We have been with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry for almost a year now and it is drawing near its end. It’s drawing to a close and as the crisis that will bring about the end of Jesus life gets closer it seems like the main players are starting to play politics with each other.
Now that’s something we know about, right? Playing politics. It’s a way of treating each other that is played out in our newspapers every day and nightly on our screens. Playing politics: not engaging in the political arena for the sake of principle and the good of the people, but maneuvering and debating, doing what you have to for the sake of personal gain and retaining power. And as the stakes get higher our propensity towards playing politics seems to increase. Our favored way to feel safe seems to be all about throwing our opponent to the lions – or nailing him to a cross as the case may be.
They have come to Jesus in a public arena with a question that is designed to set him up. Designed to cast him in a bad light so that the issue at hand – their care of the people – will be over shadowed. The question they pose in this story is a very dangerous one. Judea is an occupied country. This tax to which the Pharisees and Herodians refer is a Roman tax. It was instituted in 6CE when Judea became a Roman province and historians believe that it consisted of a flat annual rate of about a day’s wages. It was a tax imposed by the foreign occupier upon the occupied – those who have had their land forcibly removed and who must endure the ongoing and oppressive rule of this foreign government and its soldiers. And not only that, but the coin in question has on it the image of Caesar, together with a title which refers to Caesar as divine. Such a coin and the tax it paid would have been a deep and awful affront - both politically and theologically, not to mention economically – to the Jewish people. It was propaganda - a daily reminder of who was in charge. This was the tax that some believe strengthened a nationalist movement that would result in a violent uprising and the ultimate destruction by the Romans of the temple – that most holy place - in the year around 66CE. The tensions around this tax and the coin used to pay it would have been high for much of Jesus’ life. For Jesus to say he rejects the tax would put him in a place of open rebellion against the occupier and to accept it would be to a deep offense to the Jewish people and their faith.
It’s very hard for most of us to grasp the seriousness of this question. The weight and the meaning that it held, the things that it stood for and the bind that Jesus finds himself in, are simply beyond what many of us, who do not live with such occupation or oppression, can understand. There are sections of our community who might grasp some of it – those who have opportunity taken away from them because of the ways we live and the things we say are OK and who are reminded daily in so many ways of their second class status. The poor, people of color, those who are differently abled people. Those who are on the outside of privilege and power would know something of what it is like to be set up in this way and to know that whichever way they turn they will say or do the wrong thing and most likely be cast as the problem taking attention and focus away from the ways we live that make sure they stay on the outside.
But what I can understand – what I think most of us can relate to is the playing politics. We see it, we take part in it, all the time. And not just on national news channels but in local politics….and in our offices – even in our schools and in our homes. Parties who are in relationship, who entered into something for all the right reasons, people with a common goal in mind who find themselves in positions where there seems more need to set each other up, offer false choices and not give ground rather than work together, rather than remember the real reasons they are in relationship in the first place. Seems like layers of hurt, fear of what we have to loose, can lead us so into places where we feel the need set up those who share, or at one point shared, common hungers and needs, common desires and hopes.
But Jesus just refuses to play that game. He will not engage in debate, he will not spring into a defensive posture. Instead he deftly returns the ones who are trying to entrap him to a truth that they have all at some point, in some way, as people of the Jewish faith agreed upon.
Sure he says, give Caesar what he claims belongs to him, but also remember to return to God that which belongs to God. Well, they all know what that really means; that at the basis of their faith lies the claims that as the creator it all belongs to God. Jesus brings to the surface, brings into the light, something that sits at the very foundation of the faith they share and asks them to think about their own question with this in mind. To think about how this truth plays out in their own lives.
We might do the same. As people of faith we might as we disagree or interpret differently, as we become embattled or threatened by something new, remember the things that binds us. We might remember that both we and those we encounter are created and loved by God, we might remember that the things we have and the things we want have been created by this loving God for the good of all people. We might remember that it all belongs to God and that ownership of the right idea, the right way, is not ours to claim but will be shown to us by God as we love and care for each other, as we use our resources to make sure that all have what they need.
And we can perhaps hold the same thought in our workplaces, in our schools, in our homes. That person who just really gets on your nerves – they belong to God. Those you live with, that neighbor – God’s. The panhandler, that grocery clerk, the teacher, the mean kid, all God’s. All people in whom God takes delight and places great hope. The things we have and the things we want - all God’s- to be used of the sake of love and justice and peace.
And this call by Jesus to get from beyond our defensiveness and to remember the things that bind us, well, it’s really a call to the powerful. We have to be very careful to turn to those without power and ask them to remember above all that all we have belongs to God and give up their claim on what they need to be well. That’s just another power play, another way to take everyone’s attention away from what’s really going on.
Jesus is talking to the Pharisees and the Herodians, people of power and influence. He is asking those of us who have some power, to remember that we have some power, and to pay less attention to guarding that power, guarding the things we have and control and remember first our connection, our responsibility to God and to our neighbor. We are being asked to listen and respond with love and care, especially when there are our sisters and brothers, those we are connected to through God are trying the ways they have been hurt and abused, kept from what they need and how we can help.
Jesus gives himself, his whole self to this way. Our most powerful God, gives himself to us as a human amongst us and asks us to remember the things that binds us to each other and to God. We his people, well we felt threatened and we took his life. But this way, the life he offers cannot be put out. It lives with us still, in the Spirit with us, in these stories and these sacraments, in you, asking us no matter how many times we miss it, no matter how many times we mess up, to follow, to put aside our need for power and listen carefully to the things that bind us to each other and to God. In these things, in this way we will know peace. Amen.