March 15, 2020

“Think Like Jesus:  Give to God What is God’s”

Mark 12:1-17

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

March 15, 2020 (Lent 3)


Today’s Scripture reading is a real head-scratcher and the parable is very difficult to preach.   And given what’s been going on in the world with the corona virus outbreak, I was tempted to toss the reading and go with another reading that would be more soothing and faith-affirming because that’s what we need, isn’t it?  Reminders of God’s presence in the midst of a situation in which we have no control.


But as I struggled with what to share with you today, I kept going back to the reading, and I do think that God is speaking to us through this difficult parable to address our situation.  My reading of the parable today is different from what you may be expecting, but please hear me out and see if Jesus isn’t speaking a relevant message for today.


We usually read this parable and make these associations:  God is the owner of the vineyard.  The religious authorities—the chief priests, teachers of the law and elders to whom Jesus was talking are the wicked tenants who refused to heed the messages of the prophets.  And Jesus is the son who was sent to collect the rent, rejected and killed.  Because the religious authorities were offended by the parable, we think, “Aha—the parable did its work and convicted them.”  But instead of repenting, they looked for ways to stop Jesus from continuing to preach against them.  Bad leaders, gracious God, self-sacrificing Jesus.  End of lesson.  Doesn’t much apply to us.


But what if the parable was not only an indictment against the religious authorities, but against the whole economic system that caused so much hardship among the poor and laborers?  What if it was also about how fear set the poor against the wealthy, and how violence is too often the answer to conflict?  What if the religious authorities were the owner of the vineyard, and the people they were supposed to serve were the tenants?


Maybe the tenant farmers were reacting to an unjust owner, whose rents were more than they could really afford to pay.  They had worked the land, and the harvest was good, but not good enough to pay the high rent the owner demanded.  Maybe they were responding out of rage or fear and had finally had enough.  


And while the owner seemed to be patient, he didn’t have much regard for the servants he continued to send to collect the rent.  It didn’t matter how many were beat up or killed, they were expendable.  The last straw was sending the son.


But the tenants may have seen the son and thought that his father had died—why else would he have come?  He came to claim his inheritance.  Maybe he was going to throw them off the land, and they would have no way of making a living.  And if the son was dead, it was possible for the tenants to make a claim on the land.


It could be argued that none of the characters in this story were good, that all were acting out of self-interest or fear. And what resulted was unnecessary violence.  Maybe Jesus was describing the inequity of the system that ran people’s lives, from the Roman domination to the religious authorities who had figured out a way to make that system work for them.  The stone that was rejected was the covenant with God that set forth a way of life in which all people would thrive.  All would love God and their neighbor, and that would be the cornerstone for their common life.


The question of whether to pay taxes to Caesar was a trick.  If Jesus said it was right to pay taxes, he could be accused of selling out on Israel.  If he said they shouldn’t pay taxes, he could be accused of starting an uprising against Rome.  The fact that the questioners were able to produce a coin with Caesar’s image on it revealed that they had dealt in the Roman economy.  “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”


Give Caesar his taxes.  But what belongs to God?  Everything.  Do we really believe that?  I hope so.  Do we really live it?  Not always.  We too live in Caesar’s economy, which makes us fearful and we try very hard to keep what we have—just like the tenant farmers.  But if we truly believed and lived as though everything belongs to God, what a different world it would be.  We would be living in the kingdom of God as Jesus demonstrated in his life.


So what does our Scripture reading have to do with the corona virus outbreak?  I think what God is inviting us to do is first to recognize that we live in a world that is not set up to treat all people fairly.  That the way we have been taught to live is based in fear and self-preservation, and that violence often results when we let our fears get to us.  God is also inviting us to once again embrace the idea that everything and everyone belongs to God.  That God loves all of creation, all people.  And we are called to give to God what belongs to God.  We are merely stewards of all that God has given to us.  If we keep this in mind as we face this outbreak, our fears can be quelled and we can live in ways that invite others to enter into life in the kingdom of God.


Instead of panic buying, we would buy enough for our 14-day or emergency supply.  We would think about our neighbors’ needs, not only ours.  There would be no long lines for toilet paper because we would not need to stock up for 2 years, and we would be able to buy it when we needed it.  The same for hand sanitizers and wipes.  Those who need face masks, especially our health care workers on the front lines, would have them when they needed them.  It’s about taking a step back and seeing that we are all in this together, and acting accordingly.


If we felt sick, or we had come into contact with someone who was sick, we would avoid going out and risking the possibility of infecting others.  And we would trust that our families, friends or neighbors would help us get through our illness.  We would offer help to those who are confined to their homes until they got better.  Even if we don’t feel like we’re at risk, we would practice good hygiene because that also keeps our kupuna safe.  Not only the family members we live with, but the family members of the people we come into contact with at the store.  Our first thought would be to act for the good of the community.  


[In that light, we will continue to monitor the situation and will suspend worship and all other activities for the good of the whole community if necessary.  Several of our sister churches have already stopped in-person meetings.  This may very well be our last worship service for a time.  We are working to organize ourselves to keep in touch and to make worship available through Facebook and other means.]


If we lived as though everything belonged to God, we would offer help to those who had to go to work, or who lost their jobs.  I was talking to a friend who is struggling because her organization serves the homeless.  And even in this amazing non-profit that does such good work, there is an economic inequality among the staff.  Administrative staff, who are professionals and the highest paid, were told to work from home to avoid exposure to the corona virus.  But the front-line staff, who work directly with their homeless clients, who are paid by the hour and who tend to live from paycheck to paycheck still need to show up to their site every day.  They can’t shut down because their clients are already living on the edge and their services are desperately needed.  I’m sure that if staff members get sick or are exposed, they would be given paid sick leave.  But they are more vulnerable than the administrative staff.  There is no good answer to address this inequality right now.


So today’s Scripture reading does challenge us to think about how our economic system and culture is vastly different from the kingdom of God.  Jesus challenges us to consider how much we owe Caesar because we live in Caesar’s world.  He challenges us to live more fully in God’s world, and to give to God what belongs to God.  Jesus challenges us to see all people as God’s children, all the resources we have as God’s, to be shared so that all will come out of this crisis healthy.


This week a quote from C.S. Lewis, a British philosophy professor and Christian writer was shared on Facebook.  Matt Smethurst, the managing editor of The Gospel Coalition posted this on their webpage.  It puts into perspective the challenge we are facing.


It’s now clear that COVID-19 is a deadly serious global pandemic, and all necessary precautions should be taken.  Still, C. S. Lewis’s words—written 72 years ago—ring with some relevance for us.  Just replace “atomic bomb” with “coronavirus.”


“In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. ‘How are we to live in an atomic age?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.’


“In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.


“This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays  (Accessed 3-14-2020)


In other words, C.S. Lewis is encouraging us to keep our minds focused on the kingdom of God, to think like Jesus.   We can follow Jesus in his works of healing and compassion, knowing that our lives are indeed connected and we can love each other through this pandemic.  The world and fear will make us behave in ways that are self-serving and continue to give honor to Caesar and wealth, but Jesus reminds us that all belongs to God, and we need to give to God what belongs to God.