Today’s Gospel reading may remind many of you of the past week’s media events: Town Hall meetings from Joe Biden and Donald Trump and Senate Judiciary committee hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Many “trick” questions were lobbed at these candidates and nominees.
Few were answered with the wisdom and astuteness of Jesus’ answer in today’s gospel.
Jesus is teaching in the temple during the last week of his life.
Two groups of people that would almost never be aligned approached him:
the Herodians, a group of Jews who supported King Herod Antipas, the Roman appointed “king of the Jews” and the Pharisees, a group religiously devout of Jews who despised the Roman occupation but had learned to live within the Roman systems to preserve their religious freedom.
They ask “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor?”
Each group has an opposing stake in the outcome of Jesus’ answer: The Herodians hope that Jesus will condemn paying taxes and therefore be guilty of sedition against the Roman Empire. The Pharisees hope that Jesus will affirm paying taxes and therefore alienate the oppressed who struggle to pay these taxes.
Unlike our political candidates and supreme court justice nominees who deflected the “trick questions” by changing the questions to ones they wanted to answer, Jesus lays it on the line: Show me the coin used to pay the taxes. Not surprisingly, everyone seems to have a denarius in their pocket. Whose image is on this coin? Jesus asks. Those questioning him can only answer Emperor Tiberius’ image and the words proclaiming him “son of the divine.”
Then Jesus says, “Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” In this single answer, Jesus points to the complicity we all experience simply by living in this world – we all have “coins” in our pockets that show our participation, willingly or unwillingly, in our current society, our current empire – money, church membership, political allegiance, profession, education, cell phone, driver’s license –
Jesus acknowledges that there is no way around this complicity and participation– we live and breathe in a world that is political and imperfect. And by “Political,” I mean something broader than participation in the current elections – I mean “political” in the broadest definition – the “affairs of the cities” sense that Aristotle used it to include laws, social norms, economics, power distribution – all of the things that provide some “order” to our lives.
But Jesus’ answer doesn’t require a “surrender” to the political. His answer challenges us to notice exactly what in our lives is stamped with the empire and what is stamped with God?
There is an intentional irony in the juxtaposition of money stamped with the Emporer’s image and proclaiming him “son of the divine”, while standing in front of these same people is the one human who is fully stamped with the image of God and actually is the son of the divine.
Just as Jesus challenges the Herodians and the Pharisees to take a look at how they live within the oppressive Roman Empire, Jesus also challenges us to ask ourselves, individually and as community, where our loyalties lie?
I wonder if it is a coincidence that the question of paying taxes is raised in the Gospel attributed to Matthew, the tax collector?
The tax in question is a tax on harvest and personal property that is determined by registration in the census. Jewish authorities administered the collection of these taxes. Was the question posed to Jesus of personal importance to Matthew? Did he wrestle with how to live in the world and follow Jesus?
Not all gifts in the political realm are without obligations. How far am I, are you, are we willing to go to live within an existing system or institution when it chafes against Jesus’ commands to love God, and love our neighbors as ourselves?
How do we live in this imperfect world of competing obligations and loyalties and live as disciples of Jesus? Do we choose the answers of our politicians or the commands of Jesus?
Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, this question gets raised and Jesus gives us different answers, each pointing in the same direction. Jesus’s temptation in the desert, the Lord’s Prayer, and the great commission connect us to the answers of how to live in this world while proclaiming the possibility of another world.
The language in today’s gospel of “testing” Jesus is the same as the language used at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus is “tested” in the desert: During his 40 days and nights in the wilderness, “the evil one” tempts Jesus to convert stones to bread, to demonstrate Jesus’ trust in God by throwing himself off a cliff, and to worship the evil one and gain all the power of the world. Jesus’ response to this last temptation is “Worship the Lord and serve only him.” So, this is one answer to the question of how we can live in this world and proclaim an alternative world yet to come, is to serve only God.
Jesus sees how hard this is – for us to serve only God.
Yet, it is so important to Jesus that we recognize that we must dwell in this world with our eyes upon the kingdom – God’s world, that he gives us the Lord’s Prayer. His prayer to God includes protection from the very temptation he is questioned about in the today’s gospel – “And do not bring us to the time of trial but rescue us from the evil one.” In other words, “Father, save us from trickery of the world and rescue us from false gods.”
Finally, in the Great Commissioning at the end of Matthew, Jesus commands, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
As disciples, we must be of and within the world. And, as disciples, we must choose to live in a way that is often at odds with the world.
One commentator notes: “Not paying taxes will not necessarily bring the empire down. The question is – what will? Matthew, in the story of Jesus’ temptation, in the Lord’s prayer and the Great Commissioning, suggests that whatever brings wholeness, transformation and healing to communities is a form of resistance to empire.”
Wholeness, healing, transformation are the images stamped on the coinage of discipleship in divisive times – then and now.
Our money states “in God we Trust.” The real challenge is to believe that statement more than we believe the statement “In our money we trust” or “in our country we Trust.”
Trust in God’s promises of wholeness, transformation and healing inspires action in such a way that every area of life is seen in terms of God’s rule, not Caesar’s.
In an recent interview around racial reconciliation, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry spoke about the “dream of God” for us all. He said:
We have to grow some courage and ask ourselves, what are we going to give up to get on the “Way” with Jesus?
Today, a series of billboards came across my facebook feed. Each billboard depicts one of Jesus’ commands on one side and a statement by one of our Presidential candidates on the other – it doesn’t matter which candidate because I am sure these billboards could be made for both candidates. What struck me about the billboards is how they proclaim todays’ gospel without referencing it.
What does our conscience demand of us as Christians when the actions of our governments, institutions and cultures and their teachings conflict with Jesus’ message?
Living as a faithful Christian in a world that tempts us with competing idols and ideologies is challenging. That’s Jesus’ point then and now.
In commanding that we return to “Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s,” Jesus wants us to wrestle with the question of belonging to the world and belonging to God. He wants to us distinguish between the trickery and traps of things of power and the transformative wholeness of life, revealed in the divine image stamped on each of us.
Our gospel today ends with the Herodians and the Pharisees were speechless and “amazed.” Where are the places in our present world where Jesus’ revelation amazes us and renders us speechless?
Where in our world are giving to God, what is God’s?