Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 18, 2020
The two party system was not how it all started. It was more evolution than creation. But that’s neither here nor there. These two parties disagree on just about everything: social policy. Foreign policy. The role of religion in governance. And of course, there is always, always going to be a disagreement on taxes. It’s just how a two party system work. These two parties, of course, are the Pharisees and the Herodians. Though both Jewish, the Pharisees and the Herodians have massively different agendas. Especially when it came to taxes.
Now remember, during the time of Jesus, Jerusalem and the Judean people are all under occupation by the Roman Empire. And of course, the Romans levy taxes. The Herodians would have been more friendly to the Romans. The Herodians would have been more comfortable paying the tax. On the other hand, the Pharisees and others wanted more distance from Roman authority. They were more concerned about supporting their pagan overlords. So there you have these two groups, these two parties, and they are trying to use Jesus to make a point. They are both trying to use Jesus to get a leg up on the other. Both sides are looking to looking to score political points.
So they approach Jesus with an impossible question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus says it’s not lawful to pay Roman taxes, then they can get him arrested for being a rebel. If Jesus says it is lawful to pay Roman taxes, then they can say he supports the pagans. No matter what Jesus says, no matter what side he takes, he’s going to lose.
Sounds familiar, right? How can I score some points, how can I use Jesus to claim victory against my political opponent? How can I get more people to my side, or at least make the other side look foolish? And while we don’t present Jesus with a coin like the Herodians and the Pharisees, we do pose similar questions. What do you think about kids having soccer games on Sunday mornings? If you’re against it, you’re a religious zealot. If you’re okay with it, you must hate the Church. Like Jesus, I think we can shake our heads at just how shallow our religious discourse has become. Because a life with Jesus, practicing our faith, is a lot more than the surface questions the world is always asking.
But back to our story. The Pharisees and Herodians produce a coin used for the imperial tax. The trappers have been trapped. The very fact that they are carrying around the coin means that they are bought into the pagan system. They’ve answered their own question. Since that coin was stamped with the emperor’s image, then Jesus says it’s okay to give it back to the emperor. So Jesus gives that remarkable answer, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In that pithy response, Jesus is critiquing both sides, both parties. On the one hand, he’s exposing them for carrying around a Roman coin, a pagan symbol, a direct violation of the second commandment. On the other hand, by subtly saying it was okay to pay the tax, he’s critiquing anybody in favor of violent revolution. It’s a master stroke. Don’t let this passage get boiled down to, “pay your income taxes and pay your pledge.” Jesus is undermining both parties, and asking critical questions of both the Pharisees and the Herodians. Jesus is saying that both of their agendas are misguided, both of their agendas have problems.
Stanley Hauerwas said it best – “if you’re a disciple of Jesus, you know you have a problem, when you do not have a problem” (“Matthew,” 191). You know you have a problem when you do not have a problem.
If we have no problem with the way the world works, if we have no problem with our side, then we most definitely have a problem. Jesus is undercutting the tribalism, the partisanship of the day and exposing it for what it truly is – a thirst for power. Little has changed. I am uneasy with the all too clear lines placed between us. I am uneasy with tribalism because I do not think it serves the Kingdom of God. I am uneasy when complex ideas become flash points. I am uneasy when something so simple as a coin is produced and I’m asked to pick a side. Both the Herodians and the Pharisees think there is no problem with their take on taxes, and yet that is precisely the problem. The problem for the Herodians is that they are complicit with their pagan overlords. The problem for the Pharisees is that they might be too quick to pick up a sword. Make no mistake – we are the Herodians, we are the Pharisees. We have picked our sides, and if we have no problem with our side, then we most certainly have a problem.
Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not a complete cynic. Because our hope is in something greater than anything this world and its petty little tribes has to offer. Our hope is founded in the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our hope is founded in God’s gracious judgment and eternal love. Our hope is in a Kingdom which transcends our distinctions. And I do believe that God can and will remake this world into something we can’t imagine – a kingdom of grace, and love, and holiness. I do not think it will be accomplished by digging in our heels. I do not think we will see the Kingdom of God by refusing to admit our problems. I do not think that we can shoe horn Jesus into neat little boxes.
And how foolish we are when we ask questions of God. How foolish we are when we try to pigeon hole the creator of the universe into this or that. Be careful when you do that, because God will quickly turn the question back on you. For truly, that is the Christian life – a life with Jesus means that Jesus will always be asking questions of us, of our lives, of our sins. In a way, we are the coin held up for inspection before the Lord God. It is our tribalism that will be critiqued. It is our hard and fast lines that Jesus will be asking us about. Because Jesus is inviting us into a new way of life. A life of grace, and love, and compassion. The way of Jesus means leaving behind those old distinctions to embrace the new thing. Which is the Kingdom of God.