Let me begin with a story that I may have told before. Two men are walking down a busy city street. One is a farmer, the other is a banker. They are in conversation, when the farmer stops and says, "Did you hear that?" "No, what?" asks the banker. The farmer walks over to a potted tree and picks up a small grasshopper. "That is amazing", says the banker, "How did you ever hear that small insect with all this noise?"
They walked on a little further and the banker stopped. "Did you hear that?" he asked the farmer. "No, what?" said the farmer. The banker walked over to the edge of the footpath, bent over and picked up a 10 cent piece. "It must have fallen from someones pocket", the banker said. "That is amazing that you could hear that coin fall with all this noise", said the farmer.
We hear what our ear is tuned for. Just as we hear in our inner lives what our hearts are tuned for. It depends on where our attention is placed. Last week I led a retreat with the title Living from the Inside Out. The objective of the retreat was to encourage the participants to pay attention to that inner voice of their true identity and not be overly influenced by the external world that will, more often than not, tell us who we ought to be and how we should be, rather than who we are at the centre of our being. Now that is not an easy thing to do and I suspect it takes more than a weekend to explore the mystery of who I am.
The retreat used the Enneagram which some here will have had exposure to; also contemplation, meditation, readings, art, conversation, silence, community and poetry, among other spiritual practices. Much of the weekend can be summed up in the first few lines of May Sartons poem which we used on the retreat:
Now I become myself. It's taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces
Thats an illustration of living from the inside out and it takes a lifetime to move in that direction. But it also connects with the story I began with. With the aphorism "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also". Or you can put it around the other way: "Where your heart is, that is where your treasure is". The farmer has the world of nature in his heart. So he was able to hear what others cannot hear: the scratching sound of the grasshopper. The banker had the world of finance in his heart, so he was able to hear what few others could hear; the sound of a coin hitting the pavement.
Now I want to say here what I think is unexpected, but hopefully it will be backed up by the story read earlier. There is no judgement in this farmer/banker story. It would be easy to see the farmer as closer to the earth and therefore more spiritual than the banker. But that would be a lazy interpretation. The banker can be just as spiritual as the farmer. (Im not overly happy with the word spiritual, but other ways of describing this elude me.)
Jesus and the Imperial Coin
The story we read this morning once more has Jesus in conflict with the religious leaders. This time they are taking the upper hand and endeavouring to trap him with his own words. Thats the kind of things lawyers do all the time, isnt it?
Now the Pharisees decided to ensnare him with his own words. So they asked him, "Rabbi, we know you are sincere and teach Gods way in accordance with the truth, and you show respect to everyone, without fear or favour.
"Here is a question that baffles us. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?" But Jesus was aware that their question was malicious, and that they were only trying to get him to contradict himself. So he said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?"
At one level it is a test to see if Jesus is consistent in his teaching. Is he a systematic theologian who can iron out all the creases in his religious narrative? But of course at a more profound level we will see that the test is really about putting him on the wrong side of the Roman Governors.
"Do you have a coin that is used to pay the taxes?" They brought him a denarius*. He held it up and said, "Whose image and title is on this coin?" They answered, "The Emperor's." "Well then, give to the Emperor what is his, but dont forget, give to God the things that are Gods." His wisdom amazed them; and so they left him and went away.
(* Some scholars suggest that a denarius is a silver coin and about one days pay for a solder or a labourer.)
The Paradox of Living from the Inside Out
I think this story, which is almost a parable, illustrates the human dilemma of living in this world. There is no escaping the need for at least some coins, to purchase what we need to keep body and soul together and to fulfil our commitment to society whether we like it or not, and whether it is just or unjust. The physical, represented here by a coin, plunges us into the murky waters of realpolitik. Through the centuries, monastics of all religions have at times attempted to discount this reality. But the truth is that there is an outside world to which we all belong: "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesars!"
Yet, as Jesus reminds the religious leaders, this is not the only world that exists and calls for our obedience. There is an inner world which forms and shapes how I live in this outer physical world. The week before last, I conducted a funeral for an Aboriginal man whom I had known for several years. It was at East Doncaster Baptist Church and my connection with him was that I participated in a healing smoking ceremony for him some six years ago. It was a moving service for a man who died at the age of 55. During the service I mentioned that I had learned from the aboriginal culture that we are spirit with a body. Not, as we often express it in Western culture, a body that has a spirit. Of course the paradox is that we are both. But when I put my emphasis on my inner life, my spirit, then the physical and the world around me become clearer, more life-giving and more meaningful.
What began as an attempt to trick Jesus into betraying himself and the Emperor becomes a simple lesson of first things first. Finance and taxes are the stuff of everyday life, but there is also something else that forms and shapes our life and that is an awareness of and attention to the presence of God at the centre of our lives. And that is not just a belief in God, it is the practice of allowing the centre of our being, the ground of all being, to make us into what we should become. That is of course our authentic selves. "To give to God that which is Gods" is to become our true selves. Not just religious, nor just spiritual, but as the poet May Sarton suggests, "I become myself." It is primarily living our lives from the inside out.