You see it almost every day on TV, especially during political campaigns, which seem to be happening all the time lately – news reporters asking devious questions of high profile politicians, trying to make them say anything controversial to produce a “sound bite” that will become “breaking news.” Everybody acts so seriously and sincerely, yet we all know what’s going on – the politician knows, the reporter obviously knows, and even the audience – we all know. It’d be laughable if it wasn’t so pathetic. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Harper, or Rae, or May, or any of the six NDP leadership hopefuls would look Mansbridge right in the eye and say, “You hypocrite. Why are you trying to trap me?” Now there’s a sound bite for you! But no. Instead, everyone plays along with the “cat & mouse” game – it’s safe; it’s what’s expected. It’d be laughable if it wasn’t so predictable.
So in today’s Gospel story, even though Jesus turns on his inquisitors and ramps up the rhetoric considerably, when the dust settles it seems like they also retreat to a little “cat & mouse” with each other. Oh, it’s a tricky little question for sure, “Yes or no, is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” … now that’s devious, especially if you realize that, of the two groups who are questioning Jesus, the Pharisees were against paying taxes on grounds of “religious purity,” and that the supporters of Herod, Caesar’s puppet king, were obviously for paying taxes. And there they stand together … all they want is a “yes” or a “no” – and they’ve got Jesus. Either he’s guilty of being pro-Rome and spiritually impure, or of being anti-Rome and a religious radical. All they want is “either-or.” But what they get is “both-and” – “give (both) to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Brilliant … no? Scripture says, “His reply amazed them, and they went away.” Perhaps a better translation would be “dumbfounded.” Jesus’ reply dumbfounded them. They were speechless. The mouse got away.
Curiously, Jesus never really unpacks what his answer actually means. That’s left for the listener to discern. So on the first part, even in Jesus’ context, paying taxes in support of civil society was not apparently a problem. The problem, of course, was the corrupt tax system that abused the poorest, and favoured the wealthy. This ethical battle has been going for a long time, and we continue to struggle with it today. I personally interpret Jesus as encouraging us to respectfully support our governments’ work, while at the same time doing our best to ensure that the system is fair and equitable for all. But I’m not sure Jesus’ comment about “giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” really is about paying taxes at all. My instinct tells me that it’s probably the object lesson that points to a greater reality – “give to God what belongs to God.”
Like many children’s sermons, Jesus shows them an object, in this case a coin … and asks them a simple question, “who’s picture is on it?” … and when they answer, he teaches a lesson way beyond Caesar’s image. Jesus seems to be saying, “OK, if Caesar’s image is imprinted on this coin, it obviously belongs to him, so give to Caesar what belongs to him. But if that’s true, then even more, we should give to God what belongs to God. So in your experience,” Jesus might continue, “what belongs to God, really? What do you have that is imprinted with God’s image.” And so very often this kind of question leaves us dumbfounded. And in our speechlessness we revert to what often rolls off the tongue as a cliché: “Everything we have, our whole lives belong to God.” And as true as that is, it doesn’t always help when we’re trying to discover concrete, intimate ways to respond faithfully through our living – because how can we actually give to God everything that belongs to God? And for me, that’s the point of awareness where “God’s image” springs to life.
At the heart of our understanding of what it means to be fully human is the biblical affirmation that we are created in God’s image; and as Genesis so beautifully describes, how God’s breath of life establishes an intimacy that forever fashions our relationship with God. Through this shared image and intimacy * we’re partnered with God on this earth, entrusted with a sacred love that invites our response. I think that’s how Jesus saw his own life, being one with God, partners in revealing God’s goodness on earth. And I imagine it’s exactly what Jesus promises us – that each and every time we actually do something kind, compassionate, and caring for another human being and for all of God’s creation, we fulfill this partnership God imagined in the first place.
In your bulletin this morning is a purple insert, the 3rd of five stories of faithful partnership with God and each other ** through the ministries of Orleans United. If you’ve missed the previous two, you can read them on various bulletin boards around the church today or on our church website. And watch for the rest in the weeks ahead.
In these stories we try to share concrete examples of how we give to God what belongs to God, and hope to encourage each of us to consider expanding the ways we say yes to God’s invitation. By living more intentionally as bearers of God’s goodness with others, we offer to God the very image and intimacy of God in us. “Give to God what belongs to God,” Jesus teaches, through each and every act of grace. Therein we find our true meaning and value every day. And God’s blessing enough to share!
* With appreciation to the 7th Day Adventist Church’s understanding of “stewardship as partnership,” and in particular to this idea of humanity being created in the “image and intimacy” of God.
** Find all five of these stories at http://orleansunitedchurch.com/category/in-community/
Orleans United Church
Matthew 22:15-22 October 16, 2011