Matthew 22:15-22. A reflection on Integrity, the heart & self examination. By Dan Spragg.

My mind has been captivated by something the Irish Philosopher and Theologian Peter Rollins said recently when I heard him interviewed. He said this, “I’m not interested in what you believe, but in how you believe.”[1] I think it captivated me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, and maybe you would agree with this, that anything mildly interesting said in an Irish accent is automatically catapulted into the category of fascinating! Have you ever heard John O’Donohue read one of his own poems?! And secondly, maybe more seriously, it captivated me because I think it captures something of the ethos that we have in The Village, and something of my own ethos to faith. When it comes to faith, it is to be lived, there must be something real and concrete to it all. Otherwise is it worth it? Rollins tells a wonderful parable that is worth quoting in full, that I believe demonstrates what he means.

Late that evening a group of unknown disciples packed their few belongings and left for a distant shore, for they could not bear to stay another moment in the place where their Messiah had just been crucified. Weighed down with sorrow, they left that place, never to return. Instead they travelled a great distance in search of a land that they could call home. After months of difficult travel, they finally happened upon an isolated area that was ideal for setting up a new community. Here they found fertile ground, clean water, and a nearby forest from which to harvest material needed to build shelter. So they settled there, founding a community far from Jerusalem, a community where they vowed to keep the memory of Christ alive and live in simplicity, love, and forgiveness, just as he had taught them.

The members of this community lived in great solitude for over a hundred years, spending their days reflecting on the life of Jesus and attempting to remain faithful to his ways. And they did all this despite the overwhelming sorrow in their heart.

But their isolation was eventually broken when, early one morning, a small band of missionaries reached the settlement. These missionaries were amazed at the community they found. What was most startling to them was that these people had no knowledge of the resurrection and the ascension of Christ, for they had left Jerusalem before his return from the dead on the third day. WIthout hesitation, the missionaries gathered together all the community members and recounted what had occurred after the imprisonment and bloody crucifixion of their Lord.

That evening there was a great festival in the camp as people celebrated the news of the missionaries. Yet, as the night progressed, one of the missionaries noticed that the leader of the community was absent. This bothered the young man, so he set out to look for this respected elder. Eventually he found the community’s leader crouched low in a small hut on the fringe of the village, praying and weeping.

“Why are you in such sorrow?” asked the missionary in amazement. “Today is a time for great celebration.”

“It may indeed be a day for great celebration, but this is also a day of sorrow,” replied the elder, who remained crouched on the floor. “Since the founding of this community we have followed the ways taught to us by Christ. We pursued his ways faithfully even though it cost us dearly, and we remained resolute despite the belief that death had defeated him and would one day defeat us also.”

The elder slowly got to his feet and looked the missionary compassionately in the eyes.

“Each day we have forsaken our very lives for him because we judged him wholly worthy of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of our being. But now, following your news, I am concerned that my children and my children’s children may follow him, not because of his radical life and supreme sacrifice, but selfishly, because his sacrifice will ensure their personal salvation and eternal life.”

With this the elder turned and left the hut, making his way to the celebrations that could be heard dimly in the distance, leaving the missionary crouched on the floor.[2]

Rollins writes in his commentary on the parable that, “While the community described above knew nothing of the literal Resurrection, there is a sense in which they affirmed the reality of the Resurrection in a more radical way than many of those who confess such a belief… It is in this dedicated commitment to Christ that one can say that the Resurrection is truly made manifest… Here Jesus is testified to as present in the life and actions of the community.”[3]

“I’m not interested in what you believe, but in how you believe.”

I’d like us to keep this concept in mind as we keep moving through today. The concept that how we live is more telling of what we believe necessarily than what we say.

The gospel reading for this week has us located in the midst of some serious battles going on between Jesus and the Pharisees, it has the feeling of a World Cup Rugby final kind of level of intensity. And with this passage we get to talk about taxes! Well actually I don’t think it’s actually about taxes but it is a good way in.

I was fascinated by how incredibly centre stage the issue of taxes became during our recent elections. Did anyone else notice? Perhaps it happens every time and I haven’t noticed before but this time it did seem to get a lot of air time, everyone who was anyone had an opinion on it and then so did everyone else! It seemed quite easy to get caught up in believing that tax and the election was the answer to all our problems. I certainly found it occupying a lot of my brain space for awhile. It seems that the way New Zealand will become the country we want it to be, where everyone has a fair chance at having a good life, is through achieving first and foremost the perfect tax structure. Whichever side of the political fence you reside, this is how we will do it. I had to remind myself, and it was actually the well timed Facebook comment of a past lecturer of mine that helped me about a week out from the election, that actually neither taxes or even politics isn’t going to achieve a truly free and just society where all are found to flourish with each other, with themselves, and with the planet. I had to remember that first and foremost I was a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, therefore I believe that the gospel, the Good News of God’s way, is actually the only way for what I long for to become reality. Politics of course is an important part of life, so too are taxes because we live in an organised human society but what are these things really? They are not bad or good things in and of themselves but how do they fit into the ordering of things if I call myself a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, one who seeks to imitate Christ, one who longs for Christ to be formed in me and through me? What is the better ordering of things and where I give my time and energy?

Jesus asked those who had come to fight a question. “Whose face is on the coin, and what is the inscription?” It is actually a brilliant question – here’s a bit of context to help us out. As I’ve said, this story is a part of a battle between the Pharisees (and others) and Jesus. From chapter 21 through to chapter 23 he engages in massive confrontation and critique of all the religious leaders. This is all occurring of course in a world where things such as religion and church and state all existed in one big collision – it was messy and not as tidy as some would like. It was a world where a military and economic superpower assumed the right of rule and power over other nations and peoples. (I want to say does that sound like a familiar and recurring story?) It was a world where the religious elite acted as gatekeepers of salvation but really they did so as actors, hypocrites – do as I say not do as I do… Jesus and the Pharisees and those others who they had joined forces with are having it out because Jesus disagrees with their way of operating. The religious elite made the rules, they enforced the rules, and they used their position as status over others. Their anger towards Jesus was because he was calling them out on it, he had exposed their hypocrisy. They pretended they were righteous in the sight of God, and maybe they genuinely believed it, but really in their hearts they preferred the power, the status, the control, and the self appointed privilege much more. This story seems to occur in the Temple itself, the place where these folk were the keepers of the rules. Jesus asks, “Whose face is on the coin, and what is the inscription?” It is a brilliant question because he would have known, as they would have known, that the Roman coin had the face of Caesar on it, and the inscription would have read, “Son of the Divine Augustus.” They were in a Jewish Temple, and this was a problem because Roman coins, at the order of Jewish religious law, weren’t allowed in the temple due to the fact that the face on the coin depicted who the coin belonged to, and to whom you served by using it. Do you see why this was a brilliant question? The ones who claimed to operate in service under the authority of God, and who in Chapter 21 had asked Jesus under whose authority did he do and say the things he was doing and saying. The ones who upheld the religious laws and claimed to live perfect lives under the law, were in actual fact breaking the very laws they claimed to uphold. Jesus calls them hypocrites to their faces a wee while later. I can see which way the scoreboard is going in this fight.

We can see that the content of this encounter of entrapment isn’t taxes, or even the issue of how the church and state are meant to relate to one another. This is simply Jesus pointing out the hypocrisy of the religious ones, right in the very location of their centre of power. That’s why I chose the photo of the Lemur for the cover page today – was this the face of the Pharisees as Jesus proceeded to undo them? I think it might have been! (it’s at the bottom of the next page for your enjoyment) Things like this always come to light in locations of time and place. That is how they make sense, that is how we make sense of them. This story makes a lot of sense when we consider the context and add in the motives of all parties. Abstract concepts always have a hard time at making sense when there is no flesh hanging off them. The encounters Jesus has with the Pharisees for us, well certainly for me, are very easily left in their time and space though. It does seem easy for us to hide behind the fact that they happened then and there, not now and here.

“I’m not interested in what you believe, but in how you believe.”

How do we believe? The crucial step we have to take with stories like these is the step of self examination. We have to bring the story from then and there into our own now and here. To do this I believe is our taking seriously the claim we say that Jesus has on our lives. My story of slipping into the hype and build up of election rhetoric, although not particularly a big deal as I’m sure no one noticed apart from me, nevertheless highlights how easy it is to get caught up in ‘stuff.’ I needed the re-direction of a wiser person. My eyes were opened to see. I was grateful, for I was reminded of my calling first and foremost as a disciple of Jesus. With this story today, actually with these series of stories as Jesus confronts those who believe they are acting out the authority of God, as we bring it into our time and place, questions come to mind far more than answers, which is ok because questions are often the most useful thing to have around while you’re still a living breathing human. What does hypocrisy look like for us? What does it look like for us when we operate on motives of entrapment? Why do we say we believe one thing and then find ourselves doing another? What if God were to impress on your heart a disconnection between words and actions, between the songs sung and the days in between? Would you even notice, or would you, or would we need some tables turned over and some direct confrontations to help us see? What would our response be? What is our response to the word of God coming into our lives? Stories always make sense in a time and place, what does hypocrisy, entrapment, and the message of Jesus calling us fully into the life of loving God and loving our neighbours as we love ourselves mean for us? What does it mean for me? What does it mean for you? If we think about it, chew it over, consider it in the context of our own lives then we will learn, and we will grow. If we don’t, we won’t. It is rather that simple.

Jesus comes, always, with an upsetting message of an upside down kingdom where nothing that any of the powerful people had said was worth something, (whether that was money or rules or status) was actually deemed to hold any significant value at all. What seems to be of real value to Jesus, was living a life as one created in the image of God. The Jewish coins as opposed to the Roman ones, by the way, only featured images of non-living things like wheat, which could be a whole other tangent on the symbolism of who do you serve and where is the true image and likeness of God to be found… Anyway, Jesus message was an invitation to a place where you are known and free, a place of waking up to the image and likeness of God in you and in those around you,  a life of love and grace being what you are called by and called into and therefore that is what you have to offer others.

I wonder, could the parable from my Irish friend be true? Could we each day as we live continually seek to be like that community where we be what we say we believe?

“I’m not interested in what you believe, but in how you believe.”

May we never think we have arrived.

May we always be looking to learn.

May we always notice God at work in us and around us as the Living Word comes among us.

[1] In this fascinating 3 part interview – , ,

[2] Being the Resurrection, a parable by Peter Rollins in his book, The Orthodox Heretic, p67-70.

[3] In a commentary on the above parable, in The Orthodox Heretic, p70.