Series

In the end, everything is God’s

Oct 19, 2020   •  

The Rev. Patricia Catalano

Proper 24

October 18, 2020

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Matthew 22:15-22

 

In his book Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr wonders why we don’t hear more about Jesus in his role as prophet; he says that he has yet to find anywhere in the world a church named Christ the Prophet or a feast day in honor of Christ the Prophet. His theory of why this is so is that maybe we, the church, don’t want “Christ to deconstruct the system,” but rather to have a Christ the King “who blesses the status quo.”

 

Along those lines, I also think that we don’t often talk about how smart and savvy Jesus was, which is why today’s gospel is a favorite of mine, given that it highlights not only the side of Jesus as prophet but also his wit and shrewdness.

 

The story, as we just heard is one where the Pharisees, intent as they were on trapping Jesus in what he said, come up with yet another plan to expose him and hopefully, this time, be able to have Jesus incriminate himself, so that they could turn him over to the Roman authorities for sedition.

 

Regrettably for the Pharisees, Jesus was, once again, several steps ahead of them and, instead of falling into their trap, trapped them in their own hypocrisy.

 

To understand the full extent of what went down in this encounter, we need more context than is provided by the passage read. Since most of us are not New Testament scholars, let us resort to one for help in this matter. In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, R.T. France explains that the question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees, “Is it right to pay the poll tax to the emperor or not?” has obvious political implications. According to this Matthew scholar, “the poll tax had been among the taxes imposed on Judea following the imposition of direct Roman rule in A.D. 6, not long before, and had been fiercely resented by patriotic Jews, resulting in a serious revolt.”

 

Coincidentally, the leader of that revolt was a man from Galilee, so the Pharisees were suspicious of this other Galilean, Jesus, who had appeared as a teacher and leader of the people. They were eager to find out where Jesus stood on this “political hot potato.”

 

According to R.T. France, the question was superficially innocent because Jesus, as a Galilean, wasn’t subject to this poll tax, since Galilea was under Herod’s jurisdiction, not Rome’s, like Judea was. However, if he had answered no, this could have been grounds for denouncing him to the Roman authorities as someone inciting people to revolt. On top of that, in this “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” scenario, if Jesus had answered yes, the Jerusalem crowd, the Judeans, would have been angry with Jesus because they hated the Roman rule and favored the ideology of the Zealots who had revolted in the past.

 

So Jesus’ quick understanding of the situation and his shrewd answer wherein he avoids both dangers reveal not only his intelligence but also the fact that he was not afraid to speak out and be a prophet. Again let me quote our New Testament scholar, in order to get a clearer picture of what Jesus did:

 

“In the first place, Jesus’ request for a denarius was more than just the provision of a visual aid. Pious Jews objected to the “idolatrous” coin which carried not only a human portrait (in contravention of the second commandment) but also an inscription which described the Roman emperor as Divi Filius, son of a God (in contravention of the first commandment).”

 

For this reason, Jewish people were exempted from carrying denarii with them. They usually carried their own less valuable and non idolatrous copper coins. So, the fact that the Pharisees had a silver denarius in their possession and in the Temple, to boot, made Jesus’ assertion that they were hypocrites quite opportune.

 

Furthermore, Jesus’ answer also clarifies that in his view there is no basic incompatibility between one’s duty to God and one’s duty to the government. The Zealots who had revolted in the past considered that if you paid tribute to a human king you were replacing God as the ultimate authority. But not Jesus.

 

Of course, this passage of the gospel has been used to defend different and at times opposing positions along the spectrum of opinions regarding the separation of church and state. There have been those who have used it to oppose paying taxes and subordinating to government authority, but over the years, the general understanding has tended to be that while they may be subject to an earthly authority, people are not in any way exempt from their responsibilities and loyalty to God.

 

God, after all, is the force that animates us, and as such is the ultimate overseer of whatever happens to the world and to its creatures. This comes through very clearly in today’s lesson from Isaiah, where the prophet reminds us that even if Cyrus didn’t know the God of Israel, it was this God who was in charge!

 

Back to Jesus: my conclusion of this encounter with the Pharisees is that Jesus completely turned the tables on them. He not only avoided the trap they set up for him, but also made a trap for his questioners into which they readily fell. He answered the question speaking truth to power and left everyone amazed.

 

How can we apply some of these lessons to this moment in our history?

 

Well, for starters, in this pre-electoral season, with a little more than two weeks before election day, we need to be focused on several things. First, let’s go out and vote and make sure we remind our family and friends to do so as well. If you live in the District of Columbia and haven’t registered yet, you can still register until October 26, so that you are able to vote.

 

Second, vote according to your conscience. Make sure that you are a well informed and savvy voter. Know who is out there running for election. In a year such as this crazy 2020, it is easy to get distracted by all that is going on. Even though it is a presidential election year, and that usually absorbs most of the media attention, especially with the current state of affairs, let us not forget that there are many other local and state elections that are equally as important as the one for president.

 

However, sometimes there is a dearth of information about local candidates, such as for City Council or for State Board of Education or for Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. The people who run for these offices deserve our attention: they are fellow citizens, people like us; neighbors who are offering themselves to work for the good of all.

 

Thanks to the internet, some information can be found about local elections, which are very important too and affect our daily life in significant ways—at times even more so than the elections for higher office. I would like to draw your attention to a hyperlocal blog that has been working to bring a large number of local election candidate statements to a wide audience, The Hill is Home. This blog teamed up with the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, CHAMPS, to conduct interviews with candidates running for council and the house of representatives. I have a disclaimer to make: My daughter is one of the partners of The Hill Is Home and is the one responsible for publishing the statements and other relevant election information as well as conducting interviews. She’s making sure that the people are well informed about their local candidates and has turned this into her current mission. I think that is akin to being a prophet.

 

There are different ways in which we can be disciples of Jesus, but they all entail following his example. So, let’s be savvy and smart. Let us speak up; let’s have our voices heard. Let’s get informed about who is out there wanting our vote. Let’s vote our conscience.

 

But above all, let’s be humble and remember that ultimately, it’s not us who are in control. For beneath and above and within all that is, there is God. God should be at the center of everything and anything we do. As Isaiah said to us today:

 

I am the Lord, and there is no other;

besides me there is no god.

I arm you, though you do not know me,

so that they may know, from the rising of the sun

and from the west, that there is no one besides me;

I am the Lord, and there is no other.

I form light and create darkness,

I make weal and create woe;

I the Lord do all these things.