The Rev. Scott Trotter
St. Stephen’s, Blytheville, and Calvary, Osceola
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
I want you to pretend, that you are the President of the United States. You are walking down the halls of congress when you see: Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner headed your direction. You can see their common determination. You know they don’t like you; that they don’t like each other. Then you observe that you are their common bond, and you know this cannot be good. For all practical purposes this is Jesus’ experience.
The Herodians are Herod’s supporters and directly dependent on Rome. The Sadducees are the Jewish ruling class, who benefit enormously from their cooperation with Rome. The High Priest and elders, don’t necessarily like Rome, but can function as they please if they play within Rome’s rules. The Pharisees, who promote strict adherence to Torah, cannot abide Rome or those in league with her. To see them approaching with common determination means trouble is ahead.
The trouble takes the form of a trick question about Roman taxes, in this case a head, or poll tax. They want to know if, according to Torah, it’s lawful to pay the tax. If Jesus says No he is guilty of sedition and subject to immediate arrest and likely execution. If he says Yes he will rejected by all those oppressed by Rome; think of the Arab Spring or those participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement. When given the Roman coin, which must be used to pay the tax, and told whose image is on it Jesus replies:
Give … the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and … God the things that are God’s.
Remember, this encounter is just after, really still is, in the story line about Jesus’ authority. So, not only do they fail to entrap Jesus, they fail to discover the source of Jesus’ authority, and they fail to erode his authority, which I suspect is their true objective.
Now, it is easy for us to put a tick mark in Jesus’ box and head on our merry way. It’s seductive to get drawn into a debate about taxes and forget that Jesus never really answers that question. And the truth is there are some intriguing revelations about bearing fruit of the Kingdom of God.
To begin with: the second half of Jesus reply is: [give] to God the things that are God’s. Remember 1stcentury Jews do not have a New Testament, so we should think Old Testament, think Genesis, which teaches that God is the creator of all things, so everything is God’s.
Recall the introduction to confession:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
This is from the Shema, part of Jewish daily prayers. In 1st century Judaism heart, soul, mind and strength, is all there is to an individual. Hearing Jesus’ reply this this context reveals that everything is God’s and that we are to love, to give, God everything we are. It’s an awesomely comprehensive ideal.
Secondly, the NSRV translates Jesus’ question about the coin “whose head …”; the King James reads “… whose image … .” I prefer the King James; to begin with, it evokes Genesis (1:25) Then God said, “Let us make mankind, in Our image… Jesus’ logic which moves from image to ownership, image language reinforces the gleaning that all things are God’s, even, especially us! Another aspect of image comes from Exodus, where Moses is bargaining with God. (Ever notice just how good Moses is at divine negotiations?) In reply God says
I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.
Underneath the reply is a connection between image and name which leads to the gleaning that our image is known to God.
Unlike the last couple of weeks, I’ve not wandered into some dark chaotic corner.
It’s tempting to stop; except for the question: So what?
Everything is created from God. So what?
We are made in God’s image. So what?
All belongs to God. So what?
The ancient Shema proclaims: love God with everything you are. So what?
Jesus’ answer to give, to render to God the things that are God’s. So what?
In Friday’s New York Times, David Brooks, a conservative columnist, decries the fall of decision making from praxis to symbolism. In short, all national political processes have run amok because we no longer look at the practical aspects but at the solely symbolic values. He quotes Walker Percy: “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Brooks extols state and local officials’ ability to govern from praxis. He ponders if national leaders will ever again find the ability to govern the same way.
In most respects I agree with Brooks. Except, I see the symbols, which ensnare us, as merely linguistic representations, of the numerical representations, of ideologies that possess us. For me, the question which arises from Brooks’ observations is, What values should be the foundation for all our decisions?
Point one: God created all things.
Point two: We are created in God’s image.
Point three: Love God with all we are.
Point four: All decisions stand on these truths.
So, the foundational question is: How will what we are about to say, or what we are about to do, manifest, with all that we are, our love of God, in whose image we are made, and who holds our image in his sight?
The Psalmist for today wrote:
O mighty King, lover of justice,
you have established equity;
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
It suggests a three-way test: Does it promote divine justice? Does it uphold divine equality? Is it righteous?
These are not easy questions. They are subject to secular / popularist reinterpretation. They will lead to radically different decisions. They are extraordinarily difficult, save as St. Paul says:
“… we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because [the] message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction … so that you became an example to all the believers.”