October 22, 2017
20th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Do you ever listen to the news and wonder if we’re asking the wrong questions, or if we’re having the wrong conversations?
I had that feeling this week as I heard the news media getting all wound up about what the President may or may not have said to the widow of a fallen soldier, and how his remarks may or may not have been interpreted by those who were listening. You probably heard what happened yourself. A congresswoman who was in the Oval Office when the President called the soldier’s wife claims he made an insensitive comment on the phone, and she went on TV to express her outrage. The President denied he ever said it. So the congresswoman went on Twitter and escalated her criticism. Meanwhile, the widow confirmed the congresswoman’s account. It struck me as a petty he-said, she-said kind of thing. And the media ate it all up. They just couldn’t stop reporting on the situation. And we couldn’t stop talking about it. “Did the President make these insensitive remarks or not?? And if he did, is this a sign that he has an empathy problem??” Hours and hours of airtime were devoted to these questions. This is the conversation we were having this week.
On Friday I heard two political pundits on opposite sides of the spectrum actually come together as they reflected on this story. They agreed, it is so discouraging how it all played out. “Here we are in a moment,” one of them said, “when something that ought to bring us together, something that there ought to be no partisan division about, a fundamental test of our unity and our decency, has become so irredeemably [twisted]… Just when you thought things couldn’t get more disheartening, they did.”
This story could have created an opportunity to ask all kinds of questions and have so many important conversations. Like, how do we as society care for the families of soldiers who have died? Or, how do we care for soldiers who survive such an attack but will live the rest of their lives with post-traumatic stress? Or, how can we prioritize diplomacy and peacemaking in order to reduce our military presence around the world and prevent these kinds of attacks from occurring in the first place? But this week, those weren’t the questions we were asking. We were asking the wrong questions and having the wrong conversations.
When the Herodians and the Pharisees come to Jesus and ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”, they’re asking the wrong question.
It’s a story most of us have probably heard before. If you’ve been in worship the past few Sundays you’ve heard how Jesus has enraged the religious leaders in Jerusalem by challenging their authority and condemning those who fail to recognize his ministry. Now the religious authorities approach him again. “OK, Jesus,” they say. “You’re so smart and you always say you know the truth. So tell us: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Here’s what you need to know. In Jesus’ day, Jews were forced to pay a tax to the Roman government. The Jewish homeland was, at that point, a colony of the Roman Empire. And the tax the Jews were forced to pay funded the Roman army and the government that occupied their country. So, of course, this tax wasn’t very popular. Worse yet, the tax had to be paid using Roman coins, and these coins bore the image of Caesar Tiberius with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus.” In other words, the coins claimed Caesar was God—and that offended the Jews who had been commanded to worship their God alone.
The question, “Is it lawful to pay the tax?” was a trap. If Jesus said, “No, it is not lawful to pay the tax,” the Roman occupiers would see Jesus as a political agitator threatening insurrection, and he would likely find himself arrested and imprisoned. On the other hand, if Jesus said, “Yes, it is lawful to pay the tax,” he would lose credibility with his fellow Jews, who resented the fact that they had to pay this repulsive Roman tax with these offensive Roman coins.
Jesus defuses the question with his clever answer: “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and give to God what is God’s.” I think what he’s trying to say is, “The tax isn’t the issue. You pay the tax with Roman coins, and the coins bear the image of Caesar and they belong to Caesar. So give him back his little coins. And with that behind you, focus on the more important task of giving yourselves to God. After all, the coins might bear Caesar’s image, but you bear God’s image, so you belong to God. So pay the dumb tax; give Caesar his coins. And then work on giving your whole life to God.”
It’s like Jesus is saying, “You’re asking the wrong question. It’s not about whether or not to pay the tax. The question you should be asking is, what does it mean to give our whole lives to God? That’s the conversation you should be having.”
Does it feel to you like we’ve been having the wrong conversations lately?
In her reflection on this passage in the Christian Century magazine, writer Debie Thomas says that we’ve “spilled much ink over America’s current political situation. Every argument and counterargument has been made ad nauseum,” and it seems none of us have “the heart to listen to our opponents with genuine curiosity or compassion anymore… As an image-bearer of a loving, forgiving, and gracious God,” she says, “maybe what I owe God in this hour is the very grace and generosity [God] extends to me and to all of us.”
It seems true, doesn’t it, that all the various scandals and outrageous statements, all the political posturing and infighting, all of that so captures our attention that we begin to lose sight of the things that really matter, like how we can build a more just and peaceful world, or do a better job caring for our neighbors; how we can partner with one another to create a society that better resembles what God has in mind for our life together. When we get sucked into the wrong conversations and become fixated on the wrong questions, it becomes impossible to see what’s most important.
It’s not just the media that are focused on the wrong questions. Really, I think they’re just giving the rest of us what we want. Maybe we are the ones with misplaced priorities, asking the wrong questions. We can be so quick to jump on the social media bandwagon, or with our own inner circles, too eager to egg each other on as we rant and rave about the state of the world. Maybe our role as people who bear God’s image is to ask different questions and start another kind of conversation, to ask how we might be instruments of healing and reconciliation and grace. As that same writer Debie Thomas put it, “Figuring out my taxes is the easy part. What’s much harder is living out my political convictions with a Christlike humility, with a compassion the embraces my political other as a brother or sister. But if I really belong to God, if I really am fashioned in God’s image, then I need to practice my faith and my politics in ways that reflect who God is… to remember that the God whose image I bear is a God of love.”
How do those of us who bear God’s image reflect God’s love to the world? That’s the right question.
The 1A, “Friday News Roundup – Domestic,” WAMU, October 20, 2017, http://the1a.org/audio/#/shows/2017-10-20/friday-news-roundup-domestic/112458/.
Thomas G. Long, Matthew, in the Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997).
Debie Thomas, “Reflections on the Lectionary,” in The Christian Century, September 27, 2017.