Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 24A] - October 16, 2011 (Matthew 22:15-22)

It seems like everyone is thinking or talking about loopholes these days and how they supposedly make the nation’s tax codes unfair. What with the economy on shaky ground and would-be presidential candidates’ touting their alternate tax plans, people everywhere seem disgusted that loopholes exist, and they're demanding an end to them. They go against our idea of fairness—lurking deep in the tiny print, buried beneath all the red tape—those areas of bureaucratic ambiguity that allow the clever or the qualified to circumvent the law. We tend to be resentful of those who can find and exploit the loopholes, and yet, if we’re honest, we wouldn’t exactly pass up an opportunity to have them work in our favor, if you know what I mean.

There is no telling if the Pharisees and the Herodians had found loopholes in Caesar's tax code that demanded a yearly payment for each male above the age of fourteen and each woman between twelve and sixty-five. I’d bet they had, but I have no proof. Both groups were entrenched in the power structures of the day. The Herodians were a group that supported the reign of King Herod, the local puppet of Caesar. Not much is known of them, but they were likely well-connected with people up top—like a modern-day special interest group, maybe. They would have supported the payment of Caesar’s head tax because it helped prop up the system that kept Herod, their fave, in power, even if they had found a way to be exempt from it themselves.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, liked to pretend they weren’t that politically involved, but they certainly could play the game enough to keep themselves at the center of Jewish temple life. Although they never openly organized, let’s say, an “Occupy Temple Street” rally against Caesar’s policies, the Pharisees probably resented Caesar’s tax because—first of all—they knew it was a constant reminder to the Jewish people of their Roman oppression, and—second of all—dealing with the emperor’s printed and minted money raised all kinds of issues regarding false idols and graven images and disobeying the first commandment.

"Show me a coin."
So, both the Pharisees and the Herodians find the issue of paying taxes to the megalomaniacal leader of a foreign military power the perfect way to trap Jesus in his own logic. They consider it the question that will finally do him in. For if Jesus supports paying the tax outright, then he will reveal himself to be party to the Roman law and deeply unpopular with the people. But if he rejects the tax, the Herodians and other local leaders will be able to accuse him of treason or inciting a rebellion. In every commentary I checked, they labelled this the “horns of a dilemma.”  I’d love to know the origin of that expression.  It sounds pointy.  In any case, this is a situation where Jesus can’t win, a situation where Jesus has to choose between two equally bad alternatives, unless, of course, Jesus can find…a loophole. This is a time when we hope Jesus might find a way out of answering directly, of exploiting something in the system that will get him—and us, of course—off the hook.

Already by Jesus’ day emperors and other rulers were imprinting their images on coins to serve as currency for the empire. This system of monopolizing all commerce transactions by inscribing the ruling powers’ mottos and likeness on tokens of common exchange was one of the most effective methods for an empire to extend its authority into every aspect of human life. Soon people would no longer barter for goods and services in the market—(“two camels, say, for a hectare of wheat”)--but they would trade tokens and bills that could be backed by the emperors’ treasure. It’s not just that money made taxes easier to levy and collect; the emperor also essentially had a hand in every business deal that took place, investing, somehow, in every venture out there. I imagine that’s where the term “currency” came from: it was the circulation of money that could keep goods and services flowing, like a current.
Caesar's denarius coin
When the Pharisees present Jesus with one of the empire’s coins with which the tax was to be paid, Jesus shows them that it plainly has Caesar’s head on it. If it contains Caesar’s image, then it must be Caesar’s. In other words, Caesar has made this money and stamped his likeness on it, therefore, it belongs to Caesar and should be rendered to him. If this is how Caesar would like to run his empire—going around minting things of value so that he can eventually control and create wealth, then so be it—keep the system of denarii flowing back to him, Jesus says, corrupt though it may be. But then Jesus adds a phrase that is much more than just a loophole in that process. He throws the whole system on its head, so to speak: “And give to God the things that are God’s.”

The message? As it turns out, it is not just Caesar who has gone around and placed his image on certain things. As the Pharisees and maybe the Herodians surely would have known, each human being on earth bears God’s image. We have been created—male and female—in the image of God, fashioned, each in our own unique way, to reflect back to the Creator something of great value. We have each been formed and shaped with the idea that we are not just precious, but that we bear within us some of the very qualities of God. And, in Jesus’ economy, that also needs to flow back to the being who minted us, and, if the system works like it should, it will enrich the entire universe.

In Jesus’ statement to pay taxes to Caesar, we find the call to a life that is far more radical than anything we might otherwise be up to. It is more activitist than occupying Wall Street and more countercultural than forming a new political party. What Jesus means is that we are the currency through which God will deal change in the world. Created in his image, and redeemed from corruption through the cross of Christ, we are in circulation to God’s glory. And no matter how many other labels get attached to us, no matter how many other images are pounded into our brains, we will always, at our core, be forged in God’s own image.

And that means, with the Spirit’s power, we have the priviledge to interact with this world in much the same way as God does. It means we have the power to love and forgive as well as the power to hate and hold grudges. It means we have been granted the capacity to show compassion rather than indifference. It means we can choose generosity over greed, and selflessness over egocentrism. This is, in part, what it means to be created in God’s image, to bear his likeness. Sin causes us always to choose the latter options—the hate, the indifference, the greed, the selfishness—but in Jesus Christ, God still claims us for the good.

It also means that our lives don’t just matter to us and those with whom we share this planet, but that they matter, in fact, to God. It matters to God what we do with, for example, our money—all of it. It matters to God what we do with our bodies, our minds, our relationships, our sexuality, and our ability to create new life ourselves. And while we might not completely be set free yet from the emperor’s system of weights and balances and levying taxes, we can still begin direct to God’s purposes these things that are rightfully God’s.  We can still remember that, in Jesus Christ, God once more gives us lives that actually matter amidst so many world systems that assign worth and wealth rather arbitrarily, amidst a culture that says we must really only answer to ourselves, which is a total lie.

refugee with her identification card
I can’t help but think here of the Sudanese and Somali refugees I served in the streets of Cairo—a people who would risk almost everything for the chance to possess the blue refugee I.D. card issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The thing was only a little bigger than an index card, but for some reason, in the wacky way the world operates, it bestowed upon them some basic human rights and the chance to be resettled to a new home. It would often take them years to obtain it, and the majority of them would die or lose hope altogether before they’d get one. It was a sad system I didn’t understand (and one in which I somehow participated), but I did notice that in the meantime while they waited, they’d arrive in worship, week after week, tracing the cross in water on their forehead as they passed by the font, hearing once again the source and call of their true citizenship, reminding us privileged westerners that they knew they already had the only identity they card they’d ever need in the love of Jesus Christ.

Because, truth be told, at some point everything that we are will be handed over in death. At some point it won’t matter how many identity cards we’ve secured or how much extra wealth we’ve accrued. All that we’ve become will be given back, and all that we’ve kept will become someone else’s. And at that point, God will be the final recipient, that’s for sure, and there won’t be any loopholes that I know of.

I wonder, regarding my own life: on that day, will God finally get back something that was rightfully his, but had been withheld all the while in greed, selfishness, and spite? Or will he be receiving something that had been lovingly prepared for him out of a response to the generosity of his Son? I shudder to answer, for I think I know.

Yet regardless, in anticipation of that day, as we each answer that question for ourselves, perhaps we should organize a protest campaign. Occupy…let’s see…Monument Avenue!   At least the end of it here…every week. For that matter, every day!  Occupy Horsepen Road…and go ahead and occupy your cubicle at Reynolds packaging or Capital One. Occupy the nurse’s station at Bon Secours and Henrico Doctors. Occupy the locker at Godwin High School and your classroom at Short Pump Middle. Occupy your breakfast conversations each morning and the dinner table each evening Occupy all these places with the news of Jesus, just as God has so graciously occupied your hearts and maybe we can get a little of Jesus’ currency—the kind that makes all things new—circulating in the process.

Play along, if need be, with the world’s system of weights and measures, I.D. cards and head taxes, but all the while lifting hands and lives to the Lord above because “all that we have and all that we are all that we hope to be we give to God…

“We are an offering.  We are an offering.”

Thanks be to God!


 The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.