Sunday, October 22, 2017
Benjamin Franklin famously commented that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the issue of taxes–ubiquitous as it is–even finds its way into the Bible and our gospel text for today. The encounter is a famous showdown between Jesus and the religious leaders of the day, and it raises issues of ultimate allegiance that we are wise to consider as well.
To put things into context, Jesus had recently entered Jerusalem to great fanfare. He subsequently turned over the moneychangers tables in the temple, and he challenged the authority of the religious leaders. Thus, it is no surprise that they try and trip him up. Indeed, Jesus’ actions are so disturbing that they bring two unlikely groups together: the Herodians and the Pharisees. The old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend seems apropos in this instance. For the Herodians were a group of Jewish leaders who worked, in essence, for Rome. They were Quislings before the term ever existed. Meanwhile, the Pharisees despised the Roman rule and sought not only religious freedom for Israel but political freedom as well. Thus, the stakes had to be high to bring these two unlikely groups together.
The question they pose to Jesus is beyond clever. They ask Jesus whether it was lawful to pay the imperial tax that funded the Roman occupation. If Jesus answers, “Yes,” the great support he received upon entering Jerusalem will vanish, replaced as it would be by opposition and scorn. Meanwhile, if he answers, “No,” he will
have set himself over and against the Romans. Never a wise thing to do with an empire skilled at snuffing out dissent. Thus, Jesus is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Nevertheless, he responds brilliantly. With a simple request–Show me the coin used for the tax–two questions–Whose head is this, and whose title?–and a concluding remark–Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s– the trap vanishes and those seeking to trip Jesus up are left scratching their heads and wondering what just happened. Furthermore, Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. By asking them for a coin, he catches them holding a piece of currency that not only contains the image of the Caesar but also the title Son of God. Thus, the holder of the coin is guilty of breaking the first two commandments.
Needless to say, the encounter has sparked commentary down through the centuries about the role of Christianity within culture and our obligations as citizens and people of faith. How do we discern what to render to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s? People fall out everywhere along the continuum. From fully participating and contributing with taxes in the culture to removing oneself fully from any obligation to the larger culture because all things are God’s, we continue to wrestle with what is the right mix, or more to the point, what are our obligations in this world? There have always been those who seek to claim that we have little obligation in this world, because, they argue, the world beyond this world is our rightful and true home. This world, by such reasoning, is simply a way station on the journey. However, David Lose
articulates well an important critique of such a viewpoint and a helpful understanding of the lesson:
Jesus isn’t advocating a full-scale retreat from the economic and
political dimensions of our lives but instead is helping us to recognize
that all of these things are part of God’s divine economy. That is, I
think Jesus invites us — actually, demands of us — that we be thinking regularly and relentlessly about how all of our decisions — what we buy,
who we vote for, how we spend our time — should be shaped by the
confession that, indeed, the whole world is God’s and everything in it — including us!
Thus, we aren’t allowed to retreat into the quiet and remove of religion or to pine for another world. Rather, our religion invites us to engage fully with the world around us, precisely because it is God’s world and the imprint of the divine is found in the world around us and, indeed, within us.
Which leads to the heart of the text for today. The key question in today’s passage isn’t, ultimately, whose image is on the coin, but rather whose image is on us ? It is a hearkening back to the creation story in Genesis 1, where God says, “ Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” And what might it mean to see ourselves possessing the image and likeness of God? Again, Lose:
And when I say that – that our deepest self is God’s – I actually don’t mean that in the sense of putting more obligations on us: behave yourself,
God is watching! Rather, I mean that as a reminder that no matter what
we may do or say, no matter where we may go, no matter what may happen
to us, yet we are first, foremost, and forever God’s own beloved child. And that identity will, in turn, shape our behavior, urging and aiding us to be the persons we have been called to be.
Which is what Jesus’ ministry was all about, inviting people to more fully and completely recognize the presence of the Holy in their midst, that the very world we live in is sacred, each person precious, and each moment filled with the fullness of God. The question then is, “What does the world look like, what do our lives look like if we believe this?” That is what we are invited to consider every day and hopefully to live into. The imprint of God upon us demands it, the imprint of God upon us invites us into it, and the imprint of God upon us graciously supersedes death and taxes as the ultimate and best certainty in life.