22 Pentecost, Year A
22 Pentecost, Year A
Ps 99 & Matt 22:15-22
I suppose you’ve often heard it said that the greatest mistake is to be found out. When I hear that said about something illegal, I think of the story of the Four Knows.
When a Chinese nobleman was offered a bribe, the man who offered it said, “It is dark and no-one will know.”
However, the nobleman said in surprise, “No-one will know? Why, Heaven will know. Earth will know. You will know. I will know.”
In memory of this man’s honesty, his house became known as “The Home of the Four Knows.” 1
Today in our psalm as well as in our gospel we are given a glimpse of God’s justice. Our psalmist, in a hymn of praise celebrating God’s rule as King over heaven and earth, speaks of the importance of God’s justice as a reminder to us that God is the Most Holy One; therefore does not tolerate sin or take it lightly--but rather, loves justice. And in our gospel today, Jesus is put on the spot when some of his adversaries ask him the following trick question: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Jesus however “amazed” them; answering their trick question by asking them whose head and inscription was on a denarius coin and then instruction them to: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
In other words, both our psalmist and Jesus instruct us that we cannot escape the justice of God; nor can we as people of faith be exempt from living in this world without justice. As the story of the Chinese nobleman points out; our sins will find us out if we are acting and living dishonestly and neglect God’s justice in the living out of our faith and in the living out of our responsibilities as citizens in the world.
In both our psalm and gospel today, there is a strong sense of living out our lives with justice in the world as an expression and sign of God’s rule of justice as King of heaven and earth. Listen to the following story, told by Paul Trudinger a few years ago.
The Rt. Rev’d Lois Wilson, one of the (former) Presidents of the World Council of Churches, (a few years ago) gave a series of lunch-hour addresses at the University of Winnipeg. She spoke about experiences she had had visiting Third World countries, in particular China and Central American countries. In one of these addresses she spoke of a young man, a miner, with whom she talked in Nicaragua, I believe. This young man’s father had lived his all too brief life also working as a mine labourer. He had died prematurely of lung disease caused by the mine dust. The son had often watched his father coughing up blood.
When the young man came to know that Lois was visiting the place as a representative of the Church, he said to her with great passion, “There’s something more important than God. It is that no person should have life cut short working in conditions like these for very little pay in order that a few others may become rich.”
(Paul Trudinger) found this a very moving and provocative statement. As one who benefits from an affluent consumer society (Trudinger knew himself) to be judged. (Reflecting on it he said): I believe I rightly understand what that young man meant. And if by ‘God’ he was referring to the kind of doctrinal statements which, as a young man brought up in the institutional church, he must often have heard preached and sung, I believe his words are true and need to be heeded by me.
As (Paul Trudinger) kept on thinking, however, about why the story had moved (him) so deeply (he) realized that for (him) the young man’s strong reaction to injustices which he and his family were suffering, and his passionate cry for fairness and equality within the human family, is ‘God’, the very voice of God. For (Trudinger), at any rate, (the young man’s) words have come as a word from God. 2
As we learn from this story, God cares about justice in the world. Our doing of justice is an expression of faith and an affirmation of God’s just rule as King of heaven and earth; and it is also taking our responsibility seriously as citizens of our country. In speaking of God and God’s activity, the psalmist tells us: “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” In other words, God is present and speaking to us through those people in the world around us who are denied equity and justice. How do we treat the weak, the homeless, the widow and orphan and stranger, the unemployed, the poor? Does our lifestyle, do our wealth and privileges, do our laws of the land benefit us while at the same time they discriminate against and neglect justice for others? In neglecting justice to those less fortunate than us, are we neglecting to listen to the very voice of God?
In Alan Paton’s novel, Ah But Your Land is Beautiful, a law is passed in South Africa which made it possible for whites only to enter the Durban Municipal Reference Library. A bright, promising high school girl--who was also an Indian by race--named Prem Bodasingh repeatedly broke this unjust law by entering the library to sit down and read a book. Eventually Dr. William Johnson, the Director of Education for the province of Natal visits Prem in prison to try and convince her to obey the law and finish her education.
In the following conversation, we learn that Prem is breaking the law because she made a promise to God and herself to do so.
Dr. Johnson asks: “You want to be a social worker, don’t you?” “Yes, sir.” “Prem, I don’t want to stop you from breaking the what you think is an unjust law. I want to stop you from damaging your whole life. Do you understand what I am saying?” “Yes, sir, I understand it.” “Do you understand that you may be damaging your whole life?” “I understand it.” “Are you willing to throw away education, knowledge, learning, for the sake of your cause?”
She said to him in a low voice, “Yes.” “But these are--what shall I say? -holy things.” She said with a spark of fire, “The cause is holy too. And my promise. A promise is holy too.” “A promise to whom? To Congress?” “No. To God and myself.” “What was your your promise, Prem?” She did not answer. He could see that his questions were painful to her. He said to her gently, “My child, what was your promise?” She bowed her head and said in a voice so low that he could barely hear her words, “To the death.” 3
Prem was so committed to justice that she promised to God and to herself that she was willing to die for it. Is such a witness as Prem’s not the very voice of God? When we neglect giving to the state what the state rightfully deserves and to God what God rightfully deserves; then we prevent justice from being carried out. In giving to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and giving to God what belongs to God, we are witnesses of God our King’s justice and presence in the world and in the church. May our LORD grant us the rich resources of his grace to live and work for justice.