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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 22:15-22

Living in the Tensions of Life

The Dormitory Bible Study

Each week, they put aside their schoolbooks and gathered together after dinner in someone’s dorm room. They did not review their calculus or chemistry notes. They did not discuss politics or poetry. They reserved the evening for a thoughtful study of the Scriptures. Week after week, they would read the passages from the Bible and explore what it meant and how to apply it to their lives. During their study of the book of Matthew, they came to the 22nd chapter and read today’s lesson. One student observed that the key question came from the opposition. Jesus did not raise the issue about taxes. You will not find the topic in the Sermon on the Mount. He does not have a parable describing what a disciple should do. The Herodians and the disciples of the Pharisees presented the question.

The group noted that discussions on politics and taxes littered the pages of newspapers and magazines and filled the airwaves of TV and radio shows. A person would have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to have overheard or read something on the subject, but it was not a topic of interest for Jesus. After they completed their inductive study answering the basic who, what, where, and when questions, a silence fell on the group. Finally, a brave coed asked, “OK, I don’t get it. What is the answer? Should we pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

Jesus does not give a direct answer. Some would suggest that his answer is implied, perhaps, but that still leaves other questions unanswered—what belongs to God? And what happens when the obligations we have to Caesar infringe on our obligations to God? Can there be a clearly defined wall of separation between the church and the state?

The young coed offered some profound insight when she later said; “Maybe when it comes to dealings between Jesus and Caesar, we just never know when we have crossed the line.”[1]

How true! Jesus often did not give definitive guidelines. He often avoided simple prescriptions to complex issues. He declined requests for simple remedies. In his confrontation with the Herodians, he calls them to a radical discipleship but leaves the responsibility of applying the message to each person. His response forces both his critics and the disciples to struggle with living in the tensions of life. We can better appreciate the lesson of this passage when we understand the characters and the situation.

The Unlikely Alliance

Matthew tells us that the Pharisees had sent their disciples with the Herodians. What an unlikely alliance! The two groups stood at opposite ends of the political spectrum. It was the ancient equivalent of an alliance between the Teamsters and the management of Wal Mart forming to challenge the President on foreign policy. The Herodians were the political compromisers. There was no religious ideal so sacred, no moral belief so revered that could not be altered, amended, or ignored to protect their political and economic interests. They would readily sacrifice principle for power. The Pharisees were the non-violent extremists. They were one stepp removed from the Zealots who advocated armed resistance rather than pay a tax with a coin that had engraved on it the head of a Roman emperor.

The Pharisees were separatists. They avoided anything that could potentially contaminate them—morally, socially, politically, or spiritually. Notice that the Pharisees themselves did not go to Jesus. They sent their disciples. The true Pharisees would have nothing to do with the compromising Herodians. They allowed their disciples to work with the Herodians because these apprentices had not yet completed their training and taken their final vows of purity. It was still safe for them to engage in unholy alliances.

The dialogue between Jesus and this unholy alliance reveals their true intent. They sought to trap Jesus with a self-incriminating question; perfectly legal in the absence of a 5th Amendment Bill of Rights. Notice the contrast, the Herodians and the disciples of the Pharisees wanted to quibble about the particulars; Jesus offered them a radical faith. The unholy alliance wanted to reduce spirituality to a manageable set of religious rules and regulations. They wanted to know where the line in the sand was drawn. Jesus challenged them to an unreserved, unqualified, life of obedience.

The Pharisaical mind set is still very popular today. It is a disguised attempt to simplify the faith to avoid the challenge of radical discipleship. The more typical church-goers, commonly referred to as the seekers, prefer uncomplicated messages that explicitly tell them right from wrong. They want to reduce the life of faith to a few manageable rules of conduct. They read books about One-minute discipleship. They prefer pithy sayings to long sermons. They would rather wear a necklace with a gold plated cross than carry a wooden one. They would lift a crystal goblet filled with fine wine but decline the misshaped clay cup of tribulation.

But faith and life are not simple - they are complicated. They are filled with ambiguities and tensions. Sometimes the rightness and wrongness of an issue becomes too blurry to distinguish.

Jesus understood and accepted the tensions created by a life of faith, so he could easily sidestep the trap set by the unholy alliance. Faith cannot be reduced to a few simple rules. Just as he refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery, Jesus refuses to explicitly state what a person should or should not do about taxes. For Jesus, a living faith extends beyond petty rules. Discipleship calls a person to a radical lifestyle. Discipleship is more than follow a few prescribed codes of conduct. Discipleship transforms the whole person.

It’s Not About Taxes

Herein lies the crux of the issue; it’s not about taxes but about faith and practice. It is about “…whether it is right to recognize Caesar as one's sovereign or whether Yahweh alone must be held to be king."[2] The coin issued by the Romans, had the head of the emperor on one side, and printed on the other side were the words, "Tiberius, Caesar, majestic son of the divine Augustus." The coin served as a portable idol. The Pharisees were uncomfortable even holding such a coin. Jesus embarrassed them by asking for one. The truly pious Jew would not have one in his coin bag but someone in that unholy alliance did. By producing the coin, the person publicly admitted that he had compromised his religious piety. He had acquiesced to Roman rule for personal gain.

Some of us may struggle to fully appreciate the ethical dilemma posed by the unholy alliance. We have been conditioned to believe that we live in a democracy that aligns with Judeo-Christian values. The portraits of the great statesmen of history grace our currency in recognition of their contributions to our national heritage not for idol worship. We even inscribe on the currency, at least for the time being, the pseudo-belief that our trust is in God, not in monetary wealth. There are no tensions, no contradictions, and no ethical dilemmas. But I wonder if we are just as much victims as those first century Jews who were persecuted and oppressed by Caesar. “A ‘free market’ economy has many ways of enslaving, all in the name of freedom.”[3] The chains are subtle but just as confining. The comic strip Calvin and Hobbes illustrated the subtly attractive but imprisoning yoke of our materialistic society.

The boy and the Tiger are standing in front of their creation of a snowman. Hobbes observes that he does not look happy. Calvin responds, “He’s not. He knows it’s just a matter of time before he melts. The sun ignores his existence. He feels his existence is meaningless.” In the final form, Hobbes asks, “Is it?” And with his usually poignant wit Calvin replies, “Nope. He’s about to buy a big-screen TV.”

The tragedy is that too many of us do not understand that we have abandoned our faith in God in our quest for personal happiness and self-fulfillment through material possessions. We like the members of the unholy alliance, have acquiesced to the values of our surrounding culture. Rather than find fulfillment in our relationship with God, we fill our lives with entertainment and things. We hope that the latest gadgets will fill the void.

The Tension of Amazement

Matthew records at the end of this tense interchange that the unholy alliance was amazed by his response. I think their amazement was partially due to an uncomfortable feeling that came over them as they considered the full consequences of his words. Just where are the lines between faithfulness to God and to Caesar? How have I acquiesced to the cultural values and priorities? Am I committed to a radical discipleship or do I prefer simple and non-demanding rules?

Jesus calls us to give to God what is God’s. He does not give us the specifics. In the ambiguity, we feel discomfort and uncertainty. But then again, maybe he does not need to give us the specifics! Maybe we already know them, but are just not willing to admit it! Maybe we just do not want to accept the tensions of faith and life!

[1] William H. Willimon, “Christ and Caesar,” Pulpit Resource, (October 17, 1999, Vol. 27, No. 4).

[2] Dale Brunner, Matthew, Commentary, Vol. 2, (Waco: Word Publishing, 1990), p. 782.

[3] Willimon, op. cit.

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