It is crunch time in the Gospel story we heard this morning. The day before was Palm Sunday. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on where he went immediately to the Temple, the house of God, where he drove out the money changers and those who are selling the animals for sacrifice — the people profiting off the poor of the land in name of the holy God. In doing so Jesus has enraged the chief priests and the Pharisees who are entrenched in the system, and they are determined that he must die in order to maintain the status quo.
Their problem, however, is that the common people — the poor people — have gotten behind him, so they are afraid to arrest him, for fear that his arrest will trigger an uprising of the people against them. So the high priests and Pharisees are watching for an opportunity to do away with Jesus.
It is now day two of Jesus’ last week of life. He has returned to the temple where, for the time being, the money changers are afraid to enter, and he has welcomed in their place the poor people — the blind and the lame — people made in the very image of God, whose true image so often goes unrecognized in this world. In welcoming them into God’s house, he has restored to them their rightful place in God’s family.
As his adversaries come to Jesus there in the Temple, there is something strangely similar to the interactions we see today between the press and the presidential candidates, where the press try to find the clever question to ask that will trip the candidate up, force him to say something that will drive away one of his constituencies as he attempts to placate another.
It begins with flattery. “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.” If butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.
Their words sound friendly on the outside, when in fact they are the set up for the assassin’s knife. The question that follows is exceedingly clever, designed to do away with Jesus without really lifting a finger. “Tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor?”
If Jesus says no, he marks himself as an enemy of the Emperor, and the Roman soldiers will sweep down in seconds flat to arrest him, and in short order nail him to a cross. He’ll be done away without any obvious blood on their own hands.
If Jesus says yes, he will disappoint the common people who resent the domination of the Romans. Maybe he doesn’t get killed this way, but he loses his appeal, his political power.
Jesus recognizes their hypocrisy. The first thing he does is ask for a coin used to pay this tax. It is worth noting that Jesus does not have a coin in his possession. He isn’t one of those people who wouldn’t think of leaving home without a credit card, a debit card, a wad of cash in his pocket. Money doesn’t have that kind of hold over him.
They bring him a coin — one minted far away in Rome. He asks, “whose head is this, and whose title?” Everybody knows the answer. The coin bears the image and title of the Emperor Caesar, who claims for himself divinity. The coin is part of the system by which the Emperor maintains his control over the empire. By controlling the economy — by issuing the common currency — Rome controls the communal life. (It’s a lesson that recent events have reminded us of again: those who control the economy will hold the political power as well.) Buy into the system, and Caesar controls you. You may hate Caesar himself, but if you love his money, he still has you.
Jesus concludes by saying, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
When I went off to college, I wasn’t sure what I believed, religiously speaking. I had been brought up in the church, but as I went through adolescence and the difficulties that go alone with that turbulent period of time, I became disillusioned with the Church, in which it was easy to spot hypocrisy. (Teenagers have this higher-sensitive-hypocrisy-radar, that can tell, as Jesus did that day, when someone is saying something they don’t truly believe.)
Spiritual journeys take all kinds of paths, and mine involved a theology course my sophomore year, where my brain was spoken to, making room for my heart to respond. I was introduced to a simple but profound idea, which was this: that in a certain sense everybody has a religious faith, (even those who swear they don’t) if you understand the object of a person’s faith to be that which concerns a person most in life — one’s ultimate concern.
Ask yourself, what do you care about above all else? When push comes to shove, what is it that motivates you — gets you out of bed in the morning? If you can identify the answer to this question, then you have identified your god. It is the thing in your life before which you bow down, whether literally, or just figuratively.
Now this might sound like a new idea, but actually it is a very old idea. If you know the ten commandments handed down from God through Moses, then you know that the very first commandment is “You shall have no other gods before me.” Why is there a need for this as the very first commandment, if not for the habitual tendency of human beings to create idols to worship? Or as Jesus would later say, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (6:21)
Now there is no end to things that can take the place of gods in our lives. Another person can become a god for us. Our public image or reputation can take on the quality of a god.
The tax question the Pharisees asked Jesus, as well as the present economic crisis with all the fear and anxiety it has generated, calls our attention to how easily money (and all money represents for us) can become for us a god.
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, in the great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (6:24)If money is your god, not only will it place you in conflict with Caesar and the demands of taxation, it will also put you at odds with God as well. At best your alliances with Caesar and your attempts to make alliances with God will be temporary, driven by the perception that these alliances can for a time help you get closer to your real god — money.
If you think about all this, you realize that there is a huge potential here for hypocrisy. We can say, for instance that our god is the Lord Almighty, or our god is Jesus, but upon closer examination — more examination than we generally care to be put ourselves under — it turns out that our day-to-day lives are centered somewhere altogether different. (Our coins lie. More often than not, it is not God in whom we trust.)
Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount you will find these words from Jesus: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (5:39b – 41) I think that mostly we don’t really get these words. They sound like Jesus is telling us to be some kind of wimp. Actually, Jesus is talking about experiencing a kind of strength and freedom that we tend to know very little about. He’s talking about having no other God than the Holy God who made heaven and earth and loves all people and living things (including Roman soldiers and anybody else with whom we might come in conflict.)
If instead of the one true God our god is physical survival or our stuff, or our comfort, or knee jerk need to avoid pain, then when the Emperor’s soldier threatens to strike us on the cheek, or to take away our coat, or to force us to march for a mile, we will either cower for fear, or strike out in rage, why? Because the true god of our life has been threatened.
But if our God is the one true God, we can look the soldier, or anyone else who threatens us in the eyes and say, “none of your threats hold any power over me.”