Preacher: Rev. David Exley Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22
We had a funny thing happen to us while we were staying on St. Andrew’s lake during our camping trip to Algonquin this past August. Our beloved Springer Spaniel, Elsie, loves to swim. She may not like the canoe too much but she loves swimming in the lake. And so, one afternoon we had her in the water swimming with the girls. A few minutes into the swim a canoe was paddling by in the middle of lake. We laughed as we watched Elsie begin to swim toward the canoe (which, to be clear, was a fair distance from the shore of our campsite). We watched as she paddled out further and further. For a few seconds both our family and the guys in the canoe thought that she was going to swim all the way to that canoe paddling down the middle of the lake. Just as we were about to holler for her to swim back to us one of the guys in the canoe shouted, “Sorry, we don’t have any treats!” Without missing a beat, Elsie made a u-turn in the water and began to swim back to us. It’s pretty clear what motivates our little furry friend.
The story—for me—serves as a metaphor for one of life’s great challenges. So often in life we find ourselves in the middle of the lake with competing interests (things that pull us one way or another). And, like our wonderful Springer Spaniel, the thing that often pulls us one way or another is the lure of “the treat” (the reward)—something enticing that draws us TOWARD something and AWAY from something else.
In the passage from Matthew 22, we see Jesus illustrating this challenge—this dilemma. The competing interests of God and empire. We’re invited to ponder that question: To whom do we pledge our allegiance? Is it to the state or is it to God? And, how are each of those different?
As people of faith (as churches), we’re in a place where there are two opposing places that vie for our attention and our allegiance. This passage from Matthew’s gospel—the exchange between Jesus and the religious authorities—comes at a critical moment in the gospel story. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem—the centre of power in his region. And, he has a choice… keep stirring up trouble with his talk about the Kingdom of God (and how it is in tension with the Kingdom of Rome) OR tone it down and begin to “play nice” with the ruling powers. When the Pharisees (those who come from Jesus’ own tradition) come to him they don’t come alone. They come with unexpected travelling companions—supporters of Herod.
Jesus doesn’t just find himself at odds with the religious authorities. He finds this group from his own faith tradition teaming up with a group of people that stand for all the things that they hate. The Pharisees are strongly opposed to the Roman Empire. The supporters of Herod are directly in line with the Empire. But, on the issue of Jesus (and the danger he represents to the status quo), they both are in agreement. So, what do they do? They go to Jesus with the intention of trapping Jesus—catching him off guard with a question that should result in him falling flat on his face. They ask him, “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” In their heads, the Pharisees are thinking, “Game. Set. Match.” “Time to go back home to Nazareth, Jesus. We’re the ones who best understand what it means to abide by both God’s law and the law of the Empire.” But, Jesus’ wisdom and his connection to God’s dream (and the kind of faithful compassion the world so desperately needs) enables him to flip the script. He knows where the Pharisees’ allegiance truly stands… it’s not with God… it’s not with the people… it’s with power. And so, he turns it right back to them. “Show me the coin used to pay the tax”, Jesus says.
My guess is that they knew they were trapped the moment that Jesus made this request. What’s on the coin? The image of Ceasar. A graven image. Something that goes against everything that the Pharisees would have been against.
To be clear, this isn’t a coin that celebrates some historical leader or some commonly celebrated part of the people’s heritage. This is a coin that bears the image of the current leader of the occupying force. The one who ultimately signs off on state execution. The one who looks the other way as the poor and the sick are trampled on by the state. What Jesus is saying to the Pharisees (and the crowd) is, “Why are you even participating in this corrupt system?” “Is your allegiance to God or to Caesar?” Their whole life is supposed to be based on an economic system that is faithful to God, and yet here they are showing their true colours as they participate in Caesar’s economy without even pushing back and questioning it. The lure of power and privilege has pulled them away from that place where God wants them to be. They’re on the far side of the lake when it comes to their proximity to God.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this passage is simply a text that reinforces Jesus’ support for paying ones taxes—whether it be in ancient times or now. This has very little to do with that. This passage is one where we are called to consider where our allegiance lies when it comes to God and all those other things that pull us away from the dream of God. What is it that distracts us and entices us to move away from those things that God values above all else? Because, if we’re being honest, both the church and we (as individuals) can easily find ourselves swimming away from that place where God calls us to dwell with one another—where we participate in the dream of God.
When I read this passage I’m reminded that the Pharisees are like “regular church folk”. Like so many of us they don’t want to rock the boat; they don’t want to cause too much trouble. In fact, you could almost imagine one of them pulling Jesus aside and saying to him, “Listen—Do you want to find yourself on one of those crosses you saw as you made your way into Jerusalem?” It’s no wonder that so many of Jesus’ followers abandoned him. His commitment was to something powerful and also very dangerous—an economic system that placed everyone on an equal footing, that knocked down the powerful and lifted up the lowly… a system that didn’t simply toss people away.
There’s one theologian and biblical scholar that talks about this tension between God and Empire better than anyone else. Walter Brueggemann is an Old Testament professor at Columbia Seminary in Georgia and is one of the most widely respected figures in progressive Christianity.
I want to show you a clip of Dr. Brueggemann talking about this tension between allegiance to empire and allegiance to God. In this clip he talks about the real challenge of the church. How can we push past where we are today and swim back to where God wants us all to be.
Far too often churches use passages like this to support the wrong thing. Some use it as a way of saying, “Jesus was supportive of the state. He was telling us to keep faith and the state separate.” Others use it as a way to encourage members of the congregation to increase their financial commitment to the church. (i.e. “Jesus said money shouldn’t matter more than God… so let’s let go of this and give it to God.”) Both of those uses of this passage miss the point—not only of the passage, but the entire Gospel message.
The role of the church is to dream along with God and with one another and to work together for the well-being of all. We’re not simply called to nourish our own soles in the quest to be “at peace” with God. We must work toward making God’s kin-dom become a reality here on earth. Breuggemann says, “The role of the church is to be imagining the political economy according to the witness of Jesus, and then—as we do that—to be actively engaged (politically, socially) to bring that imagination into a historical reality.”
I’ll close with this—Remember the passage from last week’s service? The Parable of the Banquet… where the man at the banquet ends up being tossed out for not having a wedding gown on. I think we can place that passage side by side with this one (they do appear back to back in Matthew’s gospel). Perhaps what Jesus is trying to tell us is that we need to think about what has value in this world. Does a person have value OR does a coin have value? What is most important when it comes to God? I think he’s telling us that coins are worth nothing… particularly when they come at the cost of tossing people aside—throwing them away as if they were nothing. God’s economy is one where coins mean nothing… personal wealth… stock portfolios… retirement plans… all these things are meaningless when compared to the value of Creation and all God’s creatures.
And so, as we find ourselves drifting away down the river of life, let’s do what we can to swim back to that place where God wants us to be… that place where our neighbour has value and so do we.