20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 18, 2020
“A God Above Labels”
Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson previously read from Matthew chapter 22.
My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
You know what I am getting sick and tired of? All the “labels” that people attach and wear these days. Sometimes it’s literal. NBA and NFL players have “league approved” social statements on their jerseys or their apparel. More often than not, though, it’s not a literal label, yet BOY do they stick! If you wear the label “Black Lives Matter,” then you are all for “freedom, liberation, and justice” (BLM website), but shouldn’t that apply to everyone regardless of color? People who like President Trump are “Patriots.” People who like Joe Biden are “Progressive.” Why can’t I be a patriotic American who also wants the right changes at the right times for the right reason? Well, today’s sermon is called “A God Above Labels,” because this sermon is about what our loving God had to say to the Pharisees and to all of us, labels or no labels.
Before we look too closely at this text, we must remember the greater context of this event. Back in Matthew chapter 21, Jesus was approached by the Pharisees who were, as we might label them, not “happy campers.” They wanted to know by whose authority Jesus did the things He did and said the things He said (21:23). Jesus then proceeded to tell the Pharisees and those in attendance three parables, and we have heard those parables in previous weeks: the parable of the two sons sent to work in the vineyard, the parable of the wicked tenants, and the parable of the wedding banquet. As I have said before, parables are earthly stories that have heavenly meanings, and the same is most definitely true here for these three parables that were told back-to-back-to-back for a very specific reason.
The labels on our clothes stay hidden…unless a tag sticks up from the collar. Jesus was, in effect, making the labels of the Pharisees visible for all. By the parables Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees hadn’t repented like the tax collectors and prostitutes had done (two sons), they were plotting to kill him (wicked tenants), and they had turned down the invitation to God’s eternal kingdom (wedding banquet). As a result of what Jesus had said, the Pharisees were really angry, and they decided to place a trap for Jesus; it was their effort to label Him either a “traitor” or a “subversive.” This was a “no win” situation for Jesus.
Yet, win He did. The Pharisees teamed up with the Herodians – not exactly a match made in heaven – in order to get Jesus. They start by slapping their own labels on our Lord: “integrity, truthful, steadfast” (v. 16). They didn’t mean it, but they didn’t know how right they were. Next they by posed a no-win, trick question: “is it lawful/right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (22:17). The Herodians had their own label – partisans of Rome with a religious orientation. But they were there to be – to use another label – “tattletales.” If Jesus answered it is okay to pay taxes, the Pharisees would tell it to the people and turn them against Jesus; He’s a “traitor” or “Roman sympathizer.” But, if Jesus answered “no, it wasn’t okay to pay taxes,” the Herodians would turn Him in as a “subversive” or “insurgent.” But God is a God who is above labels.
Jesus saw through all their fluffy rhetoric and He gave them an answer that they weren’t planning on: “you hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” (22:18). Jesus would not accept their labels. He exposed their hypocrisy and deceit; He showed them to be who they really were. And, as He had done in the past, Jesus answered their question with another question – “show me the coin used for paying taxes,” Jesus said, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Of course, it was Caesar’s and Jesus had them where He wanted them.
Those who set a trap fell into a trap themselves! Our Lord replied to their trick question “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and (give) to God what is God’s” (verse 21). The Herodians had their answer. The Pharisees had their answer. They were amazed and left Him and went away (v. 22). Jesus was not about to be labeled by their trick questions…at least not yet…because the Pharisees would be coming back, and they had plenty more labels to slap on and this time Jesus willingly accepted them.
After His celebration of the Last Supper, Jesus was taken away from the Garden of Gethsemane. At that point, Jesus knew the time had come to allow the labels to stick. Accused by false witnesses, Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied (26:63-64). And with the application of that label, the events were set in motion that led to Calvary’s cross.
This time the Pharisees were right, and they didn’t even know just how right they were! Jesus was and is the Christ, the Son of God. He also received the label of “guilty” for a specific reason. Pilate shouted, “Why (should I crucify him)? What crime has he committed?” But the crown had already labeled Him “criminal,” so they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”(27:23). Jesus, the Son of God, allowed the label of “guilty” to be applied to Him. And He bore the penalty and the anguish that the charge of guilty brought. In the ultimate act of labeling, on the cross they placed above Jesus’ head the written charge against Him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS (27:37). Again, they had no idea just how right that label was.
In today’s lesson Jesus said we are to give to God the things of God. And just what are those things? It is exactly the things that Jesus was pointing to by the three parables. He calls the Pharisees, and us, to repentance, to believe, and to hope for the life of the kingdom yet to come. So often we get caught up in our own “labels” of life that you carry: poor, sick, tired, scared, lonely, regret, desperate, terminal, addict, overworked, worried, hurting, under-employed, unappreciated, angry, and so on. But what is important are the things of God. When we are called to repent and we do, when we are called to believe and we do, then the biggest label of “condemned sinner bound for hell” no longer sticks to us. It slides right off having lost its hold by virtue of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, and being freed of life’s labels strengthens you to face and live every single day.