Sunday, March 15, 2020

I Told You So — a sermon for Lent 3

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s and Greenock St Margaret’s 
I Told You So
Mark 11.27-33, 12.13-17
15 March 2020, NL2-28, Lent 3 (Letting Go: fasting from being right)

They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”
Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)
So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, ‘Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the poll-tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?’
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’ he asked. ‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ They brought the coin, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’
‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’
And they were amazed at him.


The phrase “I told you so” is one that many of us try to avoid using, because it can have a negative impact on our relationships...but sometimes it is so tempting, isn’t it? There’s something satisfying about having been right, and reminding people that you were right. At the same time, there’s something about it that feels awful, because usually it comes up in a situation where another person is hurting. Somehow that combination of gloating and empathy feels both good and bad at the same time. It’s almost never helpful, and yet the words are so often on the tip of our tongues.

Almost any bystander witnessing these exchanges between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day could have told them how it was going to turn out. You can practically hear them holding back their “I told you so” when each time, the questioners who thought to entrap him end up turning away in frustration. They are never going to trick him into anything....and indeed, their desire to be seen as winning these arguments is actually backfiring, every single time they open their mouths.

First they came to question him about authority. Surely anyone teaching the things Jesus is teaching must have permission, right? He needs a diploma from his healing course, and a certificate from the education authority, and probably a permit from the police for all this street gatherings. Not to mention that no one seems to have signed off on his divinity degree. 

But they didn’t understand what God’s authority looks like, even in person standing in front of them. They were so desperate to control the flow of divine power themselves, they couldn’t fathom that God would there. No barriers, no structures, no requirements, just the living God right there, loving people and literally being grace. 

When Jesus asked them his own question first, their actual problem was revealed. They didn’t want to know who gave him permission...they wanted to prove that they were the ones who had the right to give that permission. They wanted to control the flow of information from God to people, so that they could ensure they were right and others had to follow their way. So they couldn’t claim that John’s power came from people, because that lie would make them look silly to the crowds who knew otherwise. But they couldn’t tell the truth either, that John’s power was from God, because then they would be outed as wrong for their opposition to him — and on the wrong side of God, no less.

There was no way for them to answer the question and be right, so they simply refused to play. And in return, so did Jesus.

When they came back around a bit later, they had a new tactic. First, they used lots of pretty words, but the reality is that flattery gets you nowhere with God! In the culture of the time, Jesus would have been expected to return the compliment, to engage in some mutual flattery with those who were trying to butter him up. He refused to play that game, too. 

When they finally got to the point, they tried to draw Jesus into a common hot-button controversy of the day, about Roman coinage and taxes. Again, they were certain that they were right and would manage to trick him into being wrong....and again, Jesus refused to play their manipulative games. Instead, in what would surely have been an “I told you so” moment for any onlooker placing bets, he asked them for a coin.

With this request, Jesus did two things.

First, he proved himself righteous in the background dispute — he was in Jerusalem, the holy city, and he was not carrying a Roman coin there. The religious law of the time didn’t allow Roman coins in the Temple, because they had a graven image on them. That’s why there had to be money changers — you needed a currency exchange to be able to change the money used out in the rest of the empire into money you could use locally. But Jesus didn’t have a denarius with him. He was outside the Roman economy, perhaps on purpose, or perhaps by virtue of being in the lower classes.

Second, the Pharisees who did have a Roman coin in their pocket were then implicated in the Roman imperial economy themselves. There in Jerusalem, God’s holy place, they were carrying around the currency of the empire, even as they tried to trick Jesus into making an illegal pronouncement. By asking them to show him a coin, Jesus forced them to reveal themselves and the motives behind their question.

In answering the question they asked, Jesus also answered a question they did not ask. He said “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God’s.” The coin, of course, had the image of Caesar on it. And what is it that has the image of God on it?

Humans, of course.

And we know that technically all currency is the property of the crown....and also that the earth belongs to the Lord, and all that is in it.

So when Jesus says “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what is God’s,” he reminds us that all things, all people, indeed the whole world, belongs to God. Therefore what belongs to Caesar?

Nothing, of course.

Though on a technicality you might be able to argue that Jesus said that those who participate in the Roman imperial economy must also pay their dues to the Empire....and those who are not carrying that coin around in their pocket are free from that particular obligation, while still being held to the much higher standard of belonging to God.

But ultimately, Jesus frustrated the designs of the leaders who wanted him to play their game, and to prove them right — either right about their choice to sell out their convictions for imperial gain, or right in their assessment of him as a fraud with no authority.

Unfortunately for them, they knew, deep down, that they were in the wrong, and their efforts to appear otherwise were shallow at best. It is still, even today, a common tactic though, for people in power to try to deflect attention from the things they’ve done wrong by manipulating conversations so that they appear to be right about something! 

Instead, Jesus offers them another way—a way of giving to God what is God’s, which is to say, everything including our very selves. But to take this way will require that we give up the desire to be seen as being right, to give up the impulse toward “I told you so.” Because only God is good, and because we are meant to follow the Way, the Truth, and the Life — which involves submitting to the reality that we are not the ones who know everything. Fasting from the need to be right is a tricky thing! Because of course we all want to be correct and to do what is right. But this is about our need to be seen to be right. That need does not serve us, and indeed it blocks our ability to engage with the Truth. 

There is a saying that goes around every so often: “you don’t have to continue in a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.” We have spent a lot of time and energy, as humans, trying to be right, or at least perceived as right. But that’s a mistake we don’t have to keep making. We can choose to allow God’s truth to have the last word, rather than insisting on it ourselves. We can choose to bow to Jesus’ superior authority, even if he doesn’t have the right paperwork. We can choose to admit our brokenness and our failures, to apologise when we have been wrong, and to commit to turning toward a better way.

In these days when insisting on our own ways can literally cost lives, this is a perfect Lenten practice: to fast from the need to be right. It is ok to admit we were wrong, or that we didn’t know something, and to learn together from the One to whom we all belong....and from those people that God has gifted with particular knowledge or wisdom to help us navigate uncertain terrain! Indeed, this is one way we can love God and our neighbour as ourselves: to refuse to persist in a mistake, but instead to fast from being right by allowing those with more information or more training to lead the way, while we all together try to do what Jesus continually calls us to do, to be his Body in the world: to embody his love and grace without barriers or cost, to share his word of life, to serve rather than insisting on being served.

It’s hard work to fast from being right. It hurts to admit when we’re wrong, or to let people see past the façade of having all the answers. But remember: God is never deceived, and when we are honest and when we allow the Spirit a bit of breathing room, that’s when we’ll be able to grow and bear fruit for God’s kingdom. And with God, all things are possible.

May it be so. Amen.

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