Readings from Scripture (CEB) Matthew 22:15-22
15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.
This is a well-loved and often misinterpreted story in scripture.
Jesus is confronted by Pharisees and asked a question with no correct answer. Is it right to pay taxes or not? And before we turn this into a libertarian anti-tax text, or make the claim that Christians have no civil or social responsibility, we need to put this story in its context.
To do that, we have to flip back a chapter to see that this interchange happens while Jesus is preaching and teaching in the temple – a place where the Roman coins didn’t belong – because it prized the face of Caesar over the undefinable face of God. This passage goes hand in hand with the flipping of the tables scene which starts Holy week, and starts the beginning of the end for Jesus. It doesn’t matter how right he was to flip those tables, how corrupt the temple and the Pharisees were in their complicity with Rome, this story reminds us how Jesus was on the outs in his own community. And they were looking for ways to get rid of him. So they ask him, is it right to pay taxes or not – knowing that if he says no, then he’s against Rome, and if he says yes, then he’s against God. There was no right answer – though the non-answer he gives is pretty close.
But lest we make this sermon about taxation, or the separation of church and state, or jump into politics because there’s more than enough times that I’ve slid down that slippery slope – this passage makes me wonder what needs to change?
Jesus was standing within a place that he revered and loved, a place where the Jewish people believed that they would come close to God. Jesus flipped the tables because it bothered him to see this holy place become complicit in injustice as it partnered with the Roman enemy state, the oppressor of the people. He wants to change the question of the Pharisees to instead ask them – what’s my responsibility – to God and to everyone else? (Which is in fact the teaching for next week’s sermon).
This passage makes me wonder about the church, and the times that it was complicit in injustice. As history tends to bend towards justice, we as the church have found ourselves having to rethink what we believe. For years the church preached against gays and lesbians, and some well-loved minister stood in the pulpit banging their hand upon it, spewing fire and brimstone about the judgement of God. I can only imagine the hearts of those who sat in a place that they revered and loved wondering how they were being taught to hate and demonize people when Jesus himself said words to the effect of “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.” I wonder how many of them wondered what needs to change in the place they called sanctuary in order that it might become a sanctuary for all. I think about the United Church naming the Rev. Michael Blair, an openly gay person of colour, as our new General Secretary and wonder how those of the past might have received that news.
Because this passage still makes me think about what needs to change in our world.
Jesus, in speaking to the Pharisees wanted to change how they looked at the world – how they looked at the coins and the temples and the holy spaces – how they looked at their relationship with God. Jesus wanted them to see that everything, each and every moment, each and every atom of every coin, each and every person, place or thing, bore the image of the Creator – the fingerprint of the divine. Everything was holy to the itinerant preacher who called fisherman to follow him, who spoke of God using images like lost sheep and mustard seeds and coins, and who demonstrated the limitless love in loaves and fishes. Jesus needed his world to change in order for them to see God in everything; the holy in the mundane.
And as we gathered on the lawn last week, to worship God together in community on the labyrinth, I realized the change we’ve been forced into – to see God in everything, because we couldn’t gather. Separated from the church (building) that we love, and the community and people that we love, some were moved to tears just for the ability to gather again. Communion has become whatever you have on hand. Rituals of being quite with God now employed a digital or tv screen. And that change that has been forced upon us – is not one any would choose. Because as the old quote goes, people do not fear change, we fear the loss that change brings. And these last seven months have been filled with loss.
But so too were the Pharisees confronted with loss. The Jewish people post-Exile were not happy, but the religious freedom they were afforded kept them complacent. They feared losing what little ground they had. The Pharisees became complicit with Rome because they were afforded a certain amount of power that would have disappeared if another invading force moved in. The Pharisees appeased their Roman captors, they gave into their demand for taxes that enslaved the people and kept them in poverty, all in fear of losing more. In a pseudo-Stockholm syndrome they wanted to appease their captors, just as good hearted Christians did when ministers would spew hatred counter to the Gospel. If we got rid of this one, just wait, the next one might be worse – in this ‘devil you know is better than the one you don’t.’
If instead, we believe that the world is charged with the grandeur of God – if each moment, each person, each place, each thing – those we love and those we struggle to love – if everything reveals the presence of God – then…and this is what I’m struggling with – what does this pandemic reveal about God? What does this time speak to God’s grace? Or love? If we’re to give to God what’s God’s – then what does the Lord require of us as that old hymn sings?
What does the Lord require of you? (x2)
Justice, kindness, walk humbly with your God.
To seek justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.
If the world is charged with the grandeur of God, than what needs to change is our ability to see it, to recognize it for what it is, and our responsibility to tend it. The Pharisees forgot that. They forgot their responsibility to God and to the people of God. They were so captivated with the face of Caesar that they forgot the face of God. It happens to all of us. It took a pandemic for us to realize how sacred and important each and every life is, and it’s no mistake that during these difficult times we’ve awoken to the needs of people of colour, the poor and forgotten.
For we must do what we can to ensure that justice, kindness, and humility might reveal the faith within us, whether we’re in church or not. And we’ve learned new ways of being community, of finding ways to reach out and connect – all of which remind us that God isn’t quite done with us yet.
May this ongoing time of change not just remind you of what you’ve lost – but instead reveal new ways of living out justice, kindness, and humility for all.
For your face may be the only face of God that someone ever sees.