Maybe It’s About Power

Oct 22, 2023   •   Matthew 22: 15-22

“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, Render unto God What is God’s.”

Kinda catchy.

It’s a good sound bite.

But…do we think it is amazing?

I mean, all due respect, but is it amazing?

Is it a lesson that stuns us and moves us to transformation?

Centuries of Christian preaching have declared this to be a lesson of the Christ acknowledging the authority of earthly governments and their God-given authority over their citizens. A handy line of demarcation where beliefs about eternal truth are fenced off in an area just for God. That the empire and the marketplace can have the rest.

But the amazed ones seem to be the Pharisees’ disciples, and I’m not following how a big thumbs up to paying taxes to a repressive overlord does that. They are known for their study and strict adherence to the Law that was handed down when YHWH delivered the people out from their bondage from Pharoah. Do you remember an earthly king who claimed to be a god? 

Surely, that makes assuming Jesus’ fealty to earthly government a stretch.

His snark with Pilate sort of puts the lie to the idea that Jesus is saying that we must treat the government as ordained by God.

I don’t think Jesus is talking about government or taxes at all.

I hear Jesus talking about power and how we wield it.

God exercises power by empowering others and granting them agency. The LORD brought the Israelites out of slavery, not by force, but rather by convincing a man to convince other people that they were not created to be enslaved. Persuade them to imagine that life could be different, that they could pick up en masse and walk away. And only then, when they are no longer enslaved— God asks them if they want to be in covenant.

Authoritarian humans throughout time have liked saying they are divine. It gives the impression that their power isn’t limited to this world or this life. Their use of power intimidates and fosters despair, scarcity, and infighting. They dehumanize others and perceive mercy as weakness. Caesar, like Pharoah before him, knows his power is limited and sees any criticism as an existential threat. The Pharisees know their power has limits, and that frightens them. They don’t claim to be divine, but they do claim special access to the truth.

For the past few chapters, we have been hearing Jesus tell increasingly pointed parables that embarrass the Pharisees. Not because he says their names. The very pointed calling out will come later. What makes the parables such fantastic teaching is that you can turn them and turn them and turn them and find something to convict yourself with every time. He doesn’t have to spell it out for you; your conscience will do the work for him. Again and again, the stories are of people invited, hired, and housed who spurn the hospitality, fail to keep their word, or just squander the bounty that has been laid before them. If somewhere in the back of your mind, someplace not yet in your consciousness, there is the slightest notion that your choices aren’t absolutely on the up and up—the parables will worm that out for you.

In this gospel, the embarrassed Pharisees change tactics: they send their disciples with a question.

I imagine that their disciples are very much like any disciples. People so moved by what they have seen and heard that they choose to follow in a particular set of footprints.

John the Baptist had disciples. Persons drawn to the cry to cast off all the trappings of cosmopolitan life and live a life of simple, dedicated, ascetic preparation for a Messiah whose arrival John believed was imminent. How very sad to think that the last kindness they could perform for their teacher was to bury his headless body in whatever wasteland they could negotiate for.

The disciples of Jesus are hearing him speak more and more about what is to come. The end that he will face in Jerusalem. It must seem so confusing to have their teacher speaking of endings when the crowds are growing each day. Surely their teacher cannot be disappeared like the wild prophet from the banks of the Jordan. Too many people are with him, and he’s too good with cryptic stories and messages. Maybe they have hitched their wagon to the real deal. A real prophet who will upend the system and set things to rights. 

The disciples of the Pharisees are no different. Other than they can see a functioning hierarchical ladder to climb. They are known for their study and strict adherence to religious law. An unflinching adherence to a covenant that is to keep them in right relationship with their Creator. 

They trust that their teachers are doing the same. 

After watching time and again, their teachers get rebuked by this Jesus, this bumpkin from Nazareth; they are probably excited to be sent without their teachers to engage with this ‘prophet’ who plays fast and loose with the finer points of the law.

So, they show up. And who are there but a collection of Herodians: sycophants of Herod: a puppet, quarter-time king who defies the law of God twelve ways before his feet hit the floor in the morning.

A man who divorces his wife to marry the woman who divorced his brother, A man who built a city to honor Caesar, a man who so drunkenly covets the daughter of his so-called wife that he ordered the murder of John the Baptist.

And the scuttlebutt is that these Herodians- -people the Pharisees wouldn’t want to be seen with –are here at the invitation of the Pharisees.

Their disciples must be thinking: I guess having the murderers of his cousin in the front row might intimidate this Jesus and put him off his game, but really: Herodians? Have my teachers not heard the saying, lie down with dogs, get up with fleas?

So, when the question gets asked, it has to be a sharp disappointment. This is not a question about God’s law; this is a question about Roman Law. What’s the point of answering it? The Pharisees all pay taxes. To not pay them is to volunteer for execution by the Romans. The question itself is unctuous and twisted. Half flattery and part mockery. It’s almost as if they are hoping he’ll say no out of spite. Do my teachers think this Jesus is stupid enough to fall for this? Why are we doing the work of the Romans?

Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?

It is the first part, the often-overlooked part of Jesus’ response, that would be amazing to people steeped in the stories of Moses since childhood. 

When Moses is given the law on Mt. Sinai, When the thunder and the lightening are crashing, and the trumpets are blaring, and the mountain is smoking, – Moses explains to the terrified Israelites that the covenant with God- the laws they are asked to follow are a test from God. An ongoing series of choices to stay in right relationship with God.

To the Pharisee’s disciples, being called out on testing whether someone is a prophet sent by God with a question about adherence to Roman law while being in cahoots with those who flagrantly flout God’s law is stunning. And humiliating. In that moment, the disciples of the Pharisees realize just how far out on a limb they are. Just how far their teachers were willing to stoop to hold onto position and power. How their teachers were willing to sacrifice them.

Jesus’ seemingly oblique comment has hit its mark.

Jesus continues.

Show me the coin.

And one of them goes and gets one.

And with the patience of a kindergarten teacher, Jesus asks

Whose image is it, and whose inscription?

A denarius bore the image of Tiberius, the inscription on the flip side of the coin would declare Caesar’s divinity.

Are they really there to do the bidding of a tyrant? A tyrant in any form?

Or are they in covenant with God?

And then Jesus shows these disciples a way forward.

“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.