john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    A win-win answer to a lose-lose question

    Bratton Clovelly, Sourton,
    16/10/2011


    1 Thessalonians. 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

    My rewrite of the sermon of the same title by Paul J. Nuechterlein, delivered at Our Savior's Lutheran, Racine, WI, October 20, 2002 [1]


    'Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.'

    What a memorable punchline - the words of Jesus are the climax of a drama, a confrontation between the disciples of the Pharisees and Jesus. As Matthew tells it, the drama is this: that the Pharisees, through their disciples, are trying to entrap Jesus. We are set-up for a win-lose sort of drama. A win-lose sort of drama which tempts us to cheer, because Jesus seems to be the winner.

    But first, the Pharisees think they have come up with a question that will bring a lose-lose outcome for Jesus. They think that whichever way Jesus answers this question, he will lose out. They want him to lose out to them because Jesus has been unsettling these authority figures with the different kind of authority that he's shown them in his life and teaching.

    The Pharisees call Jesus a teacher who "does not regard people with partiality." That's a win-win sort of approach, to show no partiality. That's a different sort of authority he's showing. But in their world where they play games with winners and losers, the Pharisees want to show Jesus that it is impossible to play the game as if everyone could win, impossible to show no partiality towards anyone. The Pharisees are saying, in other words, 'If you insist on playing as if there aren't any winners and losers in life, then here's a question that will trip you up: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?'

    Now, for an occupied people, like the Jews were to the Romans, there is definitely a winner and loser. In asking Jesus that question, the Pharisees are trying to get him to buy into such a worldview of winners and losers. They are trying to get Jesus to choose sides, so that he will be a loser with one of these two groups. If he answers yes, then the Jews will not like him for siding with their overlord, the emperor of Rome. If Jesus answers no, then the Pharisees will have something against Jesus to take to their Roman overlords and get him in trouble. Either way, they think that Jesus will be the loser in this exchange. They have come in the spirit of defeating him precisely by trying to get him to play the game of winning and losing.

    Jesus refuses to play their game. He refuses to take sides. He brilliantly takes a coin, gets them to say whose image is on the coin, and then gives his win-win answer, and answer which so amazes the disciples of the Pharisees that he has wriggled out of their trap, that they go away: "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."

    A clever answer; but far more than just a clever answer. It contains the key to who we are as humans under God, and life as it is lived in God's win-win kingdom.

    Let's consider a moment just what things are God's... This has to do with the issue of "image." When Jesus shows them the coin and asks them, "Whose head is this?", the Greek word translated as "head" is eikon, from which we get our English word icon. A better translation of Jesus' question would be, "Whose image is this on the coin?" And the word image takes us much deeper to a fundamental truth of our faith. If we give the coin to the emperor because it is his image on it, then what is it that we give to God because God's image is on it? Listen to this passage from the first chapter of the Bible:
    Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)
    In other words, we give to the emperor the coin because his image is on it, and we give to God ourselves, because you and I are created in the image of God, both male and female. Jesus is not only refusing to play the win-lose games of the Pharisees, but he is introducing a more profound truth: that we owe the one who made us our very lives - not just our money, but everything of who we are.

    Jesus says that we owe our whole lives to God, for it's our whole lives that are made in God's image. The money we give to church and charity is just a sign of giving our whole lives. Far more than that, the Genesis passage says that we are given dominion over the rest of the creation along with God. We are given stewardship over the whole earth, not just ourselves. Over the centuries this has led to so many of our tragic win-lose ways of doing things. Think of poverty in Africa; think of the destruction of the rainforests. We take control over other people's lives such that we are winners and they are losers. We take control over the environment such that we are winners and the earth, our habitat, is the loser.

    So we are created in the image of God, and we need to be stewards and caretakers of creation as God is a caretaker of creation. We fail to be good stewards when we base our stewardship along win-lose lines. When we create situations where it seems that there's not enough to go around, someone's got to win and someone's got to lose out. That's how we always end up playing.

    But Jesus came to show us how to do it another way. He came to show us how to have trust in the God of abundant life, so that we can carry out our stewardship in a win-win way. God's truth is, there is enough for everybody, so that everyone can win. Jesus teaches the Pharisees that for all its power and pervasiveness their win-lose world is not the real world; the real real world, which their very own scriptures describe, is the world of a Creator God who doesn't show any partiality, the God who made us in the divine image so that we, too, could learn to live without showing partiality to anyone. Jesus came to show us how to be good stewards by caring for everyone and everything with the same love and care. We don't need to play win-lose games. Jesus' answer points us to the God whose love for us is the win-win gift of life, a gift we can offer right back to God through our loving service to each other and to this earth.

    Sadly, even though Jesus has offered them a win-win situation, the disciples of the Pharisees went away sensing themselves to be losers. And doing what losers do in a win-lose world: seeking revenge. It only took a couple of days for them to reassert their brand of authority. This episode takes place at the beginning of what we call Holy Week, and soon they tried to make Jesus look like the loser, putting him on trial and executing him on the cross. Before the question about the coin, just after Jesus made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday,
    When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" (Matthew 21:23)
    The Jewish leaders see their authority as a win-lose commodity, and they are prepared to hold onto it by force if necessary. Jesus tries to get them to see their brand of authority for what it is. He tells them parables like the parable of the king who ruled by force. When those he invited to the celebration of his son's wedding turn him down, this king slaughters them all and goes out to find others who will come - which the people do at that point, fearfully, having just seen what this king does to those who turn him down. This king rules like one of those Middle-Eastern tyrants. If someone doesn't do what he tells them, he kills them, so that the next person asked will do it, for fear of being killed themselves. His brand of authority is based on violence and terror.

    But there is another singular character in that parable: the man at the end who comes into the banquet without the proper outfit. When the king sees him, he accuses him, binds him hand and foot, and throws him out into the outer darkness. This, of course, is what the Jewish and Roman authorities are about to do to Jesus. Like that man dressed without the wedding gown, Jesus refuses to clothe himself with their brand of win-lose, violence-based authority. He stands before them silent, letting himself be bound to the cross and thrown into the outer darkness of death.

    At this point Jesus looks like a loser. But Jesus has come with God's authority, a win-win authority based on love and forgiveness and life. So their violence cannot defeat him. Not even on their terms, because this apparent loser comes back to life with the power of forgiveness, the power to make everyone a winner as children of God. It is this brand of authority which he continues to pour out upon us through the Holy Spirit.

    So will we let this Spirit transform our authority into one based on love rather than on force? Can we live lives of offering people the Good News of win-win rather than win-lose? As parents, for example, what kind of authority do we wield, one based on force and punishment, or one based on love? What kind of authority do we demonstrate as spouses, as neighbours, as citizens? We can take these questions all the way from the personal level to the political and military sphere, because the point of Jesus' answer in today's Gospel is that we owe our whole lives, including our politics, to God's authority of love. And that if we accept his loving authority over us then he will help us to become win-win people, able to be impartial, able to be generous, able to enjoy the fulness of life which is how it should be in the real world, for all of us made in God's image.


    Notes

    [1] Paul J. Neuchterlein, A win-win answer to a lose-lose question, delivered at Our Savior's Lutheran, Racine, WI, October 20, 2002