19 Oct 2008
“‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’” (Matt. 22:19) (+) Tomorrow evening the Bible study group is going on its first ever field trip. The Rev. Peter Gomes, a Christian morals professor at Harvard University and also a minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, will be this year’s speaker at a lecture sponsored by the Massachusetts Bible Society at Smith College. I’ve heard Rev. Gomes speak once before when he came to Deerfield to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Old Deerfield Congregational Church, and I’ve read one of his books called The Good Book. He’s an entertaining speaker, and even more importantly he has something worthwhile to say. And “worthwhile” doesn’t mean we have to agree with him, but what he says will hopefully make us think. That by itself makes it worthwhile. If what he says makes sense to any one of us, then we can have a deeper appreciation of our beliefs. If we disagree with what he says, then at least we’ll have to think about our beliefs more critically and ask ourselves why we believe what we believe. Either way, we’re better off for it. If anyone else would like to attend Rev. Gome’s lecture, we can share rides down to Northampton, so just mention it to me after Mass this morning.
As an enticement to get us out of our homes after a day at work, to leave a comfortable chair for a church pew, Rev. Gomes has entitled his lecture: “The Trouble with Scripture: What’s so good about the good news?” It’s a provocative title coming from a professor of Christian morals and an ordained Christian minister. His premise is that Jesus came preaching a revolutionary message of hope that went far beyond the traditional pale of religion, but that now the church isn’t preaching the message, she’s preaching the messenger. He argues that the church has replaced the “good news” of salvation with doctrines about Jesus that determine a person’s merit of salvation. By moving from the message to the messenger, Gomes argues, we’ve diminished the transformative power of God’s intervention in our world. We’ve diminished the power of Jesus.
According to a funny and probably photo-shopped series of church-sign pictures that was
e-mailed to me recently, a theological debate is taking place out in public between one church of a rather fundamentalist bent and a more open-minded church. The first church put on her outdoor sign: “All Dogs Go to Heaven.” The fundamentalist church answers back: “Only humans go to heaven. Read the Bible!” Up to the challenge, the first replies: “God loves all His creations: Dogs included.” Now the other church is starting to get in a huff, and they answer: “Dogs don’t have souls. This is not open for debate!” Still enjoying the fun, the first church responds: “Our dogs go to heaven. Your dogs should talk to their pastor.” Missing all the fun of this exchange, the other church answers back: “Converting from one church to another does not magically grant your dog a soul.” To which the other church replies on their sign: “Free dog souls with conversion.” With the next sign I’m almost positive this is an internet joke, but sometimes religious debates can fall to the level of joke: “Dogs are animals. There aren’t any rocks in heaven either.” Finally, the first church answers back: “All rocks go to heaven.” No more signs.
I only share this as an example of trivial theology. I doubt if these signs are for real. One church seemed to be having some fun with it, but the other seemed to take this subject far too seriously. This is an example in the extreme of what happens when we ignore the power of the message and let it become trivial and comical. We forget about the radical message of hope that Jesus offered in an unexpected way to an unsuspecting people of God, and we reduce it to revelations in the Bible about whether or not dogs and rocks go to heaven. Jesus came to shake things-up, to announce that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” He often finished His stories with the words, “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.” In other words, don’t just hear what you expect to hear; listen to my message. Jesus didn’t come to change the name of God in the temple from one name to another. He came to change the world; He came to change us. This is what Rev. Gomes, I think, will be talking about tomorrow evening. Christianity isn’t about definitions; it’s about how we live. Think about Paul’s words today. The gospel came not in word alone, but in power and the Spirit, and how do you know that, Paul says to the Thessalonians, because of the “kind of persons we proved to be among you.” (1 Thess 1:5) Not words, not definitions, but how we lived among you.
I think this same kind of exchange is taking place in this morning’s Gospel. The Pharisees and the Herodians want to trap Jesus over the question of paying taxes to Caesar. If He agrees that they should be paid, the Pharisees will blare this out to all the Jewish people tempted to believe in Jesus and He will lose all His credibility with them. If Jesus says the taxes shouldn’t be paid, then the Herodians will immediately go and tell King Herod and Jesus will be arrested for disturbing the peace and prison will silence Him. For this kind of trivial religious debate, Jesus calls His opponents “hypocrites.” How Jesus answers instead is with those still famous words, “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” And that debate continues even today. What is the relationship between church and state? How much should one influence or interfere in the work of the other? Is this a Christian country or a secular country made-up of Christians? Christianity is not a series of trivial, pat answers to small, insular questions. Christ brings God’s presence into our world to challenge us and to change us for the better. His revelation looms large still today. Our time here in church reminds us of His proclamation, recharges us by His presence, and renews His work in us and the world. “Give unto God the things that are God’s” involves our highest faculties not our lowest, and for this degree of commitment we pray in Jesus’ most holy of names. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo