A few years ago, a student group here at Princeton came to me to seek co-sponsorship for a program they were organizing on campus. It was a speaker whose topic would be hurtful to many students, reifying their oppression, and the prejudice and misunderstanding that they face on campus (particularly from this student group) and in society. The students who wanted the Office of Religious Life to co-sponsor their program said to me, “Prove to us that you are fair -and that your office, a University department, is unbiased, for the University must be unbiased.” It was a blatant attempt to manipulate, and I refused to go along with their high-pressure tactics of insisting that co-sponsorship of a very biased and hurtful program proved my office’slack of bias. I know I’m not the only one in this sanctuary who has been put in a similar situation. So too, was our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Religious leaders tried to play “Gotcha!” with him. They began by saying, “we know that you are fair, truthful, and have absolutely no biases for or against anyone. If you want to prove that’s true, answer our question.” Ah, the particular manipulation that is flattery! It comes to us all in so many ways: “You are such a good person you will certainly…” and then fill in the rest: “Take on this big responsibility for us;” or “Never repeat to anyone the toxic things I have said or done;” or “present any alternative to the plan I am presenting.” In sum, “You are such a good person; you would never get in the way of what I want for myself.” As I hope you know, Christ’s instruction on who is the “good” person is very different - we’ll get to that in a moment!
Jesus certainly doesn’t let manipulative flattery get in the way of telling the truth. He takes their bait and turns it on its head. He lets himself be manipulated into answering the ultimate “gotcha!” question: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? If he says yes, he alienates all the people who have been following him, who listen to him, who are coming to believe in him: they lose exorbitant amounts of their income through unfair taxes to Rome. The poor are hit the hardest in this “flat tax,” and the poor have certainly been listening with incredulity and joy as Jesus teaches that the poor are beloved of God, will have justice one day, and will be filled with good things. How to end the “Jesus movement” problem in one sentence? The smart Pharisees and Herodians know how: put him on the spot to defend Roman taxation.
Because if he doesn’t, he also loses. The Herodians on the scene are loyal to Herod Antipas, the Rome-appointed ruler of the region. They know on which side their bread is buttered, and the name of the butterer is Herod. If Jesus says that it is not lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, they will charge him with sedition. Essentially, Jesus’ flattering challengers have thought of a question that will end his movement in one of two ways - his answer can only a) deny him any following, or b) “rightfully” bring the fist of Rome down upon him. Whichever answer holds, no more problem with the pesky itinerant preacher from backwater Galilee that some have the growing audacity to think might be the Messiah.
For 2,000 years, scholars and preachers and congregations and Bible-readers have been in awe of the way that Jesus fully answered their question, avoided their snare, and put their dangerous moralizing question back on them.
Jesus asks them to present one of the coins used for the tax. At least one of his questioners - perhaps all of them - have one in their pocket. And that illustrates what collusionists they are. They are always toting around such valuable coins. At this moment, the conversation is happening on the Temple grounds. Oops! Nothing like bringing the graven image of Caesar on to the grounds where God’s presence resides! The coin isn’t just stamped with the image of Caesar, it includes a blasphemous inscription in Latin: “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” How about carrying that statement with you wherever you go, including the temple?
Yet another irony is that a more literal translation of the religious and political leaders’ challenge/flattery, you “show deference to no one,” is “you do not regard the face of anyone.” Then Jesus asks them to show to all who are present whose is the face they are talking about: Tiberius Caesar. There is a face, literally stamped on a coin.
It is a coin stamped out by human hands with a human image for human use. There’s a different stamping of an image that Jesus contrasts with that coin: the words from the first chapter of Genesis in which God says, “Let us make humankind in our image.” It’s not that Tiberius Caesar, a human being, isn’t a creature made in the image of God, it’s that humans took his creaturely image, made it divine, and stamped it on their currency to help legitimize the idea that all material goods are ultimately owned by the emperor, who oversees every transaction. God’s stamp upon us humans is about a very different kind of ownership, a very different kind of claim. God doesn’t want our money and possessions; the human-made deity Augustus does. God made us in the divine image so that we would always know to whom we really belong, independent of how much or little we own. In the Book of Isaiah, we read God’s declaration to each of us: “I have called you by name; you are mine.” In Jeremiah, we read, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” No matter what happens to us; no matter how sick we become or ill-used by others, no matter what losses we sustain, we remain the very image of God, infinitely loved and of infinite value.
One of Jesus’ points of brilliance in his response to the Pharisees and Herodians is that he refuses to decide for every person how to relate to secular authorities; he really throws that back upon every person. You and I spend currencies stamped with the heads of dead presidents, and with the words, “In God we trust.” That is not a blasphemous statement to me (I do my best to trust in God!) but I do recognize that true divinity and one nation’s material wealth have been stamped together on to the “coin of our realm.” I pay taxes through the nose, and am glad to - they support schools, roads, medical research, the arts. They support a military that, in a perfect world, I wouldn’t want, but we don’t live in a perfect world, let alone a world anywhere close to being able to go without armed forces. I’m both enough of a pacifist and enough of a realist to think that a taxpayer’s job today is to work for a necessary standing military that will be a moral and ethical exemplar. As with so many public projects, it is our goal.
We Christians don’t live in separate realms - we are citizens of God’s in-breaking kingdom and of the societies where we make our temporal home. We are the image of God at all times and we are to embody that fact…while we earn and spend paper with dead Presidents on them, while we participate and quarrel and affirm and lead the communities in which we live. I often hear people say that “religion is the most private of things in a person’s life.” Their point is that whatever one believes - or does not - is something that should inform a person on her deepest level, and also not be up to scrutiny by the state. And yet, in every country of the world, religion is one of the most public of endeavors. Its faith statements are printed on our currency, religious communities are recognized for tax exemptions, religious groups are some of the most potent actors in the public realm on social issues. All of this is very fine by me, what isn’t is the assertion that belief systems of any kind have no role in the public realm. Actually, they are all over that realm and they should be so that everyone from atheist to religious fundamentalist can speak their piece, be heard, and respected.
Jesus’ fullest description of what is “lawful” is recorded in Matthew’s gospel 12 verses after our pericope for today. He says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This, then, is the ultimate answer to the Pharisees and Herodians - and to everyone since who has wondered what a Christian should do in the face of a moral dilemma, or of a social question that pits religious faith against civic participation. Jesus says to love God with your whole being, and to love your neighbor equally. That’s the formula. Plugged into any situation, and lived out fully, the formula provides the answer.
Jesus is given a clever “gotcha” question. We get them too. But he uses the trap to teach about so much more - about faithful living in every instance. As challenging as these “gotcha” moments are, let us try to make every one - and every situation - into an opportunity to inhabit the Gospel and to teach the grace of being stamped in the very image of God.
Lance Pape, www.workingpreacher.org, October 19, 2014