Lectionary 29 – October 18, 2020
Faith Lutheran Church
Grace to you all and peace from God the creator, and our Lord and Savior Jesus, the Christ. Amen.
“No Taxation without representation.” That is the refrain that was burned into my memory beginning back in elementary school. I learned it when we would talk about the founding of the United States as an independent country, no longer part of the British Empire. I was taught that the colonists had been taxed by the British government in a way they believed was wrong. If they were going to be taxed, they deserved a seat at the table.
In first century Palestine, where Jesus lived and ministered, there were also disputes about taxes that could be witnessed. Palestine was a colony of the Roman Empire, and the Jewish inhabitants were forced to pay taxes that supported the army and government that occupied them.
Similar to how in the 13 colonies there were both loyalists who supported the British Empire and those who supported revolution, there were folks in Palestine who were supportive of and antagonistic toward the Roman Empire.
The Herodians are believed to be supporters of Herod, the Roman appointed ruler of Galilee. They would have been supportive of the taxation.
The Pharisees, on the other hand devoutly followed the Torah and opposed paying the temple tax. Their opposition didn’t come from the fact that it was a tax in general, but that this tax was paid with a coin that bore the image of the emperor and had an inscription saying the emperor was God–blasphemy in light of the first two commandments.
So these groups in the gospel today, the Herodians and the Pharisee’s had very different interests and their working together, coming to Jesus together would have been a strange thing for people hearing this story in the first century.
Returning to the idea of the time of the American revolution, it would be as if the loyalists and those wanting revolution worked together on a common goal. Or as one commentator put it in an even more timely comparison, it would be like Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnel coming together and strategizing how to beat a common opponent. Something that I think we can agree seems pretty unimaginable.
So what is it that could bring these people with such different motivations together?
What could make folks who have such opposing views join together to “trap” Jesus?
It was Jesus, himself. He was the reason.
By this time in his ministry, Jesus had been boldly proclaiming the dominion of heaven. And the coming of the dominion of heaven was a scary thought to these powerful people. The dominion of heaven Jesus proclaimed was offensive to the Herodians and Pharisees alike because it challenged the very systems that kept them in power.
So when asking Jesus about paying taxes to the emperor, they thought he was cornered into giving an answer that would offend either of the groups.
If he had said it was lawful to pay the tax, he would have been perceived as a roman sympathizer. If he had said it was unlawful, he could have been labeled a traitor or seditionist. Either answer would have landed him in hot water, and either would have been welcomed by the Herodians and Pharisees.
But Jesus, as we know him to do so often, answers their question, not with a statement or opinion, but with two questions.
First, he asked them to show him the coin that was used to pay the tax, and then asked Whose head and whose title was on that coin.
As mentioned already, the coin had the head of the emperor, and said that he was of divine heritage.
Even after they showed Jesus the coin, he didn’t give a straightforward answer to the question about paying taxes, but answered “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Each of these groups, the Herodians and the Pharisees were trying to distract Jesus from his mission of proclaiming the message of the good news of the dominion of God.
For Jesus’ followers in Palestine at the time of this gospel, their allegiance to Rome was demanded through the tax. Yet they had another allegiance to God. This meant they had duties and obligations due to both of these spheres of their life.
So the constant challenge for followers of Christ was this: what do they owe and to whom?
And this question of what is owed and to whom is a question we are familiar with in our lives.
In our lives, we know that we are pulled between different spheres of influence–spheres that impact how we engage with the world. For those of us gathered to worship, one sphere that we all have in common is an allegiance to God, who we know through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We share this allegiance with those earliest followers of Jesus in this Gospel message, and with countless others throughout history.
Other allegiances we might have can include an allegiance to work. Within a culture that places so much value on “productivity” and being a “contributing member of society,” we can feel that we owe our time and energy–that our worth depends on what we do, rather than who we are.
We can feel an allegiance to “how life once was.” Especially in this season of covidtide, we can fall in to yearning for the good times that once were rather than look forward to the inbreaking of the dominion of heaven.
In this contentious election season, where partisan politics seem to consume all of the airwaves, we can find ourselves placing our identity into political parties or candidates, rather than remembering that our Lord & Savior, Jesus was not a powerful king in the eyes of the world, but rather a Palestinian rabbi who proclaimed a message of agape love.
These different allegiances, these different ways in which we direct our time and energy, are not fundamentally at odds with our allegiance to God.
- God created us in god’s image, and with a creative God, we have the gift of creativity and are able to contribute to the bettering of humanity.
- God created us with minds that reflect on our history, and we can learn from our history to make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes we have made before.
- God shared God’s desires for humanity in scripture, and living in a democratic society we are called to work for the actualization of the beloved community God desires.
For all of these ways our allegiance is desired, we must remember that our first call is to love the Lord our God, and then to Love our neighbor as ourselves. When we neglect to love the Lord, the possibility, our ability, for us to love our neighbor as ourselves is diminished and often neglected.
Jesus never gave a direct answer as to whether the it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. The Herodians and Pharisees were not able to trap him into being labeled as a loyalist or seditionist. Rather, they were amazed by what he said, left him and went away.
In our faith life as followers of Christ, there will be many people and ideas that attempt to draw us away from our allegiance to God as revealed in Jesus. And as human creatures, there are times when we will place these allegiances before our allegiance to God, even if they are counter to the will of God. The good news is that In Christ all of creation has been redeemed, and there is grace for each of us.
God never stops reaching out and reminding us of God’s love for us. A love which frees us to love and serve our neighbor, reflecting the inbreaking of the message of the dominion of Heaven. Amen.