20th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – Anglican Parish of Maroochydore, 18.10.2020
Matthew 22, 15-22
So, Friends, how are you enjoying the election campaigns that are flooding our media?!
You can flick between what’s happening in the USA, where Donald Trump and John Biden are trying to outdo each other.
And then turn your attention to all-female version of such a political battle, here in QLD, where both, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and the leader of the opposition, Deb Frecklington, have this week been campaigning in the north of the state, each making substantial monetary promises – particularly significant in the current COVID-19-economic downturn.
Fortunately, Australian culture is more reserved in its political expressions. Nonetheless, the QLD elections, too, are about jousting for strategic advantage, and doing so using “political talk”. – It’s not for nothing that some have suggested: “Never trust a politician.”
What is implied in this, is the fact that behind all campaigns is a political agenda, which, usually is about power (they do want to win that election, after all!), and which employs manipulative tactics to achieve this goal.
How fabulous that God’s Spirit brings us a text of political jousting in the midst of not one but two election campaigns!
For the Pharisees and the Herodians were political factions in the NT.
The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the time. They were devout, make no mistake about it, and saw God as the only one to be ruling the People of Israel. They loathed Roman occupation and were intent on exerting their authority in keeping people and worship pure.
The Herodians were supporters of King Herod Antipas who was a Jewish king only through allowances made by Rome – he had no real power at all, though wealth and status are comfortable, aren’t they? So, Herod and his followers were much obliged to Rome – and were hated by their kinsfolk for colluding with the enemy.
These two groups did not like each other in the least.
Oh yes, this is a political text alright! We have before us a bipartisan attempt at trapping the common foe: Jesus.
Remember that our Gospel texts over the past few weeks are all set during Holy Week! Jesus rides into town to much cheering; then he goes to the temple and causes a ruckus, calling everyone thieves.
He heals the lame and the blind – who does he think he is?! What’s your authority?
But instead of an answer, Jesus tells a few parables – about tenants of a vineyard and about a wedding banquet and who will, in fact, join in the celebrations.
The religious leaders know full well whom Jesus is talking about.
And enough is enough. This guy was a threat – to their political existence but also to the temple cult
Richard W. Swanson pictures the scene as a masquerade. The Pharisees send some of their students to go along with, to pose as Herodians – might they even have donned some of the Herodians’ notorious “gorgeous clothes”, instead of wearing the modest garb of observant Jews? We can’t put it past them because the two groups are about to put Jesus in a lose/lose situation, but it mustn’t be too obvious.
What’s at stake?
The census tax, which the Roman emperor imposed in 6AD – a tax of 1 denarius per person – a vast amount of money, for one, and thus an enormous burden on a largely peasant population. But there was another reason, too.
Have a look at these images of a denarius coin from those times.
We might look at these pictures and think nothing much of them, other than: oh, yeah, that’s interesting history. I mean, we’re so used to Queen Elizabeth II’s image on coins. So, okay, here is a Roman emperor.
To get the full meaning of abhorrence, we need to know what the words around the pictures say.
Here they are in Latin. Due to a lack of space on the coin, some of the words were abbreviated, though everyone knew exactly what they said – much like the texting type used today. So, the bits that have been omitted to save space are in brackets:
Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus
Which, translated means: Tiberius Caesar (or, emperor Tiberius), August Son of the Divine Augustus.
“August” means à venerable or majestic, so we can further rewrite the title as
Tiberius Caesar, the Venerable Son of the Divine Majesty or … “Son of God” for short.
And within every devout Jew an echo rings out: “You shall not make yourself false image…”
The coin equates to an idol!
Now the flipside doesn’t get any better. It reads: Pontifex Maximus, which means: High Priest – another term, holy for observant Jews.
So then, here we have masquerading politicians come to Jesus. And their words are sweet as honey in their flattery and insincerity – QUOTE – but their question is a closed one – all questions that start with a verb invite only a “YES” or “NO” answer.
And whichever way Jesus chooses between those two options, he will be in trouble. One way or the other, his opponents will have dirt on him.
And that’s why I find Swanson’s suggestion that the Pharisees have ‘dressed up’ convincing: Jesus mustn’t know who’s asking him. If he thinks it’s only the Herodians, who have no issue with paying the tax – because: hey, don’t bite the hand that feeds you, right?! – so, if Jesus were to agree with them, then the Pharisees are right there to bear witness to such collusion and blasphemy.
And if Jesus denies compliance of the tax, well thank you very much, the Herodians have something more to use to endear themselves for profit to the Romans.
It’s just, Jesus sees right through them. “You hypocrites” he says. Literally, “hypocrite” translates as “play actor” – So then, in this comical dress up scene: “You play actors!”
You, who show something on the outside – a costume, a mask, an in-character-role, smoothly, flawlessly rehearsed speeches, words of flattery and persuasion…
You are something completely different on the inside – full of evil intent; bent on power and manipulative. And all of it, ultimately for your own personal gain.
That’s your hidden agenda; and the result of such agendas is always is the same: it destroys relationships.
Friends, the questions may be different, but such conspiracies exist in our world, too. We come across them every time when complex issues are oversimplified, or when people are categorised, or when we compartmentalise our lives and try to manipulate Jesus as siding one way or the other.
Jesus refuses to play the game.
“You hypocrites. Show me the denarius, the coin.”
Nowhere are we told that Jesus held the coin himself. So, imagine the masquerading Pharisees holding out their hand with the coin in it: now they themselves are caught because they, literally, have idolatry on their hands! (not to add that they’ve also disobeyed the other commandment of lying …)
Whose face is that? à Caesar’s
Then give back to Caesar what is his…
And give to God what’s due to God.
Did you notice? Jesus deepens the question, turning a conversation about taxes into a question of faith and life.
As Rev’d Michael Marsh says: “If the coin belongs to the emperor, then the human being belongs to God. Each has been marked with the image of its owner. We have been coined in the image of God. [Or], [a]s the Book of Common Prayer says, we have been “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.””
“Render to Caesar, … render to God…”
Initially, this sentence seems balanced in its two parts. However, the truth is that the latter part, in fact, relativises the first. Much like Jesus is heard saying at the end of this momentous week. Standing in front of Pontius Pilate, he reminds him that the power he has – like everything else in life – is given by God.
As humans, we have the tendency to compartmentalise, to fragment life. We create a long list of duality:
- Church and State
- Religion and Politics
- Sacred and Secular
- Saved and ‘not saved’
- Tithes and Taxes
- Spirit and Matter
- Heaven and Earth
- Humanity and Divinity
The list can go on and on.
Such rubrics falsely assume that the two sides don’t have anything to do with each other, or, worse, that they are in opposition to each other. And so we have our…
… prayer life, our religious life, our family life, our political life, our working life, our love life, our economic life…
But that’s not who Jesus is or how he lived – the one who is both and at the same time fully human and fully divine.
Jesus doesn’t offer simple “Yes”/”No” answers.
Rather, Jesus invites us to step into and live in the tension of both realities. That’s what he did, where he lived.
Remember again that this political jousting scene is taking place in Holy Week: while we may rejoice at Jesus’ cleverness in today’s text; we know how the week ended.
And it did so because Jesus does not avoid the struggle. Rather, his faithfulness is to God’s Kingdom. His currency is grace, forgiveness and redemption, which has irreversibly transformed our world.
Render to God…
We will not be able to skirt the contentious issues of our time, be they political, social or personal.
The text teaches us that they aren’t questions of right and /or wrong; but, instead about devotion and faithfulness to God’s Kingdom.
And such faithfulness is about doing the hard work at the depths of our image.
Knowing to whom we belong – and, equally important, to whom others belong, too — will be crucial in the way we continually learn to pay back, to surrender, to render to God ourselves and one another;
and how we do that for ourselves, those whom we love, our neighbours and our enemies.
Holding the tension thus, we follow Jesus’ Way, becoming the currency of God’s life in the world.
Rev’d Kathrin Koning
Matthew Flinders Anglican College, Buderim
Brown, Jeanine K. – Commentary on Matthew 22, 15-22
https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=165 retrieved 08.10.2020
Matussek, Karsten – Predigt zu Matthäus 22, 15-22: Frei vom Ich – Frei für Dich!
Marsh, Michael K. – Interrupting the Silence
Swanson, Richard W. – Provoking the Gospel
Trick, Cornelia – Jesus und die Politik
https://www.predigt-online.de/prewo/frame_jesus_und_die_politik.htm retrieved 16.10.2020
Reference for the image of the Denarius coin used: