountain like Moses, maybe we just have to realize by concrete acts that money is just a thing. Yes we need to know that money can buy us a better health, but we also need to know that it cannot give us life, yes money can buy us a house, but it can’t give us a home, yes money can buy us relationships but it cannot give us real friendship. We have to get rid of all the dreams and all the fantasies to realize that money is just money – and we all need money when we are in society but it’s not God’s thing: It won’t save us, it won’t heal us, it won’t love us back, it won’t give us life. Only God will.

So maybe we can remember that next time we have to pay for something we really don’t want to pay for, whether it’s our taxes or a parking ticket, or our insurance. It’s not just an unpleasant daily task, or an anxiety we have to deal with, it can also be the beginning of spirituality, it can be taking a step towards God. By letting go of all what we believe money can give us, we open ourselves to better things only God can bring us…Well, at least I could be a comforting thought!

Proper 22

I don’t know if you have noticed but, not unlike the days in the Fall season, Jesus’s parables grow darker every week…

You may remember from last Sunday the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard, the tenants who kill the landowner’s son who comes to claim the fruit of the harvest – it was dark enough, wasn’t it? The parable we have today, known as the parable of the wedding banquet, may be the darkest of all though…

So what’s up with that? Was Jesus trying to terrorize the people? And why would he do that?

Well, I had these words in mind when I read the story – words from Stendhal, a famous writer. Criticized by some of his readers for telling bleak stories, he answered that a good novel was “a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shews the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water to gather and the puddle to form.”

And so to me, as the writer who describes an ugly reality not because he has bad intentions, but because the days are ugly, Jesus didn’t tell terrifying stories because he enjoyed terrorizing people, Jesus told terrifying stories because the days were terrifying. His parables, also are a mirror, a mirror of the days getting darker and darker – Jesus, experiencing more and more rejection, knowing he is going to be put to death and bring great mourning on his disciples. To us, today, the parable still work because it is also a mirror of certain aspects of our world, and even deeper, a mirror of our souls.

Actually, I am wondering if this is not the most important to Jesus: To show people some aspects of their souls, of their hearts that they refuse to look at. We see that in the end, as in last week’s parable, Jesus isn’t that preoccupied with the Son’s lot, about his own lot, Jesus is worried about the landowner / the King (God’s figure) – or more precisely about people rejecting God. And as I was scrolling through our Scriptures for today, I think it’s also the question our Old Testament lesson deals with – and this theme is a constant preoccupation in the Bible: people rejecting God (and the consequences for them)

But first to our Gospel. In the parable today, we see people rejecting God / The King for different reasons: first group who is invited represents not the Jewish people in general (as we may believe) but more precisely the leaders, the religious ones. We know that they rejected Jesus for some deep reasons – Jesus turned upside down their theology of election and privilege, a religion that made them feel important and better than others – but they also rejected Jesus for superficial reasons: Jesus said “They made light of it”, they went to their business, they had other things to do! Certainly, it was not a little rabbi from Galilee who was going to teach them!

Then there is the second group who is invited. They often have been identified as the Christians, but when Jesus told the story he really meant the rest of the Jewish people, the crowd, the little ones. And those guys, they accept the invitation the other ones refuse, happy at the idea of a good meal and celebration, and they go to the banquet and you know…they have a good time! Luke’s Gospel, who reports a similar parable stops the story here and that’s great but maybe a bit shallow! Yet Matthew goes on and as he does so I think he gives more depth to the story and warms us of another danger: In the end, even the little ones, or some of them, don’t put in the effort – symbolized by the putting on of the wedding robe. The little ones can also reject God too, in their own way. Not because, like the religious leaders, they are in active rebellion, or have other things to do – these people care about God’s gifts, they need the healing and food (here symbolized by the banquet) but they don’t truly care about God, about having a proper relationship with God – and so in the end these people may end up condemned as well, like the powerful leaders.

Although it’s a difficult one, I like this version of the story because I think it describes quite accurately what Jesus was feeling during his ministry. We know that Jesus welcomed everybody, healed and gave out food generously, yet several times he complains that this is all what people are after, when healing and feeding are a sign of God’s presence to whom he wanted to drive attention to.

In the story of the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus says: Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves (John 6:26)

In the story of the ten lepers, Jesus asks: Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? (Luke 17:17-18)

This ingratitude reminds us of course of our first reading – in Exodus, the famous passage of the worship of the golden calf. Again and again in our OT lessons these past weeks, we have read how the people in the wilderness kept on rejecting God when God did not “deliver”, at least not according to their standards and their time frame: Food, meat, water. Today they just get mad because God keeps them waiting, so they go out to worship another God! As a side note, to me, it’s very shocking to see Aaron participating in this, he is a leader, a priest – but we see that he just wants to please people by letting them worship what they want, whatever make them feel better. “Whatever works” could be the motto of these people. They don’t want a God, they want a magician.

Well, I don’t know what you think but it seems to me that things haven’t changed a lot since the wilderness and since Jesus sat in the Temple in Jerusalem to deliver disturbing parables to the people.

We want the honor and the privileges or maybe we want the healing, we want the food (and God knows we need them), but in the end we are not that interested in a relationship. We care for the gifts and not so much for the giver (That’s actually what idolatry is all about) Jesus’s parable is a mirror of what’s going on in the world and in our souls: Humankind at war with God, directly or indirectly. I don’t think so many hate God literally, reject God actively but as you may be aware of, worse than hate is indifference. And at some level, we are all guilty of indifference, we have better things to do than to wait on a God who does not deliver in the way we expect God to deliver.

We’re not interested in a relationship and we don’t want to change.

And it’s not only with God I think. How often are we more interested in what people can do for us, rather than interested in people themselves? And isn’t it the same with nature? We want the resources the earth provide for us but we don’t care for the earth itself.

The parable we’ve heard today is a dark parable, but I think it reflects not only the state of our world and of our souls but also the grief in Jesus’s heart. Jesus came to convert people and in the end, he realizes that people really don’t want to change. God gives them the best that God has to offer, a relationship with God through his Son, and the people are not interested. They rather run their businesses or fill their plates at the buffet. They don’t want to change their hearts as the man in the story does not want to change his clothes.

And so in the end, there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. An expression Jesus uses 6 times in Matthew’s Gospel, and it’s always “in the end” that there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. So is God going to punish the world, and to punish people the way the King does? Well, I think that the story tells us that God would have very good reasons to be angry. I think Jesus asks us this question: Wouldn’t you be mad if you were the king? How much more offended should be God? Yet we know that God does not punish people, rather people punish themselves and to me this is the sense of the expression. We weep and gnash teeth in the end when we have remorse and regrets and it’s too late to do anything about it.

So maybe what Jesus asks us today with this story is this: How do you live today, so you know that you have answered the invitation and do what’s most important? How do you live today so in the end, you have no regrets?

How do you live today so in the end, you have no regrets?

Most people would answer to this question by saying: “Just enjoy the most of it”, and, right, Paul tells us today to rejoice as well. But he says more precisely: “Rejoice in the Lord, always”. We are invited to rejoice at God’s table, not because it is well supplied but because true joy is to love God and love one another. We are invited to open our hearts to be able to enjoy deep and meaningful relationships because in the end it is all that’s going to matter. No one dies thinking they should have worked more, made more money or spent more time shopping. In the end, all that matters is that we have loved and been loved in return. But as wide and deep God’s grace and God’s generosity, God cannot make this choice for us. We are all invited but we’re the only ones who can accept the invitation.