Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
My senior year of high school was one of my best. I was excited about my classes and had chosen a schedule that had a lot of freedom. I had a number of Advanced Placement classes, which meant that my classes were small and filled with my best friends. It also meant that the coursework wasn’t always that easy.
At the end of one semester, we had to compile a portfolio of our writing for our English class. One of the central pieces we had to write was an explanation of our “worldview.” I remember the question, “Describe your worldview and how it affects your life.” I had no idea what this question meant.
It means pretty much what it sounds like, “how do you see the world, what are your assumptions about the way the world works, and how does that inform your life.” It was a good question for adolescence, as we stepped away from our parents and began to create our own lives.
It’s still a good question for all of us. What do you believe, how do you interpret what you encounter, and how does what you think change the way you act. Beyond a question of seeing the world as a glass half-full or half-empty, or looking through rose-tinted glasses, it causes us to reflect on how looking through that glass affects the way we act. How do your assumptions guide your actions?
It’s a question of which Jesus wasn’t afraid. It’s at the heart of the response he gives to those intending to entrap him.
We’ve picked up the Gospel of Matthew right where we left off last week. Jesus has come into Jerusalem and the conflict between him and the other religious leaders is intensifying.
The Pharisees and Herodians have banded together to attack him with a question sweetened with flattery, “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.”
With this sweetener they attempt to mask their poison. They set him up to speak his mind, hoping that he will make a mistake that will cost him either his life or his people.
“Tell us then, what you think. It is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
They attempt to trap Jesus with a question that has no right answer. It’s the kind of question most of us would attempt to avoid.
We see politicians fielding questions like this all the time. When they don’t want to answer a question, so they sidestep it and start to talk about whatever they want to talk about instead.
We do it, too. Depending on your social graces or bad experiences, many of you may have learned there are some questions you have to answer with finesse. Such as:
Do you really think you studied enough for that test?
What do you think of the sweater I knit for you?
Does this dress make me look ok?
The questioners think they’ve caught him. If Jesus says, “yes, pay your taxes,” he shows his support for the oppressive empire and their taxes, which have been especially difficult for the poorest of the community. If he says, “no,” then those who align themselves with the empire will make sure word gets back to the powerful, and he’ll be arrested or otherwise silenced.
But Jesus will not be trapped and he will not avoid the opportunity to teach. Instead, Jesus brings them into a greater investment in their own question. He asks them to show him a coin. From their own pockets or from another eager listener in the crowd, a coin is produced. He asks them to look at the coin and tell him whose name and whose image is on it. They respond that it is the emperor’s.
Finally, he gives his answer: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are Gods.”
Those who would entrap Jesus are amazed and walk away.
Reading this story, we can be left saying… “um… ok.” Another cryptic remark that baffles the crowds as much as the modern reader? I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten why they would be so amazed. I’ve always assumed there wasn’t much to his answer. Given that they just showed him a coin with the emperor’s face on it, doesn’t it seem like he’s just telling them to give their coins back to the one whose name is on it?
From other commentaries and sermons, I’ve often heard how the questioners’ ease of finding this coin with its picture of the emperor points again to their unfaithfulness. God’s law forbids having any graven image. So, I guess I’ve always thought that these religious leaders were shamed by their possession of the coin and desire to avoid paying taxes so they could keep their wealth. I can understand how that realization would lead them to walk away, but never really seen much original genius in Jesus’ response.
My reaction to Jesus’ response changed this week. I’ve moved from shrugging my shoulders at the text, to joining the crowd in looking at Jesus with amazement. This past Monday, I was blessed to be at a theological conference at which Professor Eric Barreto was speaking. He broke open this text for me in a new way. He explained that Jesus turned the questioners’ question back on them and brought them into a deeper encounter with their worldview and the place they gave to God.
They had come to Jesus to entrap him with a question, but Jesus puts the responsibility of committing to a perspective back on them. Jesus’ response forces them to identify for themselves what belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God.
Imagine the Roman emperor or any of those who fight and govern under him. The emperor is the ruler of most of the world as he knows it. The Roman Empire stretches across Europe and the Middle East, and while people trade with and know of other regions, the emperor’s worldview really is limited to the Roman Empire and his position at the center, as the power over it. So, if he were to be told of Jesus’ response, “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor,” he would hear Jesus encouraging the Jews to respect his power over them and pay him his taxes.
If, however, you are a good Jew and you remember and live into the psalm, “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” (Psalm 24), then you might see all things, even money and life itself as belonging to God. The confession that should be at the heart of every one of the listeners and questioners is “The Lord your God, the Lord is one, blessed be the name of his glorious kingdom for ever.” If there is only one Lord and one kingdom, then there is no other who has a higher claim.
Jesus calls his questioners hypocrites. They’re hypocrites because they say they believe one thing- to see the world as God’s, to trust God as the ultimate power- and yet they live as if it something else has ultimate power.
They are able to pull a coin out of a pocket. They carry this symbol of empire with them, every where they go. More than a symbol, it’s the currency of empire. It’s what makes the system work: a system that oppresses, that wars, that leaves some impoverished, that elevates some while crushing others- especially non-citizens- down.
The fact that they carry this coin around, their connection to the systems of empire, their concern for their own wealth, all at the same time that they profess ultimate trust in God is what makes these questioners hypocrites. They live as if they are the ones who work for their own livelihood.
Our current political climate might lead some of us to hear Jesus’ question as a foundation for a position that refuses to pay taxes today. While there have been some in the past who have sought to reject government in this way, especially attempting to avoid having their money support war, and done so on religious grounds, I don’t think we can find much support for avoiding taxes in this text. Because the way I usually hear people complain about taxes is to frame it in language of “my money”- as in, “I don’t want my money to go to… this project or government or even those people.”
As soon as the possessive pronoun comes out, we have a problem. If the words “my” or “mine” come out of your mouth, as you talk about money, you’ve lost as surely as those questioners who easily pulled a coin from their pockets. You’re living embedded in the empire. You’ve taken on the values of the world that say you own, you have power, and lost the vision of the psalmist singing, “the earth is the Lord’s…”
In the end, it really doesn’t matter how you see the world, or whether or not you’ve lived with integrity or hypocrisy. It can be hard for us rule loving, black and white moralists to accept, but God doesn’t need you to create your own righteousness. God sees you as you are. God sees your failures, God sees your hypocrisy, God sees your complicity with the forces of death. God chooses to act as if God doesn’t see. Or even more accurately, God acts because God has seen— but God acts not in punishment or judgment, God acts to change the view. God changes the lens through which God sees you.
God changes the way the world looks by stepping in to creation, putting on flesh and being born among us. Jesus on the cross pulls all the weight of empire, hypocrisy, and self-centeredness into himself. In dying and rising, Jesus unites you to himself for a freed life, while burying your sin. In baptism, you are marked with the sign through which God sees you: the sign of the cross where faithfulness was proven. God sees you through the cross of Jesus, and Jesus’ faithfulness is so blindingly bright that your sin is covered up.
You have put on Christ, you have assumed Jesus’ righteousness and that has become the lens through which God focuses on you with love. God’s view has been transformed by Jesus. Live into the joy of this new world.
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