Faith In Real Life Blog: “Reconciling Contradictions”

Sharing Christ’s Love Worship Series

Rev. Vernon Gramling

Decatur Presbyterian Church

October 20, 2023

 

 

 

Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21 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.’ 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

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As the opening sentence indicates, this exchange was a move to trap Jesus. Like any slippery con man, they begin by complimenting Jesus: ‘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.’ Then they ask him a question designed to evoke anger either way Jesus answered. If Jesus refused to pay taxes to the emperor, he would run afoul of Rome. That was very dangerous. If Jesus agreed to the legitimacy of paying taxes to Rome, he could lose moral authority. Jesus could be accused of putting God second or worse, colluding with an oppressive power to ensure his own safety. In either case, the Pharisees and Herodians would undermine Jesus. Jesus sees their malintent behind their faux compliments. Jesus’ answer breaks the dichotomous trap by saying both the emperor and God have their due.

Takeaways:

1. Either/Or (dichotomous) thinking is sinful thinking. It is structured to polarize. It precludes win/win options and worse, leaves out God. There is no room in such thinking for new possibilities. Simply because we cannot imagine them does not mean they are not possible.

2. Jesus acknowledges that there is an earthly kingdom as well as a heavenly one. It is incumbent upon us to identify each.

3. Jesus’ answer is a both/and response which in itself is a spiritual rather than an earthly response.

4. Jesus’ mission was one of reconciliation. He calls us to spend our energy seeking to unite rather than seeking to prove we are right.

5. Unfortunately, however, other than the acknowledgment of two different kingdoms, Jesus gives no guidance in this passage about how we are to live in both. He leaves us with a very difficult discernment problem. All we know is that it cannot be solved with either/or thinking.

Real Life Applications

1. The Cornerstone class spent a fruitful discussion on the question ‘Ministry or Masonry’. How much of our resources should be allocated to our building and how much should those resources we allocate to ministering to people? Once again, we must be careful of the framing of the question. While it is tempting to make this an either/or question, addressing it requires recognizing that people of good will can differ significantly. The trick is to maintain the spiritual value of reconciliation and proactively listen and respect the validity of our differences.

2. The same process is true when we tithe. I was asked in a Sunday School class if our tithing should be based upon net or gross income. The question reflected a desire to do the ‘right’ thing and assumed there was a clear answer. My response was I did not know. But I was glad they were struggling with the concept.

3. Internationally and nationally, the climate seems to demand we take sides—whether that is Israel vs Palestine, Ukraine vs Russia, Democrat vs Republican or, in the House of Representatives, Republican vs Republican. We are welcome to our passionate differences but if we are to render to God what is God’s, we are required to see the validity of those we oppose. The secular value is winning, the spiritual value is respect.

4. The secular value is creating financial safety, the spiritual value is to put God first. I have witnessed errors on both sides of the coin. Giving all that we have to the poor will mean we will be homeless. But measuring our lives by the house we live in will leave us empty.

5. The trick to living in the world but not being of the world is to be careful to recognize our lives and all that we have is a gift. We cannot be defined by the sum of our learning, our earning or our possessions. All of those are important but they cannot define us. As Jesus prays in the Gospel of John: I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. (John 15:15-16). It is always a temptation to believe we can ensure our own safety and worth. When we do so we lose sight of God.

6. Our faith requires us to live in uncertainty in the face of our desire to know and our desire to be safe. We resist mystery and we are afraid of uncertainty. Both challenge our illusions of control.

7. We often do not realize what is important until we lose the opportunity. A common regret that is woven into grief is wishing we could have time back to pay better attention to the people we love. As one woman put it, she was too busy to enjoy her husband. In retrospect, she took him for granted. We do the same thing with our health and with our time. Sometimes it takes loss to realize what is important. We can stay stuck in regret but hopefully we learn. It is never too late to discover a life of love.

8. Another place many of us begin to balance the secular and the spiritual is what is often called a mid-life crisis. People have finally established a reasonable foundation. They can pay their bills. They are established in their professions. They have done the bulk of their parenting. But, now what? Many people start to wonder how they will spend the rest of their lives. It is a good example of living in the world—creating a foundation—but then beginning to ask the spiritual question: What is a life well lived? What was true in our 30’s and 40’s is not as important as we age. Secular values give us a start in life. Spiritual values give us a life that gives life. This is the both/and that Jesus calls us to.

9. One last thought. It is easy to turn secular values and spiritual values into an either/or. Religious standbys like ‘Trust in the Lord’ can become a kind of bumper sticker or Hallmark Christianity. They are phrases that are easy to agree with, but which lose the texture of real life. When we have trouble trusting the Lord, the phrases are as likely to shame people than to inspire them. In real life trust and distrust are woven together. We need to create room for both. Otherwise, we create a damning ideal rather than providing a direction to reconcile the contradictions of ordinary living.

Jesus outsmarted the people who sought to entrap him, but he did so by affirming what he stood for. He did not attack. He created room for the seemingly irreconcilable. He modeled a both/and world. In so doing, He calls us to be whole—which in real life means flawed and inconsistent. Live, trusting that He loves you.

Let it be so

Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.