Monday, March 28, 2011

the great debates between Jesus and the religious fundamentalists of his day

The following is an excerpt from yesterday's sermon at Highland's Presbyterian Church. We are using Lent to study the last week of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

We continue our study of the final week in the life of Jesus. This is Tuesday, the day of the great debates between Jesus and the religious fundamentalists of his day. Jesus enters the Temple on the day after he had cleared it.
As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, scribes and the elders came to him, and said to him, "By what authority are you doing these things?" Jesus said, "I will ask you a question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men? Answer me." They argued with one another, "If we say, `From heaven,' he will say, `Why then did you not believe him?' But shall we say, `From men'?" -- they were afraid of the people, for all held that John was a real prophet. So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."
The exchange reminds me of one of the trick questions I get from time to time. “Are you saved?” At other times I am asked whether I believe in the Bible. These are the same trick questions fundamentalists posed to Jesus 2000 years ago. A trick question is when someone asks a question presupposing facts or beliefs not necessarily accepted by those asked to respond. Asking someone whether they’ve been saved presupposes an understanding of what that means. If you say “YES” you’ve agreed to the interrogator’s view of what it means to be saved. If you say no, you condemn yourself.
A similar device is the double-barreled question, a question touching on more than one issue, allowing for only one answer, the strategy of which is to cause the responder to look bad in the eyes of some by appearing to take the side of others.

Example: Mark.12: 13-17: They sent to him some of the Pharisees and Hero'di-ans, to entrap him. "Teacher, we know you are true, and do not regard the position of men, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Knowing their hypocrisy, he said, "Bring me a coin, and let me look at it." They brought one. He said, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said, "Caesar's." Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

It is a trick question to ask Jesus in the presence of Roman and church authorities whether it is lawful to pay taxes. The answer would require Jesus to either break Roman law or betray his followers.
So Jesus says, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which belongs to God. In those few words, Jesus has avoided conviction while convicting both groups of his interrogators. The Romans and the religious zealots had created a world where each accommodated the other. The church went along to get along with the Romans. Rome used the church to keep its oppressive grip on the people. What they heard that day is what they wanted to hear, that you could separate that which belongs to God from that which belongs to Caesar.
Jesus knew everything belongs to God. There is no separation.
Here may be a lesson as the nation debates balancing its budget and reduce spending. Is it lawful to pay taxes? At what point does our objection to taxes become a problem in our relationship with God? Whose money is it?

I close with a story about a young mother in Portland, Maine, whose name is Kelly McDaniel. I am hoping we are related. Last month she went to the Capitol to testify as a citizen on the state’s budget problems.
Kelly, a middle class librarian, addressed the budget proposal including tax cuts for wealthy citizens and huge reductions in retirement benefits and cuts in education and social programs.
"I don't think it's moral,” she said. “Taking money from people who don't have much and giving it to people who have more seems, well, greedy," she said. "Greed is frowned upon in every major world religion -- and I don't think agnostics and atheists look too kindly upon it, either."
Is it greedy to take from the poor and give to the rich? Trick question? I suppose it is, but a trick question Jesus might have answered much as he did back then. And Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." Amen.

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