22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
22:16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.
22:17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
22:18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?
22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.
22:20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
22:21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
This first verse in today’s Gospel lesson is so interesting, isn’t it? The Pharisees wanted to entrap Jesus with what they thought would be a trick question.
It seems like that’s been going on since the beginning of time. How to win an argument, prove a point, be correct (at all costs), or defend your point of view or way of living at all costs.
Looking around, I’m wondering, how is this working for us?
We look around, see all of the wealth, the technological advances, and we give ourselves a pat on the back and say, “look how far we’ve come” as a country, as a world.
I mean, look at Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat (is that still popular?), TikTok, etc. We have creative ways of communicating…and, that can be good…yet, we still come back to a problem. Making ourselves look a certain way or defending ourselves.
Now, I know, I used social media to stay connected, and many of you all do as well. In and of itself, it’s not a bad thing. But, we also know that in this fast paced world, that we sometimes fall into some temporary had places, especially as we try to catch up to what is happening around us and within us.
It seems to me, that we have simply accelerated the art of talking past each other and not really listening.
That isn’t something unique to us, Jesus was dealing with it as well 2,000+ years ago. The Pharisees, in this particular passage, came to Jesus with this question. They wanted to make Jesus look bad as he had quite a following and it felt threatening to them…to their way of life. And, let’s be clear, what Jesus was saying was threatening…but, not to them personally, but to the system that they had become comfortable in, that was benefiting them, but not everyone.
A little biblical de-coding here…Jesus and other biblical figures often refer to the “world”. World, in this context, does not mean creation or people, it means “system”. Something that has been set up by humans wanting some form of power that is not as God intended. God’s intentions are always for the common good, to see a beloved community take shape as folks seek the Kingdom of God, or God’s Presence which is characterized by shalom, by outgoing and in-flowing radically inclusive love.
The Pharisees send some of their students to Jesus, along with some Herodians, which would be Jewish folk who were also in the power structure and aligned with King Herod, a Hellenist Jewish leader who was propped up by Roman power.
They ask him about paying taxes to the Roman Emperor. In Jerusalem, there was a tax imposed by Rome on all of it’s inhabitants, it’s interesting to note, that those who lived under King Herod, did not have that tax. It was contentious, and many devout Jews resisted paying it…there was even an armed revolt at the time because of the tax. If you were a devout Jew, you probably would not want to even carry around Roman coin as it was contentious.
So, what does Jesus do in this moment? First, he asks them why he’s putting him to a test and calls them hypocrites. Why? Because they were. Jesus, a devout Jew, and a Rabbi, doesn’t carry a purse, does not have Roman coins on him. Asks, THEM, for a coin. Pharisees and Herodians, persons of power, many of whom depended on their livelihood by maintaining Temple worship…a system that kept God in a box inside this grand building in the middle of Jerusalem. Where access to this God was through them by paying a temple tax and other fees. They tried to play all sides, and they were making money off of it.
And, yes, the had a Roman coin, the denarius. Which, they handed to Jesus. Jesus asks them who’s head and inscription was on one side of the coin. They answered, the emperor, Tiberius in that moment. Who, wasn’t too bad, compared to other emperors.
Jesus defuses the argument, by saying give to Caesar what is Caesars, and to God, what is God’s. In other words, rulers come and go, some good, some not. Why are you putting your faith in them, when God is bigger than any earthly ruler. Jesus is saying to them, which, in the nuance of the moment, and something we may not entirely see 2,000+ years later, is reminding them of something that they knew from their Jewish faith, God is everywhere and God is one, and we live in God. All governments, rulers, and peoples…all creation, belongs to God. Therefore, give to earthly governments, their due, but not your allegiance. Your allegiance should be larger, more expansive, and to a God who demonstrates a radical love to all creation by giving God’s self away to it.
It seems like Jesus is always using these moments to remind us what Paul would say later, Christ is all and in all. And, Christ is the expression of God into humanity for all of time. And, what are we? We are the body of Christ…the expression of God in this moment and throughout time.
Our allegiance is to God, and God alone. You’ve heard me say this before, the first creed of the church was “Jesus is Lord”. That’s a very subversive statement. It became a creed later, when the Roman Empire was ruled by a much more horrible emperor. On the other side of the denarius, it would say, “Caesar is Lord”. The early church was reinforcing the message to earlier followers that we live and breathe a divine love that subverts the systems of the world.
One last example from Jesus. Today, we talked earlier about our love of children. You’ve heard me say this before, when Jesus brought the children to him, that was a subversive act of overt love for all peoples. Children were not considered fully human until adulthood. Jesus said no, they are a part of God’s family, as we all are…therefore, we have to love them well. Friends, as the body of Christ, we, Fleming Road UCC, are following in that radical pattern of Jesus love by how well we have loved kids! Even during this pandemic! We are a part of a long history of listening, of not just talking or trying to win arguments, or even maintaining some sense of power, we have been actively giving ourselves away to others, including children, even during a time of so much uncertainty! Friends, well done! Let’s find ways to continue that legacy!