Oct 22, 2017 | The Reverend Stephanie Shoemaker
A Dicey Situation
It was a dicey situation. The prophet popular with the people had come into town. Wherever he went he attracted crowds who listened to what he said with ears hungry for the words he spoke to them…with broken and diseased minds and bodies that sought his healing…with overburdened lives that somehow moved out from under the weight of all the things that oppressed them in his presence. The authorities feared that Jesus would upset the tenuous balance they had established with their Roman rulers. The peace was being kept by a certain level of compliance with the Romans who could tolerate almost anything but refusal to pay the taxes levied by the emperor. The confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees in this familiar story was as predictable as it was complicated. Any threat to equilibrium in a system…relationship, family, community of any size and scope…is met with resistance. The situation is also ironic. Those in positions of power feared that Jesus would be their undoing, and in truth, he is the only one who can save them.
So when they heard his stories, the parables we have been hearing for the last several weeks, they got nervous, hearing judgment in them, and their fear overtook them. They begin to plot to see if they can trap Jesus, make him look the fool with their obsequious greeting, dripping with flattery, making themselves look good to the Roman authorities and righteous to their own people. They think they have come up with a clever question, because however Jesus answers it, he will be in trouble, either with the Jewish authorities or with the Romans.
The poll tax had to be paid in Roman currency, with the coinage that bore the likeness of Tiberius Caesar The inscription on a denarius would have read something to this effect: “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” Those words claiming imperial divinity would have been an affront to the Jews, a blasphemous infraction of the First Commandment to have no other gods but the Lord. The Jews forbade graven images on their coins as idolatrous, hence the money changers in the temple who would exchange Roman currency for the Jewish coins with which the people could pay the temple tax and avoid the impurity of handling the Emperor’s idolatrous coinage.
But, Jesus sees through their scheme and refuses their bait, turning the tables on them once again, raising the context to the higher plane of the only question that really matters: what is your relationship with God? Jesus calls them to honor the one in whose likeness we were created…whose image is stamped on our lives…to return to God what rightfully belongs to God, not just a coin or two, but our entire being. This story is about priorities of relationship. What do we value and honor most? Whose head is on the currency of our interactions and exchanges? Whose face appears on the checks our hearts write?
We entrap ourselves in a similar way when we ask the question, “How little can I get away with?”…in whatever form it takes… how much do I have to do to be all right here, or how much do I have to give to save face there…what sum given will allow me to keep power I have or the control I need? These are all questions that the world asks, questions about power and security. Jesus knows and understands the concerns that prompt our questions. He is asking us to see those concerns for what they are….to look at the issues in our lives in light of faithful relationship with God… looking for the power and transformation that are found in right relationship.
Love as Jesus knows it and expresses it acts to give whatever it possibly can for the most righteous reason. The only question that matters is: To whom do you ultimately belong? If the answer is: to God, then the things that are God’s are everything …the sum total of who we are. Jesus is about to do this, to give up his life for us, the ones he loves, When we truly love someone, we are eager to give and to honor them in every way we can. In the marriage service, the bride and the groom exchange rings as symbols of the vows they have made to each other with these words: “with all that I am and all that I have, I honor you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Can we honor God with any less that all that we are and all that we have…using what has been given to us for the work that has been given to us to do as followers of Jesus Christ?
The incredible impact of this little story derives its power from the integrity of Jesus’ answer and its implications for us. It is not about politics… It is not even about economics or taxes at all, but as always in Jesus’ pronouncements, about relationship with God. It is about where we assign our ultimate commitment of loyalty and trust. There are many Caesars and a wide variety of coinage competing with the Lord for our time and attention, for our obedience and service, for our love and respect. Jesus asks us, Show me the coin used for the tax…Whose head is this, and whose title?
When we can answer the question Jesus asks, we can begin to discern our idolatries and our true loyalties. Hearts open to hear the message of the Gospel that comes to us not in word only, but also in the power of the Holy Spirit can turn to God from the idols we serve in this world to the service of a living and true God. God’s Grace will give us the power to do this.
Committing our lives and our treasure in this way is a little like jumping into the deep end of a pool of cold water. Some of us prefer to start in the shallow end and walk in slowly, getting used to it step by step...some of us dive from the high board. However we get into the water, the important thing is the refreshment we experience once we are swimming there. The prospect of actually getting into the water that loomed in such a daunting way is overcome once we are all wet. Children jump right in. As adults we have to get used to things and make laborious decisions that children make easily and spontaneously. It is that childlike spirit of trust that we reclaim when we acknowledge God as the head of our household and father of all…the only trust that will never betray us…the ultimate commitment that will save our souls.
Full conviction can work miracles. What we commit to God, God uses for the work of love: transformation, reconciliation and resurrection. This is the work of grace and mercy. It brings the good news of salvation, it sings the new song of peace, it knows the beauty of holiness and the joy of the Lord’s presence. What we give to earthly empires eventually crumbles to dust, but what honors we ascribe to the Lord and the offerings we bring into his courts from the overflowing bounty of our hearts will last forever. The question Jesus puts before each of us is this: Do you see what you present to the Lord as tax or as gift? Dare to answer this question and to make a new commitment to the Lord…to see the likeness of God on the currency of your life …on what you receive and what you give… and you will experience the miracle of transformation from fear to courage, from poverty to plenty, from anxiety to peace. Amen.