Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Leap of Faith in the Wilderness

The gospel reading from Matthew presents a very short interrogation of Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians.  The Pharisees have showed interest in the teachings of Jesus.  They are certainly intrigued by him, but at this point they have joined in opposition with the Herodians, a group closely aligned with the Roman occupation of the Jewish homeland. Matthew’s gospel is very clear that a trap has been set for Jesus; as the Pharisees question him about the controversial issue of paying taxes to the Roman government.  The attempt here is to lead Jesus into a public act of treason, so the Romans can get rid of Jesus once and for all; and his troubling ministry can come to an end without any further disturbance in the status quo. 

What is really at issue here is the radical personal relationship with God that Jesus has offered to everyone regardless of political, economic, religious, and social standing; who is righteous and who is not, who is in and who is out, has been brought into question by this personal relationship Jesus has with God.  Jesus has consorted with the unclean—with tax collectors and sinners—and his teachings have certainly transcended the religious requirements of Jewish Law, often times in direct violation of it.  Jesus aims above the rules to the Spirit of the Law.  And perhaps most important, Jesus calls God, the Master of the Universe, abba—a term of affection and intimacy.  It is much more intimate than calling God his father; it is more like “papa” or “daddy.”  This personal relationship has spilled over the walls of synagogue observance; the relationship with God could be found, and should be found, everywhere, and by everyone.  This is the source of the direct controversy with Jesus, but the Pharisees attack him by way of indirection, by controversy in another area. 

The gospel writer Matthew assumes we know the possible responses of Jesus to this controversial issue and its direct question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  As mentioned, there were Jews working directly with Roman authority who supported the taxes collected for the emperor.  On the other side of the issue were the Zealots who are waiting for Jesus to declare himself as a radical messiah who will bring down the Roman Empire.  And the Pharisees, for their part, hated the taxes but feared the political repercussions of just the public position that they are trying to get Jesus to take.  So they lay the groundwork for the treason of Jesus with flattery: “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.”

Jesus responds by asking for a coin for examination.  “’Whose head is this and whose title?’  They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’  ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”

The answer of Jesus is provocative, and unexpected; he seems to condone and support the role of the Roman state.  The role of government in our lives is legitimated by Jesus; there is no revolution here, except in terms of the heart.  We can ponder just what our duty is to the legitimate need for government in our lives.  Yet what belongs to God is the question still hanging in the air.  What percentage belongs to God?

With Parents’ Weekend coming next week, how much time do we owe to our parents?  How much time and commitment do they owe to their children?  Have we given to them what is their due?  Have we rendered to Caesar what is Caesar’s?  How do we know when we have done our time, and fulfilled our duty? 

Pondering this question, I was reminded of something that Abdulaziz Sachedina, the Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Virginia, was fond of saying to his son.  At my request as Chaplain to the University, he spoke and preached many times at my parish, especially after the events of September 11th.  The professor and his son would often discuss, and argue, about the son’s decisions and his future.  In frustration, the son would often say, “Dad, you’ve had your life.  This is my life, and I get to make my own decisions.”  The professor’s response as a parent was always the same.  “There is no such thing as your life and my life.  There is only our life.  Our life together.”  You can easily imagine what the son had to say to this statement: “Dad, I really hate it when you say that.”  Between parent and child, the compartments and fractions are broken down.  There are no percentages of time; there is only one time.  There is only our time together.

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  So what belongs to God?  There are no percentages that can quantify the debt we owe to God.  There are no compartments of worship, or church or chapel attendance that are sufficient, or commensurate with, God’s abiding love for each of us.  We are all beginners, all children, when it comes to the terrifying depths of compassion and love that God has for each of us. 

In the reading from Exodus this morning, the guidance of God is everything to the Jewish people.  Every single step by Moses in the wilderness was a leap of faith.  The everyday world is much more mysterious when you begin to feel the presence of God in your life.  For the Israelites in the wilderness, the presence of God, even the face of God, was very near.  In his book Thoughts on Solitude, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and spiritual writer, wrote this about the wilderness in considering the Desert Fathers, the early Christians who left society to live in the wilderness in search of God.

“The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God because it was no value to men.  The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted because it offered them nothing.  There was nothing to attract them.  There was nothing to exploit.  The desert was the region in which in which the Chosen people had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone.  They could have reached the promised land in a few months if they traveled directly to it.  God’s plan was that they should learn to love him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.”

The wilderness comes in many forms.  Our founder Father Sill left his monastery on the Hudson River to go out into the wilderness to found a school, one that would be different from the other Eastern prep schools.  It would be a school for young men of modest means.  His initial fundraising efforts yielded a mere $300, but he kept going forward.  I can’t even imagine the number of times this school might have failed.  But Father Sill persisted, and I have no doubt that he believed he was guided by God.  All of the little details of running a school were put in the light of God’s guidance, including the construction of this beautiful chapel where students might learn about the ways in which we are always part of God’s plan.  What a wonderful journey this school has had, and all of us get to play a part in a school that is now thriving.  It is humbling to be in this space together with the past in mind.  We should always look back to the wilderness of our origins as an idyllic time.  The wilderness is now a land of promise for all of us.     

So back to Jesus and his interrogation.  How much do we owe to God?  The only answer is the one that makes us whole: the answer is everything.  There is not my life and God’s reality.  There is only our life.  One life together.  We cannot stand on our own in the face of such a debt; but we stand by grace, and faith, and the love that surpasses understanding. 

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

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