Friday, October 14, 2011

Who's your daddy? God or Caesar?


Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They 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.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. NRSV


This reading is a continuation of the interchange between the religious/governmental leaders. Jesus has been telling them stories that convict them of not being faithful to God and God’s desire for a holy people. Now they think they have the ultimate gotcha! It is NOT about separation of church and state.

Matthew is writing after the destruction of the Temple and the setting is a dispute between 2 sects of Judaism – Pharisees and Christians. Only the Pharisees survived. The Herodians and Sadducees disappeared. The Herodians were closely allied with the Roman state with Herod – their puppet king. The Sadducees were closely linked to the Temple. The Pharisees, because they were organized around the synagogues and home rituals survived to be the base for modern Judaism – much changed from those days.

Jesus was speaking in at time when the Romans were the oppressors, the religious leaders were cooperating with the Romans and were getting rich will everyone else was becoming poorer and poorer and losing their land. The tax was hated as it symbolized oppression. It was a flat tax – all paid a denarius (a day’s wage for a Roman soldier). It was a terrible burden for most people, not so bad for Romans, and nothing to the religious leaders.

The religious authorities start out with obsequious compliments, which we know they don’t mean. And they set up their trap. Calling him a rabbi and asking him to offer a judgment (a common activity for rabbis – learned in the scriptures and called upon to decided points of the law). They think if he supports the tax, the followers will leave him. If he says don’t pay – the Romans will imprison or kill him. But Jesus catches them in their trap. By asking for the coin – he shows everyone that they are owned by Caesar – they are carrying his image (forbidden in Jewish Law) and that they are so rich that they can casually produce this coin – a day’s wage in silver). Everyone knows you can’t get rich like this unless you have sold out to the oppressors. Whatever the religious leaders might proclaim – they are not following their own traditions and faith.

So Jesus tosses them off – convicted by their own action (producing the coin). But then he says give to the emperor the things that are the emperor and to God that which is God’s. He is saying, in effect, you have sold out to the empire – therefore you belong to that not the reign of God. You are not bringing in the kingdom of God – you are opposing it by your deeds.

But the joke in it all is – everyone of the Jewish faith proclaims most every day in the Temple – Psalm 24:

The earth is the LORD'S and all that is in it, *
the world and all who dwell therein.
For it is he who founded it upon the seas *
and made it firm upon the rivers of the deep.
"Who can ascend the hill of the LORD? " *
and who can stand in his holy place?"
"Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, *
who have not pledged themselves to falsehood,
nor sworn by what is a fraud.
They shall receive a blessing from the LORD *
and a just reward from the God of their salvation."
Such is the generation of those who seek him, *
of those who seek your face, O God of Jacob.
Lift up your heads, O gates;
lift them high, O everlasting doors; *
and the King of glory shall come in.
"Who is this King of glory?" *
"The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in battle."
Lift up your heads, O gates;
lift them high, O everlasting doors; *
and the King of glory shall come in.
"Who is he, this King of glory?"
"The LORD of hosts,
he is the King of glory."

In the end – they can give all they want to the Emperor but God will have God’s way. It all belongs to God. They know this in their heart of hearts. As Bp Tutu and Martin Luther King, Jr were fond of quoting “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” God is already reigning when we turn to God and acknowledge that it is all gift. It is only ours to decide how to use it. Will we use our gifts to pile up more for ourselves “dying with the most toys?” Will use it to make the world a better place for all peoples. This is what Jesus is asking the religious leaders – are you going to be on God’s side helping to realize that dream – or not.

I think this is what the Occupy Wall Street protesters are saying – are you going to keep piling it up? Do you really want to do that? Or do you want to work for better education and opportunities for all. Life is very scary right now – almost 1 in 10 people cannot find work that they can do. Teachers are being cut – classrooms growing in numbers. Health care is scarce or non-existent for many. Any teacher can tell us – the key to educating kids is not fancy equipment – it is personal contact with the kids. Any health professional can tell you – access to care early plus prevention is the key to health. 1 out of 6 children do not know where or when their next meal will appear – how can kids grow and learn if they don’t get food? Immigration policy is a mess – it punishes those who want to work hard and raise their families in safety. Drugs and guns continue.

What Occupy Wall Street is saying – those of us who are suffering from unemployment, no health care and no education and no way to enter the system are asking those who have it all to look at how they got it. Who did they use to get there, how did the system work for them? It does not seem to say don’t achieve or go to forced sharing. Most of the messages I read are a plea for those in power to use that power for good not just to enrich themselves. I have been amazed at the Judeo-Christian words of the protests. I hope they keep on message and don’t turn to violence. I hope those with the power – the Congress, the wealthy, the religious leaders take heed and do something.

Jesus asks – “who’s your daddy” God or Caesar. Whose image do we bear?

Thanks to Howard Pilgrim for the exegesis.