Isn't it remarkable how Jesus brings people together? He's been making a real nuisance of himself lately--he's paraded into Jerusalem, without the proper permits; donkey-riding, while his gaggle of nobody disciples danced and sang that he is Israel's saviour king. He's caused all manner of chaos in the Temple, flipping tables and sending pigeons and coins all over the place. And he's been telling stories that don't make the keepers of the current religious order come off very well. Of course, he's doing all this as the crowds pour into Jerusalem for the Passover festival, which means that the occupying Roman authorities have stepped up their attention as well. Soldiers are no doubt on high alert. These festivals tend to be a time when folks seem to get rather rebellious ideas.
And so, in all of this, Jesus has managed to bring two groups together that otherwise don't want much to do with each other: Pharisees and Herodians. Pharisees, who want Jewish autonomy, who want the Romans out; religious authorities who are none too impressed with this upstart, unsanctioned, backwoods preacher, who keeps suggesting that their authority is tenuous at best. And Herodians, who for their own reasons are supporters of Herod, Rome's puppet king--a constant reminder of Israel's subjugation. These are unlikely friends, indeed. But their common concern for the order of things has them united against this one who seems to want to turn things upside down (or right side up, depending on where you sit).
They come to him together and ask a question designed to get him caught by one group or the other. Is it lawful (that is, scriptural; righteous and godly) to pay taxes to the Emperor? From the Pharisees' side of things, the answer is more or less, no. The Roman tax is a constant reminder that Israel is lorded over by a foreign idolater, who thinks he's a god--which is about as unscriptural as you can get. If he says, "Yep, pay your taxes," he'll lose the support of the crowds that have shown him such favour, and who feel the weight and burden and shame of the Roman occupation. On the other hand, from the Herodian's perspective, the answer is yes: tax-paying is evidence of allegiance to the earned and deserved power of Rome. If Jesus says, "Don't pay your taxes," he's picking a fight with the power that brings peace by crushing all dissent.
It's a fairly easy thing to throw these folks, these particular representatives of the Pharisees and Herodians, under the bus. The story doesn't make them out to be especially upstanding. They're being manipulative and malicious and cowardly. The sickly sweet way they approach Jesus is nauseating. There's a sort of pettiness about the whole thing that undermines whatever claims to authority they might make. But it's not a great imaginative leap to see the possibility that there is some sincerity, some genuine concern that this kid from Nazareth (can anything good come from Nazareth?), is brewing up a storm the affects of which none of them will be able to avoid. It's not hard to imagine that they genuinely believe that they have a real responsibility to keep things stable, to guard the way things are, because the way things might be if they don't is not pretty. They seem to be keenly aware that Jesus is bad news for folks invested in the way things are. Perhaps we should give them some credit for recognizing that if Jesus has his way things are going to get more than a bit topsy-turvy.
Let's pray: Holy God, ready our hearts this morning for your world-inverting ways. Give us ears to hear your call, and eyes to see your kingdom. Give us hearts that long to know you, so that we might make you better known. Bless now, by the power of your Spirit, these words and our meditations, that they might be acceptable in your sight, and true to who you are. Through Jesus, our Rock and Redeemer: Amen.
The answer Jesus gives is pretty wonderful. "Show me the coin used for the tax," he says. Some have pointed out that the Pharisees' ability to produce one such coin, sort of undercuts their stated opposition to the whole business. That they've got one of these pagan, idolatrous images in their purse suggests a weakness in their stance. (Presumably that's part of the hypocrisy Jesus accuses them of.) "Whose face is this, and whose title?" he asks. "The Emperor's," they mumble. And I almost feel badly for them, as they begin to see that they're about to be had.
I can't help but imagine Jesus laughing at this point. I'm sure he's also annoyed, but at the end of the day the whole thing's so ridiculous that he must have at least cracked a smile. "If the Emperor wants pieces of metal with his face on them, give the Emperor pieces of metal with his face on them. They've got his face on them, they must belong to him. Let him have them. Then give God what bears God's image and name."
Now, I want to let you know--full disclosure--that the way I hear what Jesus says has been described by one commentator as "fanciful but sound." I'll take it. It seems to me that's not a bad measure for Christian theology. We could use a little more fancy, a little more whimsy and wonder in the way we understand what God is up to in the world. It might remind us that God tends to be full of surprises, that God's work isn't stunted by our lack of imagination. In any case, I can't help but hear Jesus telling us that the things that bear the image of the empire, the things that look like power and splendor, things that uphold the way things are, that consume our ideas about what is possible and permissible, are actually, in the scope of eternity, are not all they're cracked up to be. If the Emperor wants bits of metal with his face on it, well ok then. Let him have them. And then commit to God whatever bears God's image, whatever bears God's imprint.
And Scripture's pretty clear about what those things are: mostly everything. The earth is the Lord's and everything in it! the psalmist sings. The heavens bear God's inscription, the mountains have God's fingerprints all over them! And specifically, uniquely, what bears God's image is us. Our neighbors. All created marvellously in the image of the King of kings, the maker and lover of the world.
As we deal with this passage, as we let Jesus' words do their work on us, it's worth reminding ourselves that Scripture is much more concerned with formation than information. Matthew isn't just telling us this story to give us one more instance of Jesus getting the better of the Pharisees, or to fill us in on historical details (on it's own, this story doesn't add much); Matthew is not relaying specific instructions about how to deal with issues of Church and State or a plan for Christian tax reform. St. John is representative, when at the end of his gospel he tells us that the point of it all is not just the story, but that we might have life in the name and way, the hope and wonder of Jesus: a hope and wonder that lays bare our lesser commitments, our double-mindedness; a name and way that invites us to develop an imagination for a world in which the way things are is not the way they have to, or will, be.
That's a basic scriptural claim. Jesus' questioners, who know their Bibles, seem to know that he's right. They're speechless. They're amazed. It's as if his response has given them a clarity, maybe a reminder, a glimpse of a world, or at least a way of being, that seemed otherwise impossible only a moment ago. And we don't get a real resolution. At least, not yet. The scene just ends. They walk away. Really, they're making space for the next challengers. But for a moment, we're left with Jesus alone, the oddness of his invitation hanging in the air: the invitation to have life not defined by the godlets of the world, or what they tell us is valuable; but to give our whole selves to the God of all creation--which is to live life that is truly life. To commit our will and way to this God, is to live in the truth that we are created in the image of the Maker and Lover of the heaven and earth, created to reflect God's love and grace, mercy and joy, wherever and whenever we find ourselves--in every word and deed--and there isn't an emperor in the world who can take that from us. Isn't that beautiful?
It is beautiful. But its beauty reveals the challenge. The real struggle of this passage for me is that, if I'm honest, I'm much more at home with the Pharisees and Herodians. I get rather uncomfortable when they take their coin and leave, and I'm left to answer the question. Because, whether I like to believe it or not, I'm pretty invested in the way things are. It's working out for me. And when Jesus starts disrupting things, throwing unsanctioned parades and flipping tables, inviting the wrong people to dinner, and touching folks that make me uncomfortable; when Jesus walks in and says that no matter how good my theology is, if there's no real, lived evidence of my commitment to it, then it's just pious noise, I get a little squirmy. I have to wonder if I'm ready for the world to be turned right-side up, just yet. Honestly, if we're not made uncomfortable when the Pharisees and Herodians leave us standing here with Jesus alone, we probably haven't been paying attention.
Jesus' answer, for all its brilliance and even if, as I hope and delight to imagine, he's laughing when he gives it, ought to drive us to our knees. The Church can't hear these words and walk away, even in amazement. At the heart of all this is a call to repentance, a call to turn in a different direction, to pledge our undying allegiance to this new kingdom of Love and Justice and Righteousness that Jesus has been going on about: a world that is unimaginable, utterly fanciful from the perspective of the way things are: a world in which the poor and the persecuted are the blessed ones, a world in which grace that shakes the foundations is the default, a world in which forgiveness and generosity are lavished. We have not lived for that world. Our imaginations have been stunted by what others have told us is valuable, is worth living for, worth protecting. We have parcelled off some parts of our lives that God is allowed to work with, and we've devoted the rest to decidedly lesser things. Or maybe that's just me.
The reality is, if we stick around, Jesus' answer demands a kind of accounting. What parts of our lives are off-limits to God? What parts of our heart, soul, mind, and strength are we rendering unto Caesar? How are our work and our play an offering to God, or not? Are we ready, at any moment, to give up our lives, the world as we know it, for Jesus' life, especially if it means finding life that is truly life? I want to be. I pray we are.
It's a gut-wrenching challenge. But here's another beautiful thing: The same answer Jesus gives, that ought to drive us to our knees is also the one that raises us up as if we had eagles' wings. Because when we open our eyes from our prayer of confession, it's him who's there. Caesar is off waging wars and collecting bits of metal with his face on them. Jesus is here, eager for us, calling us to follow. The One who will do what we can't do, who will give himself entirely to God, for us and for this God-beloved world, is here. And we know what's going to happen. The amazement of the keepers of the way things are will turn deadly in short order. And when he's asked to account for his actions, when he's asked what he's prepared to give to the Emperor, he stands silent. And we'll catch the clearest glimpse of his kind of kingdom as he finally prays forgiveness over his enemies and killers, and offers his spirit finally and fully to the Father.
And that's when things really get fanciful. And it's when we find our ultimate soundness, our sure and certain hope. The Church is the direct result of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. That's what we're called to stake our lives on. We are people who gather to claim that when God acts in this world for the sake of God's wild love, the way things are is not a particularly wise thing to be invested in. Even the dead won't stay dead, when God acts! The resurrection makes the frantic powers of this world, the desperate protectors of the way things are, look totally silly, to paraphrase St. Paul. The resurrection is our perfect licence to hold nothing back from God, to choose life that is truly life, come what may. The resurrection is our perfect invitation to act oddly in the world, to flip some tables and ruffle some feathers if necessary; to throw an unsanctioned parade or two; to move in the earth-shaking ways of grace and the heaven-shaped ways of self-giving love; to live in hope that makes people wonder what's wrong with us; to do whatever we're doing in the name and way of Jesus, to the glory of God the Father. As another has said, the resurrection is our perfect permission to dance the dance of Jesus, always and everywhere and even if they crucify us for it, because we'll be raised to dance again.
That just sounds way more fun than collecting bits of metal with a face on them.
God give us grace and guts. Amen.