19 October 2013

Christ is not who we want him to be. . .

From 2008: Hmmmm. . .this one seems particularly relevant these days. . .no worries: there will be a new one tomorrow, one for the readings for Year C.

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. 

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4 comments:

  1. Taxes are not Caesar's, just his stealing the fruits of my work.

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    Replies
    1. Spoken like a true libertarian! (And I almost agree)

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  2. "Spiritual direction often starts with a question about one’s image of God".
    Hmm...! Didn't know about that...

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    Replies
    1. Well, that's how we're taught to start SD. I usually start by exploring the strengths and weaknesses of the directee's relationship with God.

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