19 October 2008

Do NOT test the Lord

29th Sunday OT: Isa 45.1-4-6; 1 Thes 1.1-5; Matt 22.15-21
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

The Pharisees show Jesus a Roman coin and ask whether or not they should pay Caesar’s taxes. Matthew tells us that “knowing their malice, Jesus said, ‘Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?... ‘Whose image is this and whose inscription?’ They replied, ‘Caesar's.’ At that he said to them, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’" Much has been made of this infamous distinction between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s. And even more could be made of it during this tense political season. I have preached before that ultimately the distinction is meaningless because everything belongs to God, including Caesar himself. I will not belabor the point. Rather, this morning the more interesting moment in this story is the moment Jesus calls the Pharisees out for questioning him, or more precisely, for “testing” him. According to Jesus, the Pharisees test him out of a malicious hypocrisy; that is, a hateful insincerity, a spiteful duplicity. Their apparently sincere question about paying taxes is really a contrived event to catch him up, a staged incident, choreographed and scripted to force Jesus into either treason against Rome or blasphemy against God. Jesus skillfully dodges the trap with an ultimately meaningless answer, but Jesus teaches his lesson nonetheless: “I am not who you want me to be, Pharisees.”

Let’s get down to the question: who do you want God to be? Father, Mother, Santa Claus, mischievous elf, mythical Ego, Jungian archetype, Ground of Being? Spiritual direction often starts with a question about one’s image of God. Our prayer life tells us volumes about how we understand who God is for us. In desperate times, an image of God emerges. Suffering carves out of us a hard figure of God. When we reach beyond ourselves, beyond the possibilities of easy helps and cheap fixes, we usually reach out toward heaven and call on our God for His care, His rescue. And this is exactly what we ought to do. There is nothing so humbling and spiritually purifying as a moment of desperation, a flash of weakness, or damaging stupidity that drives us to God’s comfort. But we must be careful: “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” Our God is not our student, every ready to be questioned, every ready to be tested.

Obviously, like most politicians probing an opponents weaknesses, the Pharisees are trying to trip Jesus up by asking him the “are you still beating your wife?” sort of question. No answer is good, any answer will be vacuous in the end. The point of the exchange is not to find the truth but to expose a hated enemy as worthy of one’s hate. Jesus calls this attempt malicious and hypocritical. Malicious because their intent is evil and hypocritical because they know that they are not asking a real question but setting a trap. Their insincerity is poisonous. But only to themselves. Who do they need him to be? Or perhaps the best question: who do they hope he turns out to be? Given their institutional investments and political commitments, no doubt the Pharisees hope he turns out to be little more than a madman from Nazareth.

Given your institutional investments and political commitments, who do you hope Jesus turns out to be? Jesus says to give to Caesar what is his and give to God what belongs to Him. Of course, this means that we give all things to God in the end b/c all that belongs to Caesar really belongs to God. For a while, while we walk around on the dirt, we give Caesar his due—his taxes, our obedience to his laws within our duties to God, our civic participation. But in giving Caesar his due now our hearts must always be inclined to a longing and a goal well beyond Caesar’s temporary crown; focused fiercely, permanently on the Crown of Heaven. The Pharisees hope to use this apparently split allegiance to force Jesus into a political-religious quagmire. They need for Jesus to be a madman or a traitor or a blasphemer, so they test him in their malicious hypocrisy, rigging the test to give them the result they hope for; and in getting the hoped-for answer, relieving them of any duty to preach his message, teach his word, or offer him their obedience as the Messiah promised by the prophets.

Rather than giving them what they hope for, Jesus says, in essence, “I am not who you want me to be.” Jesus is not a traitor or a blasphemer. Nor is he a revolutionary or an institutional cog. He is not a preacher of flaccid tolerance nor a fire-breathing demagogue. He is neither Democrat nor Republican; he is not Obama nor McCain. He is the Prince of Peace who comes with a death-dealing sword to deal death to our sin. He is the Lamb of God who comes with a scourge to beat the unfaithful faithful for their hypocrisy and out of his temple. He is the Final Judge who died for us, making us clean before the Father’s throne. He is the Lion of David’s House who gently shepherds, protects, and provides. He tells Isaiah: “I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me. I am the LORD, there is no other.”

And no other is the LORD! Not the state, not a political party, not an institution, not a person or an idea or a theory. Nothing made can save us. Nothing passing can give us eternal life. If it can die, it cannot give Life. If it can change, it cannot impart perfection. If it can fail, it cannot gift us with goodness. That we want a man, a party, a system, or an idea to save us, to give us life, to grant us goodness is a sin as old as Eve’s yes to the serpent’s gift. Like the maliciously hypocritical Pharisees, don’t we often find ourselves testing Jesus to see who he will be for us today? Just poking him a bit to see if he will budge on a favorite issue or yield a bit on a favorite sin? Recently, I watched a youtube video of a Catholic rally for Prop 8 in CA. A woman approached the young men and screamed at them: “Jesus preached tolerance!” Since Prop 8 is designed to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, we can assume that the woman—shown in the video harassing the men—believes that the first-century Jewish rabbi, Jesus, would “tolerate” a marriage among a man, another man, and the first man’s sister. You are either tolerant or you’re not. Tolerance tolerates no intolerance.

Let’s conclude here with this: Jesus fails the Pharisee’s test. Turns out that he is not who they hope he is. He is not the traitor, the blasphemer, the arch-heretic they had hoped for. Neither is he the hippie-dippy feminist peacenik, nor the fiery-eyed God of Righteous Vengeance Come to Smite Our Enemies, nor the sagacious prophet with a stoical temper. He is the Judge, the Lamb, the Prince, the Child, the King, the Seed, the Vine, the Word, the Spirit. He is the LORD. And there is no other and no other is the LORD.


  1. Anonymous12:07 AM

    How is one to convey a sense of being indignant without losing dignity?

    "Hippy Dippy" this and showing pitch-fork crowds ranting about that isn't going to gather the sheep into the fold.

    I'm Catholic and I've known some amazing people who let folks glimpse the Truth without bludgeoning them. You excoriate people despite the fact that you DO have a public forum. They're not in your living room. You have a forum on the WORLD WIDE WEB.

    I'll check back in a month or so and see what's happening. I'll not look at the "kick you in the ass, see ya' later" post you give other people. It's disappointing. You seem surly and it's not what one looks for in terms of an example. Priests' behavior IS supposed to be emblematic, right? And, oh never mind all that pedophilia. The Church has a steady hand on the unequivocally correct thing to do at all times. Sometimes we all fail. They failed in large ways.

    But, large or small, it seems a shame to brag about it. I thought, as Catholics, we're called to be more patient, more humble.

    I remember being told that my part had "to be the bigger half." That meant "don't fire off at people and wait and see...they might begin to see a little light where they thought it was dark. To swagger with grouchiness doesn't seem to illumine the way.

    Maybe I'm missing the point. I must be. But you've kicked a few out of the flock, haven't you? You may not miss them but God might.

    If you kick my rear, too, I'm big enough that it won't matter. Some younger people could be damaged.

    There's the sense you're ALWAYS SCREAMING...

    Doug Wilkins

  2. Doug, in my long experience with email/combox arguments, tone is almost always supplied by the reader. I'm not shouting. The question is: why are you choosing to "hear" me shouting?

    I always love it when people leave comments on my site telling me how awful I am, how uncharitable, how unreasonable and do so in the most uncharitable and unreasonable ways imaginable. Pedophilia? Uh?

    Yes, priests are supposed to be examples. But why must I be the example you need? Maybe my job is to be an example someone else needs. What you (and many others) want from me (apparently) is for me to be a quiet, gentle doormat who just tells everyone that God is love and everything is just OK as it is and there are no worries, etc. Blah. I didn't become a priest or a Dominican to be Hallmark/Oprah social worker. What you guys don't like is a priest who fights back. You're used milquetoast clerics who fold under a little criticism and promise to do better if only given the chance. Not me, sorry. I'm as deeply flawed, impure, and broken as the next guy and no one is going to stick me with playing Holy and Good in public so they can take potshots at the Church and feel all self-righteous about it.

    I haven't kicked anyone out of the flock. Not my job. What I have done is told the truth: your membership in the Church has absolutely nothing to do with me. Nothing. If you think the RCC teaches and preaches the gospel faith of Jesus Christ, then you are morally obligated to join-- despite me (if you have to). What my crankiness has to do with membership in the church is beyond me. How many people joined Jesus' crowd on the day he whipped the moneychangers out of the temple? How many walked away during the bread of life discourse? His own disciples ran off when he was arrested.

    So, what's the real issue here?

  3. Anonymous1:20 AM

    your soul.

    if you can yell about activists, it's fair game for people to yell about priests...

    by and large they're a fairly sorry lot. my own experience has been horrendous.

    are you saying you're CHRIST?

    and people are fleeing from your sterling example?


    nah, just fry it like a funnel cake!

    bob baumann

  4. Bob,

    I'm Christ? Yup. So are you. So is every baptized person. We aren't Christ perfectly, but imperfectly; this is why we need to Church--to collect all the imperfect Christs to make us more perfect as one Christ.

    You see...I think people like to rail against bad priests and nuns b/c it gives them a great excuse not to go to Church, not to obey the rules, frees them up to pursue their fav sins. Why not? "Fr. Philip is such an asshole! All priests are horrible child molesters! I'll never go to Church again!" What do bad priests have to do with going to Church? Your parish isn't WalMart or McDonald's. Your parish isn't selling a commodity and the priest ain't a salesman. You will find horrible people in temples, mosques, coven circles, atheist meeting halls, dancing around trees in the woods. What's your point? You either believe the Catholic faith is true or you don't. If you do, then no one--no priest, bishop, nun, or pope--NO one should be able to drive you away from the Truth. If you don't believe that the Catholic faith is true, then I wonder you're whining about.

    Fr. Philip, OP

  5. Thanks Fr. Phillip.

    I really appreciated this one: we are so unwilling to let God be God; we use any excuse to try to refashion Him in the World's likeness so we aren't uncomfortable or ill-at-ease or feeling sinful (God forbid we should actually admit we are sinful).

    Keep them coming!

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