Sunday, October 16, 2005

Its not about the denarii

I've been frightfully busy. And I deeply regret missing out on most of the "Kingdom of God" posts, as well as the recent discussion on ecclesiology. I read them, of course, but I miss out on the discussions.
Being unable to contribute in any meaningful way lately, I thought I'd share with you my sermon from this morning. Please bear in mind that this is my "working copy," and is not polished to any extent. I'm a Methodist "almost pastor," and have been nurtured in the tradition that emphasizes homeletics ("some"-cough cough- would say to the unfortunate exclusion of liturgy). So I also appologise for the length, which may be somewhat unwieldy in this format.

Hear now the Good News...

Scripture- Matthew 22: 15-22

In my youth, and, I must confess, well into young adulthood, I was an aficianado of that bane of teachers and of parents everywhere- that publication known as MAD magazine. I’ll admit, I haven’t been following too closely lately, but the few issues I’ve peeked into, while bystanders were under the impression I was perusing Parents, still seem to be as irreverent as ever with a healthy dose of gross out factor. There are a few old standards still included, such as the end of issue fold out, Spy vs. Spy, popular entertainment parodies, and Alfred E. Newman caricaturing everyone of any note in society. But my quick glances into various issues haven’t turned up any recent examples of my old favorite: Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions.

Yes, that razor sharp wit and just the right amount of verbal sneer directed at those who would ask blindingly obvious questions never ceased to nurture my budding development as a sarcastic smart alek. I’d store them up, because you never know when you would need a verbal zinger, and you wouldn’t want to be left fumbling for just the right response. I can’t recall ever actually using one, but I was ready, if the circumstances warranted it.

With this background in hand, perhaps you can understand my appreciation for this passage in Matthew. Not because Jesus tossed off some throwaway comeback to a vacuous question, but because Jesus responded with a short, sharp, yet very deep answer to a brilliantly devious question designed to make him incriminate himself. That, my friends, is a master at work. The question may have been about taxes, but the answer wasn’t exactly about the denarii.

Taxation has always been a touchy issue. Revolutions arise because of it and very few people ever think that they are fair. The taxes levied by Rome on the unwilling participants of the “Pax Romana” were certainly not seen as fair by the Jews of first century Palestine. They were, after all, required to pay for the support and upkeep of the military force and the governmental structure that kept them occupied. Like most taxes that went to support empire building, they fell disproportionately on the poor as taxes on goods needed to survive.

The Romans were well aware of the potential unjust taxation had to cause rebellion and uprising. They had been in the empire business for quite a while. And Palestine was a troublesome province anyway, as well as not being terribly profitable. So they farmed out the responsibility for collecting taxes to local governors, such as the Herodian dynasty, who maintained connections with those groups of powerful, influential Jews who had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Responsibility was passed down still further to local tax collectors, such as Matthew himself before he was called by Jesus to become a disciple. These tax collectors had wide discrepancy in how much to tax people, and made their living by demanding more than was required by law and keeping the profits. For this, and because tax collectors had to associate often with gentiles in performing their fleecing of the population, these folks were hated with an especially personal passion. This is why Jesus’ association with them and their inclusion in the Kingdom of God was so radical. Think of the phrases “your IRS auditor” and “beloved disciple of God” in conjunction together and you may begin to get an inkling of the emotion involved.

It wasn’t difficult to get people talking of the unjust nature of the taxes they had to pay, and those who were seen as supporting taxation would have been viewed as collaborators by those who followed Jesus. Nevertheless, those who spoke openly against taxation were considered traitors by Rome and subject to the death penalty. So you can begin to see how clever and slick this question to Jesus was. “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. Tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

Credit where credit is due-it’s a good question for the purposes of entrapment. If Jesus had answered it directly, yes or no, it could have meant the end of his ministry and, perhaps, the end of his life. For Jesus to respond that it is right to give tribute to Caesar would be compromising with a clear injustice and would deprive him of his “prophethood.” To disallow it, however, would cast him as a dangerous revolutionary. This is opening salvo in Matthew of three attempts by his favorite villains, the Pharisees and Saducees, to entrap and discredit Jesus. And it’s a good one.

But the questioners make one big mistake. Can you spot it? I’ll give you a hint-its is in their insincere opening flattery. For in it, they speak the truth without meaning to. They say: “we know you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth…” And this gives Jesus the opening to demonstrate that they have ASKED THE WRONG QUESTION. It’s not about the denarii and Caesar’s taxes. Its about the truth of God and what the true measure of worth and power is. Its about putting this kingdom in which we live in its proper perspective.

And that’s the question Jesus really answers. And its brilliant.

The questioners also spoke aright when they mentioned that Jesus was not impressed with an individual’s status. He has no hesitation in dismissing their incincere flattery for what it is. And he proceeds to put the question into its proper framework by addressing the coin. A denarius bore an image of the emperor’s head and the title: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Augustus.” As legal tender of the Roman Empire, it pays tribute to the Roman Emperor, who was worshiped as a God. A Jew would find it terribly offensive and blasphemous-worship of a false God with graven images. Jesus’ response to the coin is that of a devout Jew: “Get it out of here.” It belongs to Caesar, so give it back.

So is he advocating paying the tax? Well, he’s not saying DON’T pay the tax. I have several friends who go to great lengths and effort to utilize legal ways to avoid paying federal taxes. They do so, not because they don’t believe in taxation but because they feel very strongly that they should have some say in what their taxes fund. On the contrary, they are very much in favor of citizens paying for the services all receive and to which all should be entitled. They object forcefully, to the point of protesting through a legal withholding of as much of their taxes as they can, to the use of their taxes to fund the military industrial complex. Their perspective: if they could decide that their taxes would be used for health and human services, for education, for programs that benefit all Americans, than they would be more than willing to pay twice as much as they are legally required. They object to paying for programs and policies that violate their consciences.

My friends aren’t revolutionaries, recommending that everyone withhold their taxes regardless of the legality, or zealots who thinks that taxation across the board is inutterably wrong. And neither was Jesus, when it came to the subject of taxes. The taxes represented the power and desires of Rome in the person of Caesar. Fine. Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, not because Ceasar’s demands are righteous or fair, but because this is how the “kingdom of the world” works.

But was Jesus’ priority ever just the “kingdom of the world?” Of course not. If we are to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, to acknowledge the power represented by this “head tax” paid every year by every adult, then we are also to give to God the things that are God’s. If we are to give to Caesar the coin with his image and title on it, then what are the children of God, made in God’s image to give to God?

What are the things of God? This is the right question, because from this perspective, the power and wealth of Rome, or of any “kingdom of the world,” means less than nothing. This is the question the disciples of the Pharisees should have been asking. This is the question that we should be asking.

So, what belongs to God? We do. Very simply, we are God’s. That which we give to God is ourselves. Yes, there was the temple tax, and Jesus had no quarrel with paying it. But was that ever all he asked of his followers? Oh, that it could be that simple. Tithe once a year, and you’re good to go, having given all to God that God requires. Wouldn’t that make Stewardship campaigns a piece of cake?

This is just the start. Everything we have, everything we are, is God’s. God asks for everything as God’s due. From the beginning of our relationship with God as a people, God has demanded the very best of what we have, our first fruits, our first borns. God asks for our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our strength. God requires that our very thoughts and actions be an offering as we are to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

With this in mind, how can a tax to Caesar, or to any government, however onerous, be considered an issue. At this point in the Gospel, Matthew has just presented a series of parables concerning what the kingdom of God is like. To me, this one short exchange between Jesus and his devious questioners bring the difference out more starkly than anything that has gone before and gives the “kingdom of this world” the priority it deserves in comparison with the kingdom of God.


To Jesus, the kingdom of God was what he came to proclaim. Talking about taxes, now that’s a waste of time. There are other things to be done, people to be healed and fed and included, truths to be spoken to power, prayers to be prayed, a cross to be carried, a grave to transcend. Taxes? Phooey! Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s-in the kingdom of God, it isn’t going to matter.

No wonder he was considered dangerous. The people who heard him, who truly followed his way and understood what was God’s due to the very depths of their being had no hesitation in offering their lives for God. Upper class Romans seeking entertainment at the games were usually disappointed when the schedule featured batches of Christians because they tended to stand together and sing rather than run in fear or fight. This is what the Caesars of the world are up against. What have they got that can compete?

Well, they do have power in their kingdoms. They can make some people wealthy and make most people more poor. They can interfere with your livelihood, or provide you with one. They can threaten or enrich your everyday existence, or even have very little impact on you at all. They can lock you into their system until all you can see is the kingdom of the world and you lose sight of the kingdom of God altogether.

But the kingdom of God breaks in where it will, for the power of the kingdom of the world is illusory. We belong to God, and God has no wish to leave us out of the kingdom. All are welcome, everyone is invited to give all of themselves to God. And when we accept that invitation and receive the grace of God, then we are full of God and we can live together as a people whose every word and action are for God. And God’s kingdom breaks in a little bit more. And the kingdom of the world holds no power over us, even if we are powerless within it.

So, pay the tax. After all, its not about the denarii. Give the world what little it can demand and give to God all of yourself. And perhaps others who see will walk away, amazed and speechless as did Jesus’ questioners that day. And maybe perspectives, and priorities, will continue to change and the kingdom of God will break in a little more.

May it be so. Amen.

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