New Testament: Matthew 22:15-22
19 October 2008, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Athens, Ga.
Wow. What a time for this particular Gospel passage to surface in our lectionary. What a time to hear a story about money, about paying taxes, about the relationship between the authority of the nation-state and the authority of God, about the often weak and wavering nature of our faith commitments. It’s not only stewardship season – something the compilers of our lectionary, used by millions if not billions of Christians around the world, likely had in mind in choosing this story – but the financial crisis still looms in the headlines and, strangely enough, it was just tax time for the Beckhams!
Yes, just this past week we filed our 2007 taxes, the first time we’d EVER filed for and used an extension. They were just vastly more complicated in 2007, and once put off for 6 months, who’s gonna wanna think about THAT if it can be avoided! So what a time to be hearing Jesus talk about what belongs to the emperor and what belongs to God! But I don’t classify this as another stewardship sermon, and I trust you will agree.
So here we find Jesus, teaching in the courtyards of the temple in Jerusalem. We’re only one chapter in Matthew past Jesus’s amazing entry into that heavenly city, riding on a colt, mocking the traditional triumphal entry of Roman emperors into a newly conquered kingdom. And as we know from the power of the Palm Sunday liturgy, the joy and celebration of that parade quickly fade as almost immediately the conflict with the religious leaders, the conflict Jesus has predicted, the conflict that will lead to his execution, begins in earnest. Indeed the conflict begins with what? It begins with Jesus’s “cleansing” of the Temple, his taking on the role of bouncer, among other things disrupting the moneychangers, those who exchanged the coinage of the Roman empire for Jewish money that could be acceptable as gifts and alms at temple worship. That’s right. As best we can know, the Temple was considered so sacrosanct, so holy, that offerings of money made there could be only in Jewish currency. The currency of the empire was simply unacceptable.
So with movie-like quality, the self-righteous folk, the powers-that be, the “usual gang” of self-appointed guardians of morality gather ‘round the greenhorn with the strange, serene authority to make quick work of him. To reduce his threat to their position and their rock-solid identity.
So the disciples of the Pharisees – not even the leaders of the party but the disciples – are sent to gather around Jesus and put to him a question designed to stump him; to shut him down; to divert and dilute the authority that has accrued to him from the wider community. They will force him to either offend the all-powerful Roman state or offend his own Jewish community at large, and that will be that.
You see, we must remind ourselves here that the Judeans, the Jews of Jesus’ day, were, as for so much of Israel’s history, living in occupied territory. Despite the occasional concessions to self-rule, such as the establishment of a family of local puppet-kings, the Judeans were living under the thumb of one of the most powerful and violent empires the world has ever seen. And the taxes levied by that empire, and paid with the denarius of today’s story, were the most prominent reminder to the Jewish community that their life as a nation, as a people of the one, true God, was, in a very material sense, not their own.
So, the hot Palestinian sun beats down into the open courtyard of the Temple. The dust swirls around this large group gathered in a semi-circle around Jesus. All eyes are focused on this oddly calm one, newly arrived from the Galilean hills and already rocking the boat a little too much. Pulling their beards and grinning we picture these men putting the question to Jesus in full confidence he will incriminate himself and quickly find his authority either dashed against the rock of the empire or crushed under the weight of public outcry in the Jewish community.
So he asks for the coin; the denarius, which bears an image of the Roman emperor’s head and reads, as surely he and everyone else present very well knew: TIBERIUS CAESAR, SON OF THE DIVINE AUGUSTUS. The coin is quickly produced and handed over. And right there, as one very sharp commentator has put it, is the actual point at which Jesus wins this brief argument.
The presence of such a coin, proclaiming not just the emperor’s name, but indeed his divinity, his status as a god, was an affront: an affront to a people whose faith centered on the one creator-God, Yahweh, a people who understood the Temple Mount to be not just another place of worship but the physical site of Yahweh’s presence on Earth. The mere fact that a person associated with the religious leadership has brought such a coin onto the Temple mount, onto the most sacred piece of real estate any Jew could imagine, exposes the challengers of Jesus for what they are, flawed human beings like all others, unwilling to face how they themselves live wholly within the predicament they have tried to foist on Jesus.
It’s hard not to think of this as a comedy scene, the face of the poor fool who reached into his pocket and produced the coin turning from a wily grin to a sheepish, deep-red blush of embarrassment just after all together enthusiastically answer Jesus’ question: “Who’s head is this, and who’s title?” with the confident reply: “THE EMPEROR’S!”
Imagining the scene this way makes it almost as funny as the strange little argument between Moses and God that we heard narrated in our Old Testament lesson today. It’s an argument which ends in God deciding to reveal God’s glory to Moses by, well, er, uh . . . mooning him while he hides in a crevice in the rocks!
But I digress… Jesus has cleverly exposed the divided loyalties and the self-deception of these religious leaders. One of them has, not unlike the moneychangers earlier in the chapter, thought nothing of bringing a prime symbol of Roman oppression, with a religiously offensive inscription, onto the grounds of God’s temple, and at the same time had the audacity to try and discredit Jesus for having suspicious loyalties.
So a quick confession for you regarding loyalties:
ONE Campaign: wrist band; extreme poverty, hunger, disease; Jubilee 2000; Millenium Development Goals
June 29th 2008; changing clothes for ordination; taking off wrist band
Back on now; two years; gala reception & fundraiser Fri. nite; proud; yet…?
Are we carrying around with us certain items that betray our loyalties? Are we carrying around coins with imprints of other gods? Do we sometimes question and judge others as a means of rationalizing our own rather delicate positions or identities – whether it be the tattered condition of our prayer lives, the way we too easily let the culture set priorities for our personal and family time, or the way many days seem to slip away into the setting sun with grudges unresolved, feelings still hurt, wounds still not allowed to heal? Of course we do…
So as Jesus reminds us at the end of today’s story, there will always be transactions we must make with the emperor, things we must give to the “powers and principalities” of this world that in the calculus of the culture do indeed belong to the emperor. But every time we come here and join in thanksgiving, in Eucharist, we remind ourselves that in this life, in this in-between time before God “puts all things in subjection under Christ,” there is yet the ability, through God’s grace, to remember and experience who we really are. To remember that everything we are and have belongs ultimately to God. To remember that life and life abundant is found in Christ and not in idols of any sort, be they material, emotional, or intellectual.
So we should be careful, brothers and sisters, the next time someone asks us to describe the image on the coin in a pocket, the image on CNN.com on a computer screen, or the image burned into one’s heart of unmitigated jealousy toward a friend. We may win the prize for accuracy of description only to realize we’re standing on holy ground.