Revised from a Homily
first posted on 10.16.11
Year A. Matthew 22:15-21.
Today's Lectionary Gospel reading offers us the religious leader's response to the series of Jesus' parables of provocation:
"The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech."
The ongoing argument now turns deadly serious, and in the next few weeks we shall see the heat steadily turned up with attempt after attempt to degrade the people's view of Jesus and finally to destroy it.
These leaders had had enough, you see. One could push these men of power only so far, and Jesus had pushed them over the line. Now they plotted how they might trap him like one traps a "bird or wild beast." (A.T. Robertson)
Interestingly, Jesus brought dissimilar groups together in opposition to his way of being Messiah. In today's text the Pharisees -- who resented Rome and who kept strict Torah observance as a way to chafe the LORD into acting again in behalf of the Hebrew nation so as to vindicate them and to bring them out from under gentile occupation, and the Herodians -- who were adherents of Herod and Roman supporters, both came together to trap Jesus.
Their trap? Flattery laced with a poisonous a question. First the flattery:
"Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone's opinion, for you do not regard a person's status."
Then the poison:
"Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"
According to the text, Jesus sees through their ruse, and not one to mince words, or to be concerned with anyone’s opinion, he taught them the way of God in accordance with the truth:
"Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?""Show me the coin that pays the census tax."
Now this is where the account gets rather interesting. Matthew Hare, in his commentary on St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us what these religious leaders are asking is:
"Does it accord with Torah to pay tax to Caesar or not?"Jesus responds:
"Show me the coin that pays the census tax." Then they handed him the Roman coin."
Notice, Jesus does not have such a coin, but they do! Hare goes on to say:
"The hypocrisy is obvious. They are happy to do business with Caesar's coins…”
which carried his image and which was therefore tabu.
Then Jesus asks:
"Whose image is this and whose inscription?"
"Caesar's." At that he said to them, "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."
This answer probably did not endear him much to the people who wanted to overthrow Roman power, and it certainly did not charm the religious leaders who were again challenged to give away all they had, including their pomp and prestige, for a life of total dedication to GOD instead of themselves.
What then does the text say to us, we who, not unlike these leaders, live cozily at the beginning of the 21st century? Of the many pictures presented here, there are three I would like us to consider:
THE POWER OF THE STATE AND ALLEGIANCE TO THE CHRIST
THE POWER OF PROVIDENCE AND HUMAN DECISIONS
THE POWER OF EVIL AND THE DEATH OF THE CROSS
THE POWER OF THE STATE AND ALLEGIANCE TO THE CHRIST
First, I would assert that Jesus is not very helpful here in offering us direction on the power of the state over the believer, and whether we should either “surrender or actively resist” its power. (Hare) But then again that was not his purpose, really.
As we attempted to explain last week, Jesus’ work with his people was to move them from a Messiah-as-power to a Messiah-as-servant understanding of the coming-and-present Kingdom. His nation was all too ready to take up the sword, and Jesus sees with incredible clarity that if they were to do so, they would perish. (cf. Mt. 26:52 & Lk.13:1-3)
For us, we should probably say first that for the North American believer, this question of surrender or resistance is somewhat moot. Contrary to extreme religious fundamentalism, there is no bogeyman behind every bush. Or said differently, we still enjoy the blessings of liberty; we still enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom, even if our economic system offers the spoils to only a few and stifles and grinds up the rest.
No, it seems to me our problem now comes not from the State but rather from our own hearts. Since we are so blessed with liberty, we are challenged with how not to worship the State and therefore how not to commit idolatry.
Still, we might well ask if ever there could be a circumstance where Holy Scripture offers us direction on what to do if the state infringes upon the faith? what that infringement would look like? and what should be our response?
It seems clear from the biblical pattern found especially in the book of Acts that defiance comes at the point when the State demands first-allegiance. That is, when the State demands idolatry, forcing a choice between them and the Christ.
It is here where we must draw the line. But it must be noted that even then our reply is not violence but refusal. This is the attitude throughout the Book of the Revelation and throughout church history, but it is perhaps most clearly expressed, as I said, in the book of Acts.
In Acts five those early followers of the Jesus-way are commanded to no longer speak about this Jesus. Notice their response:
Then the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man's blood on us." But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than any human authority. (Acts 5:26-29)
THE POWER OF PROVIDENCE AND THE WEIGHT OF HUMAN DECISIONS
Notice second, how the power of providence is at work here through the malicious movement of the religious leaders in their human decisions.
What particularly strikes me from the text is the question: Just what had Jesus done to provoke such a hateful response? Why were the religious leaders moved so viscerally to his challenges?
Obviously, he was a threat, but to whom? To them and their way of life? To the nation because of his growing popularity and the feared Roman response?
Well, OK. I get it, jealousy rules the day, but according to Scriptures there is more going on here than meets the eye. The response of the religious leaders tells us what is happening on the political/historical level. But there is more. We could ask what is also happening on the theological level? That is, what is the back-story here?
As the religious leaders decide to discredit Jesus and to do away with him -- for that is the response of the State to the perception of threat -- GOD is also at work within his powerful creativity, taking their free-will decisions and weaving the tapestry of his purposes. GOD is moving to break the back of evil and to reclaim the world, to remake it, and he is actually doing so through the jealousy and hate of these leaders and the rejection of the nation!
That is, somehow, the Almighty sees through the designs of these religious, and moves ahead of time to accomplish his plan.
What we are describing here is nothing less than GOD's providence. We should remember that the word "providence" comes from Latin words: pro & video, which means a "looking out before."
GOD sees their choices, and ours, and he works in and through those choices to accomplish his will. Said differently, God accepts our choices with seriousness. He accepts with utmost seriousness our human responsibility and our prayers. This means he is not the immutable, unmoved mover at all, but rather is actually touched, truly touched, by the feelings of our infirmities, and is able to take all these decisions and in real-time through his creative providence -- his "looking out before” -- to accomplish his will.
THE POWER OF EVIL AND THE DEATH OF THE CROSS
Finally, what is striking about this text is the clear acknowledgment of the evil that is at work behind the scenes. The text reads:
"Knowing their malice, Jesus said, 'Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?'"
There is malice and evil at work here, but at this late date we hardly need to be convinced that evil is real. Still, it may be of some comfort to be reminded that even Jesus faced evil. In fact, we could truly say that Jesus especially faced evil.
Put differently, Jesus' primary task is to face the powers of darkness that were in rebellion against the Almighty, and to defeat them, to crush them, thus freeing the movement of the world back toward good, back toward the GOD who is there.
Clearly, the New Testament Scriptures present GOD's response to evil as the event of the cross, and the ultimate defeat of sin and death as the event of resurrection. Or, we could say that as we walk through the pages of the Gospels we see how the Kingdom breaks into the open through the suffering and vindicated servant.
Quoting N.T. Wright, whose thoughts I am about to follow closely here:
"The Gospels tell the story of how the evil in the world -- political, social, personal, moral, emotional -- reached its height, and how God's long-term plan for Israel (and for himself!) finally came to a climax. They tell both of these stories in -- and as -- the story of how Jesus of Nazareth announced God's kingdom and went to his violent death." (from Evil And The Justice Of God, pg. 79)
Later Dr. Wright offers this:
[the cross] is how God rescues his people from the evil in which they are trapped...through the suffering of Israel's representative...This is what it looks like when YHWH says, as in Exodus 3:7-8, 'I have heard the cry of my people, and I have come down to set them free'...And the result of it all is that the covenant is renewed; sins are forgiven; the long night of sorrow, exile and death is over and the new day has dawned.” (EATJG, pg.93)
This sounds good, but here is the question that must be faced, however:
How can one death, even if it is offered in response to evil, be significant for those of us who live so far away from that death?
And, how can one innocent death, in the long history of so many other innocent deaths mean anything?
And, how can on bit of evil done to Jesus (no matter how dastardly) that occurred in one defined spot account for all the evil done in all the spots, all over the world, throughout all time?
Wright calls this the scandal of particularity, and it is a potent problem. What the scriptures seem to be saying is that in the suffering of the servant-Messiah, the full force of evil shrieks in Jesus face and crashes down full-force upon him. That somehow, in the cross event, even when evil strikes his heel the Messiah is still able to crush its head.
This actually seems to be the thrust of Scripture. Notice one text which will have to suffice for all:
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him—provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. (Col 1:21-23)
And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it. (Col 2:13-15)
Observe closely, the cross:
"disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it,”
"the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven."
Surely, St. Paul does not mean that every creature heard the Gospel of the cross. No (still following Dr. Wright here), this means that somehow, in the cross, the forces of evil were massed to destroy GOD's Messiah and to do its worst to rebel against GOD and his world. But, what seemed like a victory over GOD was in fact evil’s demise, as Jesus broke the power of the last enemy -- death, and broke the back of evil's power.
Something happened to evil that day. Some message was presented to the powers of darkness and the forces arrayed in rebellion against GOD (whatever that means). They were told their days were numbered. This is the power of the cross; this is the shape of the victory of GOD. This is the final and ultimate impact of the cross of the Christ.