In Matthew 22:15-22, we get stuck on the words “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s” we forget the whole thing’s a trap.
Proper 24A | Matthew 22:15-22
I don’t know if any of you have been outside in…you know…the last few years…but there are people really concerned with the mixing of church and state. Have you heard that? Or when people start talking about what is or is not on a Starbucks cup I usually ask “is it pretty?”
Whether we’re talking about Christmas wishes or whether or not a human being can get treatment at a hospital, there are some genuine questions we have about the role of faith in our society, not just our government. We are literally arguing about who we are to one another.
Most of us know this morning’s gospel story as the Jesus-tells-us-to-pay-taxes-gospel. For a lot of people, this is the question of the hour and the perfect example of how to be a Christian in the world.
That perfect example, of course, reveals much about how we see the character of God, of Jesus, and the Kin-dom.
And the most popular reading is the one it sounds like when we focus on Jesus’s words
Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s
and we go Yeah, right on. Keep it separate and be chill.
And that sounds right, doesn’t it? But it also seems…odd. It seems strangely out-of-place here. That reading, I mean, given all that we’ve just been reading in Matthew.
Remember how Jesus was teaching his disciples about a generous vision of God back in chapter 20? A vision of going out and finding more and more people to make sure they all get a day’s wage. And he heals two blind men who shout, calling him Son of David!
He comes into Jerusalem mocking Rome and trashes the Temple. He teaches challenging parables and the Pharisees and leaders start looking to get rid of him. They start talking about having him tried for blasphemy and killed. They aren’t messing around.
This is what we’re reading about. This isn’t about employer-based contraception coverage or a doctor refusing to help a patient. It’s not even really about taxes, if we’re being honest.
It’s a trap!!!
The substance of this passage is about the trap — the leaders’ animosity toward Jesus. I don’t read this passage and think “perpetual instruction for church/state relations!” At best, we’re trying to pull a nugget of wisdom from a rich context and turning it into a platitude. At worst we’re misunderstanding the whole thing!
First and foremost, this is a trap. It is set for Jesus so they can have him killed. This isn’t a story about money, it’s about them. It’s about what they are trying to do to Jesus. And they start by buttering him up:
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.
But remember that they aren’t being honest. These words are false by intention. So we should be wary of them.
They read a bit leading; like we know you try to be color-blind and not judge people by the color of their skin or we know you treat the rich and poor the same. They sound right, but it isn’t a sentiment Jesus ever describes. It sounds fake…for Jesus and for us.
Seeing their faces
There’s a linguistic image in the Greek which makes this interaction even better than you think. That line about partiality has a more literal translation:
…for you do not look upon the face of people.
They’re saying Oh, you don’t see their faces which is a lot like saying I don’t see your color. Or gender or age or whatever. you do not look upon the face of people.
This is key because Jesus responds to their question about taxes with a far more telling introduction to his teaching:
Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?
He sees what they’re doing, right?
And he responds to that rather than their question. He’s not really answering their question so much as answering the underneath problem; the one beneath the skin.
But here’s the best part. Remember that a hypocrite is literally an actor. In the Greek world, actors were hypocrites who wore masks on their faces. They quite literally pretend to be someone else.
And they’re the ones saying Jesus doesn’t see people’s faces and he’s like, I see yours and what’s behind it! If Jesus were in a rap battle he’d drop the mic, but he’s not done. He has to show the people that this has everything to do with seeing their faces. Their real faces.
The Visual Parable
Jesus likes to teach in stories, but he also loves visual teachings, too. He likes to show people much more than tell. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan call this moment a bit of guerrilla street theater. A big demonstration for all the people to see. But he isn’t acting.
So he gets these Pharisees to fish in their pockets for a coin. And there are some elements here which all paint a picture for us about who these particular Pharisees really are. One of them takes a Roman coin out of his pocket.
Now, the guy probably isn’t supposed to have that coin there. It’s sort of like that gotcha moment that only makes sense in a particular context. Like when former President George HW Bush had trouble understanding the checkout at a grocery store. His not knowing made him seem out of touch with the common person. This may be like that.
So Jesus gets them to look at the coin and they see a face on it. Emperor Tiberius’s face. And it said something like this:
“Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus”
For Caesar is “Lord and God” of the realm.
Jesus’s words about giving to the emperor the things which are his and to God what are God’s comes as they stare at Tiberius’s face. As they read that he is God.
And the words Jesus doesn’t need to say appear in the minds of all the people standing there, watching in awe of him and of this moment. They flash in understanding and fear and utter amazement, so clearly they don’t need to be said.
The words Jesus doesn’t need to utter:
Pretenders, this is the face of your God.
Faces of Love
There’s a book I liked to read the kids when they were a little younger. It showed the great connection between all of us; that below the skin where our many shades of pigmentation are different, we have the same blood. It’s red. And we feel it the same. We hurt and bleed the same.
I loved the image because it didn’t simply say we are all the same. It said we share a common humanity; we feel, we hurt, we love, we can see beyond the surface of one another.
It pushes us outside of our heads, the politics and the need to pretend we all have the same circumstance or that Jesus loves you exactly the same as your neighbor, like a puzzle; a riddle offered by Gollum. And instead we go into our hearts and feel our empathy, compassion, and love for them. That they may be hurting like we hurt.
This is why the question of church and state and taxes and all that junk is so far removed from Jesus’s sense of value and identity here. He’s thinking about the generous, compassionate love of God being made manifest right here. In us. He can see it on our faces and we can see it that way too.
That’s what we can see, when we look in each other’s faces. We can see faces of love. Generous, hope-filled faces who long to make God’s beautiful kin-dom come right here in this place.
We can see the real faces, full of the vibrant living of the love of God and in the sharing we bring the kin-dom closer as a love offering to God.