Oct 22th, 2023 “Jesus is in a “gotcha” moment - or is he?”
“May the words from my lips and the meditations of our hearts always be pleasing to you O God.”
These guys are real phonies! In today’s Gospel we see the highly unlikely pairing of the Herodians and the Pharisees. The Herodians were allied with the Roman Government - the source of their power and their wealth. The Pharisees were overwhelmingly concerned with following Mosaic Law. So why would these two team up?
They wanted Jesus out of the way - out of the scene. He was a thorn in the flesh of the religious leaders and a threat to the political situation. So they lay a trap.
But first they use their phony flattery - we know that you speak truth, that you serve God. The irony of course (for us in the know) is that indeed they are speaking the truth about who Jesus was and what he said and did and taught. But they are phonies and Jesus knows it and sees what they are up to.
They lay their trap - in their minds they can’t lose. If Jesus says it is correct to pay the tax then the religious leaders win. It was offensive to have to use these special coins to pay the tax. Coins with the image of the Emperor and the claim that he was divine. Mosaic Law said there should be no images of the divine. Then you have the Herodians - if Jesus says no do not pay the tax then he is clearly stirring up the threat of revolution and would be guilty of sedition.
They can’t lose - whichever way Jesus answers - whatever he reveals about himself they have him. Gotcha!
But they don’t.
Jesus does not answer the way that they expected. And we find over and over again in our stories about Jesus that he keeps doing the unexpected. And when he does we learn and are enlightened.
Jesus asks the Heroidians and the Pharisees to show him a coin. And they have one - which is odd and strange because this coin had no place in the temple!
The coin is a silver denarius - a days wage. It had the image of Caesar and his claim to divine status.
Jesus’ reply is said to “amaze” those who asked the question. He adroitly avoids being accused of collusion with the Roman oppressors or sedition. Who is on the coin? Caesar - so give him what has his name and face on it. But God gets what God has given and made.
The Heroidians and the Pharisees expected a political answer. They were disappointed. There would be no trapping Jesus this day. This day there would be no arrest or death. That was still to come. As we continue in Matthew we will see more examples of the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities and the Roman puppets.
Jesus cannot be charged with sedition and he cannot be charged with disobeying the law.
Jesus is telling the people in the temple that day - and us that each one of us will have to decide. Jesus reconfigures the question. He does not even have to verbalize it. What is it that bears God’s image?
None of us is exempt from the discernment - the choosing of what belongs to whom.
What is the nature of the right relationship between obedience to the state and obedience to God? Its all clear and ok until we experience a conflict in how and for what our tax dollars are used.
We don’t like to pay taxes. But we pay them nevertheless! We pay our taxes because we know that they go to ensure that we have health care and education and infrastructure etc etc.
But what happens for Christians when the Government that we support through our tax dollars uses the money for things we disagree with? What happens then?
In Jesus’ time Palestine was a colony of the Roman empire so the taxes that the Jews were paying went directly to support the Government and the army of their oppression. Paying taxes was a real issue for them.
Christians have duties and obligations that are due to both the realm of God and the society in which we live. The challenge is to constantly decide what do we owe and to whom? What do we do when allegiance to Caesar conflicts with allegiance to Christ? And what do we do about situations of divided loyalties? We live in the tension of balancing the responsibilities of the earthly realm and a spiritual realm.
What do we do when the realms collide?
What about when Governments engage in war or supporting countries with a woeful human rights record? What do we do when our governments support industry and growth over fighting climate change? What do we do when our government chooses greed over people? What do we do when a government will not spend the money to search a landfill for bodies of women? What do we do when provincial governments make educators reveal preferred pronouns or names of children to their parents?
What happens to our allegiances? Whom do we serve?
What do we expect and demand from our governments that are supported by our tax dollars?
What do we do when the actions of government are in conflict with the teachings of our faith?
All of us have fine lines to walk in negotiating the various kinds of commerce that fill our days. Most of us are collaborators some of the time, subversives some of the time.
It is not an easy choice. It is not an easy issue. But Christians have never been excused from engaging in it for we bear the image of God.