Sunday, October 16 ~ Matthew 22:15-22
Ugh. For several chapters now, Jesus has been slamming religious piety and pretentiousness while teaching in the temple and people are getting pissed off. The Pharisees send some of their religious students together with the far more political Herodians into the crowd armed with cheap flattery and an impossible question. You see, there’s no way Jesus could answer their riddle without committing major heresy against the temple or the empire – and they don’t care which way Jesus falls off the fence. They just want to be there when he does.
But Jesus is no fool. He can smell their charade from a mile away. It would be like answering a knock at your door to find John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi standing there hand in hand, smiling and saying, “Well, that’s a great color on you. And you smell so nice! Say, we just have a quick question for you since we care so deeply about the way we represent you personally…”
Gross. Jesus knows they’re hoping he’ll make a huge public gaff and suggest a tax rebellion against Caesar, but he’s not about to fall for it. So just as quickly as their question tries to divide our life into categories of allegiance and importance, Jesus blows their question out of the water with a radical word of unity. And they never see it coming.
The crowd gathered at this scene is not unlike crowds gathering today, anxious and polarized by leaders and issues. The Jews were feeling misrepresented and nervous about their relationship with the Roman Empire because a mortal leader playing god right in front of Yahweh, the one true God. It was a delicate balance everyday – nodding and smiling at the Roman Empire just enough to keep their basic rights to Jewish worship and culture. And everyday they wondered whether they were compromising or selling out.
I wonder if God had these kinds of moments in mind when the Israelites begged for a king of their own back in the book of Judges. God so desperately wanted the people to live set apart, operating differently and experiencing authority in a more radical way than their neighboring nations. But Israel pleaded and nagged God, convinced that having a king would mean more freedom and that it wouldn’t affect their loyalty to God.
The Pharisee and Herodians sound self-righteous, convinced that the answer should be black or white, but even they are living in the grey. One presents a coin with Caesar’s face on it - something no one should possess inside the temple walls and a Pharisee shouldn't have at all. When they show Jesus the denarius, they prove that being faithful isn’t easy – and it isn’t black and white.
And so at first, Jesus’ answer seems simple. Give the emperor what he is due and God what God is due. And if we take his answer at face value, it doesn’t seem very radical at all.
But the gospel says the crowd heard and they went away amazed. And for that reason, we have to take another look. Therefore, give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
Without any further explanation of what belongs to either party, Jesus leaves us to consider all the grey stuff about authority and allegiance ourselves. He doesn’t give us the answers or draw a line in the sand. He doesn’t fall off the fence onto one side or another. In fact, he doesn’t divide at all.
Maybe the crowd is amazed because, while the seal of Caesar on coins and doors and decrees and armor, they realize that God’s face is plastered all over creation – on everyone and everything – a testament to God's uniting power in this world.
Maybe the crowd is amazed because Jesus didn’t shun the empire or deem it evil. Sure, this empire will put him to death, but it will also fund new roads, thwart piracy and (accidentally) make it easier for the gospel to travel all over the world for generations to come.
Maybe the crowd is amazed because Jesus had the guts to name the grey places no one else was naming, the tricky space in between that wrestles for our time, our priorities, our checkbooks and our values. In the face of black and white, Jesus’ simple answer points to daily living that isn’t simple – the choices we make about what belongs to God and what that means for our lives.
And maybe that’s I should stop typing because Jesus didn’t lay it all out for the crowd – instead, he entrusted them to worship and life in the Body of Christ where, together, they would find out what belonging to God looks like day after day, week after week. Together, they would form one body with countless expressions of discipleship in the grey, each person experiencing giving to God in a different way and adding to the Great Story that never ends.
You have the face of God all over you – you’re marked with Christ, sealed by the Spirit and the gospel is causing unity in the face of all that divides you. And that's good news! May God bless you in the grey places of this week, guiding your recognition of all that belongs to God.