These are days of bluster: autumn winds and politicians. These are times of trying to trap public figures in hypocrisy, and public figures being unashamed of hypocrisy. We hope the endless speeches and talking points will end after Nov 3 but living where we do, we know it never really ends, the volume just goes down a wee bit sometimes. So is it unnerving or reassuring to hear that in Matthew’s gospel Jesus also deals with bluster.
The gospel passage from Matthew is curiously, maybe accidentally, maybe divinely, paired with this text from Isaiah. I have been curious about this Isaiah text, especially the past 4 years, that names Cyrus. Apparently this text is used by a certain subset of Christians to justify their support for the current president. I admit I don’t know a lot about the exile in Babylon and the return home, or the way this text is used by some current Christians. If you do know about this, please chime in during the conversation time.
This scene from Matthew takes place in the temple and is part of several chapters of parables and teachings where Jesus interacts with the religious leaders. As we know, the religious leaders are not big on Jesus’ renewal movement, his approach to the law and the prophets, his approach to the traditions and texts that they have dedicated their lives to. These are devout leaders – and Jesus’ devotion looks different, sounds different, is lived out with a very different crowd than the religious leaders choose. And he comes right into the temple with the temerity to try and teach them.
This irritates them so much that after hearing several parables and teachings, the top leaders leave, to go and hatch a plot against Jesus. They send in the B-Team to continue trying to catch Jesus in some inconsistency. These second tier folks decide to join forces with those sympathetic to Herod. The Herod sympathizers are probably also Jewish but of yet a different stripe. And they are slick so maybe working together they can catch Jesus in a clever trap.
I’ll go ahead and remind us one more time to check ourselves so we do not pile blame on Jews, then or now. Instead, we might do better to look at where we make unholy alliances today, where our own religious leaders fall short, where we ourselves are inconsistent, where Christianity is fractured theologically, politically, denominationally.
So… this unlikely coalition starts by buttering up Jesus: “You are beholden to no one, religious or political, you just do what you think is right, you speak from the heart.” This is a true assessment of who Jesus is and his approach to ministry, to religion, and to life. And it is the height of foolishness in the opinion of his questioners. They decide to try and catch him with this question; “Is it lawful to pay tax to Caesar, to the emperor?” Jesus may be all anti-establishment but he is here, in the temple; he remains entangled with Rome and the temple. HA! Gotcha!
It seems like Jesus answers quickly, like he has been pondering this economic conundrum for some time. This tax of which they speak, is a flat tax, a regressive tax, that falls much harder on poor people than on those with wealth.
“Anyone have a coin used to pay that tax?” (I can almost imagine Jesus pulling a coin out of someone’s ear, though maybe that would defeat his point. He would be left holding the coin.)
“Who do you see on the coin? Caesar? Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” Oh, this familiar phrase that we love to pull out, as if from someone’s ear, when we need to justify ourselves, as if it is the only thing Jesus ever said about money. “Jesus said, Give to the government what is owed. Render unto Caesar.” End of story. Need we say more?
There are at least two other ways to begin to understand more fully what Jesus is saying here. One is to remember that in the temple, where Jesus was having this conversation, a unique set of coins were used. If you wanted to make an offering you had to exchange your Roman money, with Caesar’s head on it, for the temple currency. If you wanted to buy the required animal to sacrifice, you had to deal with the money changers and acquire the temple currency, with the temple tax, so you could buy the sacrificial animal there in the temple courtyard. As Matthew tells it, this “render unto Caesar” moment happens the day after Jesus drives the money changers out of the temple. Maybe this is why this money issue even gets brought up. Jesus started it by turning over the tables of the temple moneychangers.
When Jesus asks to see the Roman coin, he is catching the religious folks in their own inconsistency. If they are so faithful, why do they have Roman currency in their possession in the temple anyway? The faithful religious should have only temple currency, if any. And what about that head of Caesar on the coin? Is that not an idol, clearly against the ten commandments – “You shall make no graven images.” If they are going to take things literally, Jesus can play that game. Matthew tells us the critics are amazed and astonished at this turn of events, being caught in their own trap. They leave to regroup, consult the A Team, and figure out their next steps.
This approach to the passage is totally legitimate and somehow I want more. Or maybe I feel caught in the same trap as the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and it makes me squirm too much.
I do wonder though if Jesus is thinking not only of the ten commandments, the law, but also looking back to another part the tradition, the prophets. It is one thing to say ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.’ But if we truly know the tradition we will know that all of it is God’s. There is nothing that isn’t God’s.
As YHWH speaks – through Isaiah – in chapter 45:
I am YHWH, there is no other.
I form light and create darkness.
I make peace and create calamity.
It is I, YHWH, who do all these things.
Everything is God’s, everything is made by God. We do not own it, Caesar does not own it. It belongs to God, if ownership is even a thing. So Jesus can say, ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ but none of it is really Caesar’s anyway. It all belongs to God; it is all God’s to begin with and to end with and all in between.
(This makes precious little sense to those of us steeped in and swimming in capitalism. Of course everything is owned by someone and if it is not, it should be bought and sold very soon.)
While we are thinking about it ‘all belonging to God,’ we might turn again to the verses from Isaiah 45. One of the things that belongs to God is Cyrus, the Persian conqueror of Babylon who sends the people back to their homes after their time of exile. The people have every right to be suspicious of Cyrus and yet YHWH says, through Isaiah, that Cyrus is being used to give them freedom.
Thus says YHWH to the Anointed One, Cyrus,
whom I have taken by the right hand,
for whom I have subdued nations,
stripped the loins of monarchs
and thrown open all doors
so that even the town gates cannot be shut:
I will go before you and level the mountains;
I called you by name,
conferring on you an honored title,
even though you do not know me.
How can this be, a leader who does not even know the God of Israel being used by YHWH, even called the Anointed One, the Messiah? Is this really how God works? Everything is God’s but doesn’t this seem kind of scandalous? Maybe no more scandalous than, as Dr Patricia Tull observes, how in this same passage in Isaiah, YHWH claims to be the creator of light and dark, good and evil.
I form light and create darkness.
I make peace and create calamity.
This is quite different from how the tradition tells it in Genesis 1 where God created light from dark and God only calls things good, there is no evil, at least not yet. Things that make you go hmmmm.
It may not be right to take this next step, to play these two texts off each other, but the lectionary started it.
When the religious leaders ask Jesus about taxes and paying Caesar, he doesn’t say – “Well now, Caesar isn’t so bad, just look at Cyrus. God can use anyone. Caesar is the new Cyrus. Caesar will save us just like Cyrus did.” No, Jesus says “Give Caesar what he is due.”
Is Jesus thinking that Caesar is due nothing because he creates nothing. He does not form light, only darkness and confusion. He does not create peace, only calamity. Caesar is due… nothing? But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says give Caesar what is Caesar’s and “give God what is God’s.”
That opens up a whole other question: what does belong to God? That is enough to get rid of Jesus’ opponents.
But the questions don’t go away. They don’t even change all that much over two thousand years. What is God’s? What is Caesar’s? Is any of it ours? With whom do we share it, should we share it?
It so happens that this coming week we will receive the annual pledge letter on the listserv, asking how much money you – and I – are able to pledge to the work of the church in the coming year. I feel a little sheepish – and not a little manipulative – even mentioning this after all this tax talk. And it only makes real how difficult the question of money remains for challengers – and followers – of Jesus.
Thank you for being part of this generous and generative congregation of Jesus followers, where we can ask these questions with each other, wondering together what is God’s and what is ours to share. And how shall we deal with Caesar?