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Visions from The Catacombs, Week before October 19, 2014

Matthew 22:15-22

15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

What I am Learning:

In the ongoing public debate, this time the Pharisees seek to put Jesus in a no-win situation. They ask him if it is lawful, according to Jewish law, to pay taxes to the emperor or not.

If he answered “Yes” then he would have been in trouble with the crowds who most certainly were tired of the taxes that supported the Roman occupation of Israel. These taxes have been calculated at between 38% and 43%.

If he answered “No” then I am certain that he would have been arrested by the Roman soldiers as he left the temple grounds.

Jesus answered by referring to a Psalm that everyone would know: give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. The obvious reference here is to

Psalm 24
1 The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;

What belongs to Caesar? Nothing.

What belongs to God? Everything.

Yea! God wins!

And then there is the matter of the coin itself. I always carry a small denarius in my wallet. Emperor Tiberius is shown in profile on the coin and the inscription reads “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.”

It would have been inappropriate for this coin to be used to pay an offering to God in the Temple. It likely would have been seen as an idol that should not be on temple grounds. It might have been necessary to use the coin in every day life. It might have been necessary to pay taxes with Roman currency. But the fact that they had the coin with them on temple grounds and were willing to publicly show the coin would have revealed the Pharisees and Herodians as idolaters and collaborators with the Romans.

As you may know, when the first century speakers quoted a part of scripture, they were really quoting a whole passage. Here is another portion of Psalm 24

3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.

I think it quite likely that when he refers to Psalm 24 his listeners, both the crowd and the Pharisees would have heard the whole thing in their heads. These leaders had ascended to the hill of the Lord. They were standing in his holy place and had unclean hands. They had lifted their souls to what was false.

In just a few words, Jesus avoids being arrested, avoids offending the crowds, and delivers a crushing critique of both the Roman Empire as a form of idolatry and the religious elites as idolaters.

The problem is that just showing that Jesus was a good debater doesn’t really count for much. The Gospel writers in general, including Matthew, all have an agenda to show Jesus in a good light. Besides this, it really doesn’t do much for our own discipleship to simply think of Jesus as a good debater —there were many good debaters and not all of them are worth following!

Jesus is actually getting at a much bigger problem here than who the all-time greatest debater is: What are we to do when we are complicit in institutions and structural systems that oppress us and/or other human beings? What do we do when we benefit from the exploitation of the earth, other human beings and those who will live after us?

There are rare earth minerals that make up the computer on which I am writing this, and the cell phone, tablet or computer you are reading this on. There are people who work in horrendous conditions trying to mine those minerals and who get little in return.

(For more on this whole topic, read Cynthia Moe-Lobeda's book: Resisting Structural Evil.)

Yet communication on behalf of God’s way of mutuality is itself a good thing. What are we to do?

How far would we have to go to remove ourselves from being complicit in economic systems that harm God’s beloved planet and people?

Would I have to buy ten acres, live in a shack, and grow all my own food and catch all my water from the rain?

But then I would still be putting out a carbon footprint!

Wouldn’t Jesus himself, just by living in that time, have been participating to some degree in the empire? He was taxed too. Whenever people bought food for him they paid taxes that eventually supported the whole Roman system.

Jesus was also complicit in the Roman system just by being alive!

Where Jesus differs from the public religious leaders of his day was that he recognized that the Roman system was not of God, he sought to withdraw his support of that system and he openly advocated for wholesale change.

Jesus did not claim how well he did in the Roman system was a sign of God’s love for him as many of the religious leaders claimed.

Jesus was clear that the Roman domination culture and its economy were not God’s will for those in Palestine nor for the Roman people themselves.

Jesus publicly called people to find their collective nonviolent power to work for change. He was willing to risk his life to free others from the shackles of despair.

Jesus was willing to stay in the messy business of such change, knowing that even his basic needs were in some way contributing to the system he wanted to change.

God’s love for us is not dependent on far we withdraw from supporting unjust systems. God’s love empowers us to move in that direction because we no longer have to justify ourselves by how much stuff we own or what IPhone we have or if we have an IPhone at all. Jesus invites us to join God in a neighbor love that includes loving ourselves.

It is clear that so much of the way our economy works is not God’s will. All of our hands are unclean from the idolatry of the stock market, consumer products and the marketing that promotes them as the ultimate good. Jesus invites us to pull the denarii out of our pockets and see them for the idols they are. Jesus invites us to join the God who owns everything in reordering the world.

Yea! God wins! And so do we, everyone else and the whole planet!