Proper 24, 2014: Questioned loyalty
Paying taxes in the Roman world was no more popular than it is today. We too may resist paying our “share” for what seems like more support for the wealthy than for the common good. We are supposed to provide for all but often taxes are distributed unequally. In the world where Jesus lived, taught, and died, taxes enabled the elite to shun manual labor while taxing 2/3 of the peasant production. Taxes were oppressive. Refusal to pay them was interpreted as rebellion against Rome.
Rome justified the taxes as the price for maintaining peace, building roads, sanitary systems, but it was also a way of exercising dominion. During the Jewish revolt (66-70) the Jerusalem mint produced half shekels with inscriptions asserting Judean freedom and national identity as God’s will. Post 70, Rome reframed the significance of the coin to assert Roman control and the superiority of Jupiter, the patron of Emperor Vespasian. To require Jews to pay the tax seems doubly insulting, first because they consider Jupiter a pagan god verging on the prohibition against idolatry and second it is a vivid reminder of the loss of their beloved, beautiful, and sacred temple.
Debates arose as to whether the tax was a political or religious obligation. It was both.
Against the imperial and militaristic context, the use of the tax for the Temple of Jupiter and the Jewish audience to whom Matthew writes, it is no surprise that the question should be posed to Jesus. The question may have intended to test Jesus and his disciples’ loyalty, or it may have been trick question with an ulterior motive.
The kings of earth refuse to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and so they do not rule in accord with God’s will. They subjugate and oppress in different ways, including collecting a tax that reinforces the inferior status of the conquered people. So we are left to wonder how it is that paying this tax acclaims God as sovereign.
How then are we to see that even within a social and political arena, paying the tax is still acknowledging God’s sovereignty? One clue occurs earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matt 17:27 Jesus tells peter to cast a hook into the sea, catch a fish, and find in its mouth a coin, enough to pay the tax for both of them. Does this action seem ordinary or miraculous to you? Does it suggest that God provided the coin? Fish are found in several miracles in the Gospel of Matthew...in 17:17,19 where two fish and five barley loaves are used to feed over five thousand people, and the feeding miracle occurs again in 15:32-39 this time feeding over four thousand people with fish. The listening audience would link fish with God’s compassionate and powerful actions in overcoming limiting circumstances of human need. God as sovereign not only provides the fish but a fish with the coin in his mouth. …just as the fish and bread fed the hungry crowd. It reframes the significance of paying the tax, the context of God’s sovereignty.
Jesus was willing to put down this type of earthly power in order to demonstrate the more powerful virtues of love and mercy, hospitality and forgiveness. His way of being obedient to God was to meet every person wherever he or she was without preference as to social position. To the centurion with the sick child he gave the gift of healing. To the questioning foreign woman at the well in Samaria and a member of a heterodox faith, he offered theological engagement. Believing him she went into the village and became a remarkable evangelist, telling everyone about him and asking if he might be the promised Messiah.
We should know that God often acts in strange and unanticipated ways. If we do, we will strive to open our hearts and minds to see the spirit moving in the world about us. I think the people expected Jesus to take the side of the poor against the powerful tax collectors representing the Roman emperor….to expose his passion for social justice.
We too may want God to take our side in some conflict. Faith is an interior thing and we often keep it private but faith is also the substance of fellowship. Trust may be hard for those of us who have been
betrayed. In this community there are very very few perfect disciples: most of us admit to missing the mark much of the time and so we can come as we are to a place where getting it right is less important that the one in whom we place our trust. Knowing who we are, how imperfect we are, and acknowledging that God alone is trustworthy, true, and good, we can take a few righteous risks, make some mistakes, and because we need forgiveness we can be forgiving. In this safe place we can express our doubts without fear of judgment, we can put our hands to the plow knowing we do not labor alone, that we and all of those gathered here with us are works in progress in the hand of a compassionate and perfect God.
Most of us don’t like test questions and especially not trick questions. But Jesus was an A student and good test taker. He knew how to thread the needle of complexity and complicity. He widened the question beyond politics. Everyone has to decide.
What is it that bears God’s image?
As the reader, I feel drawn into the conversation. He asks each of us: will we preserve our good standing as citizens of both civic and faith based communities where there is a place for everything and everything has a place? It is an essay exam: how do we balance our responsibilities as citizens of both an earthly realm and a spiritual one? What do we render to God that bears the divine image?
We have a good answer and guide for answering these questions in the baptismal liturgy to which we now turn.