"Bullied Burgers and Pocket Icons": Sermon for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A

"Bullied Burgers and Pocket Icons": Sermon for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost, Year A

Oct 22, 2017

Passage:Matthew 22:15-22

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Pentecost

Category: Discipleship, Mercy, Faithfulness

Keywords: bullying, faithfulness, idols, justice, mercy


When the Pharisees try to trap Jesus, he challenges them instead. They produce a coin that ultimately prompts Jesus to call them hypocrites. What do we carry in our "metaphorical" pockets that might make us hypocrites?


In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

"Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."

This is how Jesus wraps up today's Gospel reading. He amazes everybody around him with this neat little saying.

It seems so simple, right? ...

Give to the emperor...the state...the government what is due...

And give to God what God is due.....

Then everyone is happy.

There's a middle ground.

No one can fault you there.

Many have used this saying Jesus to prop up our own country's insistence on separation of Church and State, even.

But this was not about Church and State.

It was not so neat.

Jesus laid down some hard truth that baffled the Pharisees and the Herodians that day.

And it's a challenge to us too.

Let's look back at what happened in that exchange on that day at the Temple.

At this point in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had been challenging the Pharisees over and over with a series of Parables. One after another, these stories kept telling the Pharisees that they were not living out the covenant in the fullness of God. They may know the Torah, but they do not live into the Word and the Spirit of God's promises.

The Pharisees are furious about this.

They want to stop Jesus.

They want to trap him.

Now, here's the setting for the type of trap we're talking about here: Jerusalem is under the control of an occupying army. The Roman Empire has absolute rule over everything, from the monetary system to the social structures to the political atmosphere.

It's only with the permission of the Roman emperor that the Jewish system of worship, with its temple and priests, can even exist. There are many in and around Jerusalem who advocate violent overthrow of the Romans, but the Temple hierarchy seems to be trying to balance worship of God with maintaining stability within the Roman system.

It's in this context, then, that the disciples of the Pharisees ask the question designed to trap Jesus. They want to get him on record saying "don't pay taxes," and thereby defying Rome. If Jesus does so, this will be grounds for his arrest and probably crucifixion. The other side of this trap is if Jesus says, "of course we should pay our taxes!", then he's going against his own teaching about showing deference to no one but God. JESUS would be the hypocrite!

That's quite a trap they think they've set for Jesus.

And isn't this how we often find ourselves in the world?

We think we live in a binary.

We think there are only two options in any situation.

We think we can only answer this way or that way... but and both ways are awful...

But Jesus did not fall into the trap.

Jesus calls them hypocrites.

This is jarring to our ears. We are so used to loving Jesus... friendly Jesus... happy Jesus... We long for "turn-the-other-cheek Jesus." It makes us uncomfortable when we hear Jesus call people names.

"You hypocrites!" says Jesus!... He was aware of their malice.

And then he asks them to show him a coin used for the tax.

They produce a denarius.

The fact that they had a denarius at the Temple was pretty condemning for them! All money given to temple was supposed to be special temple coins--not coins with the image of the Roman emperor. THAT was considered idolatry! After all, the emperor CLAIMED to be divine. Having a coin with the emperor's image at the temple was the same as carrying an idol of another god into the sacred space of the Lord.

Once they confirm that the emperor's image is on the coin, Jesus then gives the response that baffles them: "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."

Jesus' anger and his calling them hypocrites is because he is fiercely protective of God's promise to promote justice and mercy and faithfulness. Jesus is particularly intense when folks get in the way of people being loved and knowing God's justice and mercy.[i]

I keep thinking about these disciples of the Pharisees having the denarius in their pockets--idols sitting there ready to challenge and test the love of Jesus.

I wonder what idols I metaphorically keep in my pockets to hold me back from showing mercy and doing justice and being faithful?

At any given time, I might carry the idols of selfishness or the desire for my own comfort over others. I sometimes hang on to the idols of anger or my own personal sense of entitlement. I often carry the idols of self-doubt, insecurity, and fear. But in my other pocket at the same time I also carry the idol of glory seeking, and desire for material goods I don't really need.

Any of these things can become idols when they keep me from doing justice and seeking mercy and being faithful to showing God's love.

A few days ago a Burger King anti-bullying ad came out.  This three-minute video starts with young teenagers talking about being bullied. Then a statistic comes on the screen, stating that "30% of students worldwide are bullied each year." Then the video goes on to explain that using hidden cameras in a California Burger King restaurant, they did an experiment. "We bullied a high school Jr. and a Whopper Jr. to see which one received more complaints."[ii]

It seems like a fairly outrageous scenario. But in the video, the young high school junior is in plain sight of everyone in the dining area. He's being physically and verbally abused by other teenagers pretty severely. At the same time, whenever someone orders a Whopper Jr., the cook in the back gives the burger verbal abuse, then smashes it with his fist before wrapping it and sending it out to the customer.

In the video, only 12% of customers stood up for the boy being bullied. But 95% of customers who received the "bullied burger" stood up to report it and complain. In fact, most of them had to walk past the boy being bullied to register their complaint.

What are our idols? What's metaphorically in our pockets that hold us back from doing justice, seeking mercy, and being faithful?

How are we giving to God what is God's?

May we all seek to find what Jesus asks of us in each encounter of lives.



[i] In Chapter 23 of Matthew, Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites over and over again, precisely because he sees them as failing to uphold mercy, justice, and faithfulness.

[ii] Watch the video here: