By Paul Koch –
I have never been a collector. It’s not that there aren’t things that I enjoy. In fact, there are times when I think I might try and collect this or that particular thing, but it just never really stuck. Perhaps, I don’t have the attention span. I get started on a collection of something but soon lose interest only to be enticed by something totally different. Part of collecting something means that you must pull whatever it is out of its normal use. If you collect pens, it will mean you will have a large display of fine pens, but you will not actually write with any of them. A collector of antique motorcycles will eventually create a place to store and even show the collection, but will no longer be able to actually ride them. The sound of the motor, the feel of the breeze as you fly down the highway, the way it handles a corner at speed; all of that will fade to an observance from the outside.
I believe that very few things created by the hands of industrious and creative people are intended to be part of a collection. They want their creation to be used, to be enjoyed as part of the human experience. Collections take these objects and set them aside out of their given context. Have you ever been to a museum and come across a collection of ancient coins? It is a strange thing to see. Little metal discs stamped with various images on them sitting behind glass with just the right sort of light so that people walking by can examine the detail and learn about the symbols of some outmoded form of currency. It’s not that they are not interesting or curious to examine, or even beautiful in their own way, they were just never meant to be in a museum. As currency, such coins were part of everyday life. They were exchanged for goods and services. What you are looking at under glass might have been used by a young mother to buy flour to feed her children. And the owner of that shop might have used the same coin to pay rent for their home. Perhaps that landlord, in turn, used it to pay part of his taxes. That coin had a life, a story that grew as it was passed from one person to another.
But there, under the glass, it is all cleaned up and presented as part of a collection. There it loses its story as it is separated from its use. It is something to look at, something perhaps, to even marvel at. But it is not something to use.
I think we have a stubborn habit of wanting to treat our faith like this. We separate it from its use. We clean it up and make it presentable as if it was going to go on display in a museum. Congregations can even become collectors of faith. We know what we are looking for, we know what would make our collection complete. We figure that once we have them all in our collection, why then they will sit in a perfect state, never to be diminished by the pressures and trials of this life. You take your museum quality faith and put it on display, and then go about your business as if that nice, shiny faith can be left behind.
After our Lord told his powerful parable about the wedding feast, he speaks an unsettling word saying, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt. 22:14) And the Pharisees hear this, perhaps rightly so, as an attack upon them and their museum quality faith. Is Jesus saying that they are like the wedding guest who does not wear the wedding garments? Are they those who stand on their own righteousness and deserve to be bound hand and foot and tossed out into the darkness? Well, who is this guy to say such things? Who is this guy to impugn the wonder of their faith? So, they begin immediately to plot how to entangle him in his words. They are going to silence this man who mishandles their beautiful collection.
And how do to they do it? A carefully crafted question. “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.” (Not even museum quality appearances.).“Tell us,” they say, “It is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Now if Jesus supports the paying of taxes, why then he will lose the support of the crowds who have begun to follow him. Yet if he does not support the paying of taxes, then he can be accused of insurrection and brought before the authorities. They gain an upper hand over Jesus by the threat of the government.
This may seem all very clever on their part, but it only reveals to us what happens when we think that our faith is something we can preserve on a shelf or under glass in some museum. And here’s the thing, their tactics are not all that different than the ones you use. Now you may not be standing against your Lord trying to trap him in his words, but you do have a desire to find a way to deal with Jesus. For Jesus has a habit of saying things to you that you do not want to hear. He will do things to you that you do not want done. Jesus will show up right in the midst of your greatest good work that you’ve ever achieved and he will say, “I forgive you.” And you’ll say, “Oh sure, that’s nice, but did you see what I did?” And he says, “No, in me you are forgiven all of your sins.” And you say, “Yeah, I heard you but did you see what I have done, what I have accomplished, what a nice quality of faith I’ve refined for you?”
The Pharisees reject being clothed in the righteous garments of Christ so that their faith might be on display. And you do the same thing. They didn’t want this upstart to take away all they have achieved and reduce them to beggars who can only come before the king if they wear the right clothes, and those clothes are never of their own making. See, the Gospel, the proclamation that you are free in Christ alone, is offensive. It hurts the pride. It doesn’t allow you to become a collector.
Jesus has them bring him a coin and he says to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Ceasar’s.” Then he said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus simply doesn’t play their little game, but he exposes it for the shallow attack it is. You cannot pit Caesar and the faith against each other, for they are both under the same God. When faith is lived in the streets, when it is soiled by the story of our lives it cannot play this game. Being receivers at all times of the promises of Christ, being clothed by his garments, embraced by his love, strengthened by his Word, that is the confidence by which we live then before Caesar. And I don’t care if Caesar is a Democrat or a Republican, or tyrannical legislature or any other form of government, we give what is due because we have been given everything in Christ alone.
But this means, you see, that we cannot be concerned with the quality of our faith. It is not a matter of how nice and clean you make it, or how well you decorate it. In Christ your faith carries you day in and day out. It goes with you through the muck and mud of this life. It goes with you from the hospital room, to the marriage bed, to gathering together on Sunday morning. There are good days and bad. Days when you yell at God because it seems like he has abandoned you, and days where your joy and confidence couldn’t be stronger. There will be moments when giving to Caesar will seem like the most difficult thing in the world, and days when giving to God is the last thing you want to do.
But the story of your faith goes on. Over and again, Christ shows up in the midst of it. He doesn’t play your game. He doesn’t divide your life between church and state. He doesn’t care about how far you’ve come or how much of your life you’ve given over to him. No, he just shows up one more time and says, “I forgive you all of your sins. In me and me alone eternal life is yours.”
And on more time when you heard it, you marveled.