Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22 Sometimes the preacher has to work pretty hard to connect our Gospel reading with events in the modern world. And then there’s times like today, when it almost seems too easy. Today’s Gospel (Matt. 22.15-22) is about social resistance. It’s about justice. It’s about “getting back” to the right foundation. And if you’ve been watching the news recently those things might sound familiar.
For the last 30 days we’ve been watching the growth of a social movement that’s asking these very questions. It’s a movement called Occupy Wall Street. It’s about social resistance. It’s about justice. It’s about “getting back” to the right foundation. In this sermon I’m not interested in either endorsing or condemning that particular movement. I’m interested in understanding the crisis it provokes for all of us. Because whether we happen to agree or disagree with this particular movement, Occupy Wall Street is forcing all of us to make some kind of statement about the way the world works - perhaps we’re for it, perhaps we’re against it, or perhaps we’re just overwhelmed because we don’t understand the issues and we’d rather keep our heads down until it goes away. Wherever we fall on that spectrum, Jesus has something to say in today’s Gospel.
It begins with a question. “Is it right to pay taxes to the emperor?” Our translation reads “Is it lawful…” but really they’re asking Jesus a question about appropriateness more than legality. And the Gospel tells us right up front that it’s a trap by the Pharisees and the Herodians. These groups hated each other. It would’ve been like the Tea Party and the ACLU getting together for a coalition. Because that’s how much they both disliked Jesus. If we think everybody liked Jesus, then this is a good reminder. These two groups couldn’t agree on anything except they both wanted him gone. So they provoked a crisis. They forced his hand, forced him to say something about the way the world worked.
“Jesus, is it right to pay taxes to the emperor? We know you’re a straight up guy. You’re a straight shooter, Jesus, and you don’t pander to the crowd so please tell us whether it’s right to pay the imperial tax.” Remember, this imperial tax wasn’t even their empire. It was the violent and evil Empire: the Romans (the original New York Yankees from a Boston perspective).
The Pharisees and Herodians were on opposite sides of the fence. The Pharisees were a purity movement. They despised this foreign empire and they were the party for the common people - until Jesus showed up. To use our broad stereotypes, the Pharisees were a bit like the Democrats. On the other side were the Herodians, the party of power and wealth, one of the broad stereotypes we have for Republicans. Herodians were the party of the ruling class and even though they weren’t thrilled with the Romans, they were doing better than most and they were happy to benefit from Rome’s wealth and power.
“Jesus, is it right to pay taxes to the emperor?” If he answers yes, the Pharisees win. Because “yes” makes him look like a friend of Rome. And as far as the people were concerned, Rome was the enemy, the greatest corrupter of the land. So he’d not only lose public respect, but more importantly he’d lose the power of the people (his political base). On the other hand if Jesus answers no, the Herodians win. Because “no” makes him look subversive and he becomes an enemy of the Roman State. Together these two groups are digging a cliff on either side. They’re setting a trap in every direction. They’re forcing Jesus to say something and no matter what he says they think they’ll be able to get rid of him.
Occupy Wall Street began as a response to the following call:
The time has come to deploy [a strategy] against the greatest corrupter of our democracy: Wall Street, the financial Gomorrah of America... the American political establishment is currently unworthy of being called a democracy: we demand... a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington. It's time for DEMOCRACY NOT CORPORATOCRACY. (www.adbusters.org)
The chant that rang out yesterday as people marched in NYC: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out…” It’s a charge about corruption and greed, suggesting that our nation has lost it’s way and it’s trapped under the influence of corporate power mongers. So these protesters are asking, What are we going to do? How are we going to turn this ship around and stop the influence of greed over human life?
Jesus says, “Give me one of those imperial coins.” They do. He says, “Whose imperial picture is on this imperial coin?” They say, “The emperor’s.” He says, “Well then you better give back what belongs to the emperor. And one more thing: make sure you also give back what belongs to God.”
Brilliant. Do you remember that line from the OJ Simpson murder trial? When one of the defense attorneys, Johnny Cochran, had OJ put on those gloves that the murderer was supposed to be wearing when the crime happened? And there was OJ, with his hands spread out as wide as possible, trying to demonstrate those gloves couldn’t possibly fit his fingers. And what did Johnny Cochran say? “If the gloves don’t fit, then you must acquit.” And it worked.
Jesus is pulling the same kind of line with the Pharisees and the Herodians. He’s saying, “Look, people, if you’re going to use the emperor’s money, then don't be surprised when he asks for some honey.” Right? It was shocking not only because he avoided their trap but also because he makes a pretty short statement about pretty big deal. This was a big deal. Israel was enslaved by a foreign empire that was extorting money. Even worse, it was religiously offensive. “Roman coins added theological insult to political injury” (Matthew For Everyone). They not only had the idolatrous image of the emperor, the coin’s inscription also declared him to be the son of a god.
But Jesus didn’t focus on the idolatry, the extortion, or the blasphemy. It doesn’t mean he didn’t care, but when his hand was forced he turned it into an issue about giving people what they deserve. If Caesar has created a kingdom ruled by his shiny little image, then go ahead and pay back his image. If that’s all he cares about, then he deserves what he gets.
But don’t forget, even Caesar is made in the image of one true God - the maker of heaven and earth. And this God created a world to be ruled by His image. The true God's image isn’t some lifeless, shiny coin. It’s you and me. And if Caesar deserves payback in his own image, the true God deserves nothing less. The true God deserves to get paid back with nothing less our entire selves. Or as Jesus puts it, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 15.21).
Our nation forged its identity with a tax revolt, a little thing we called the Boston Tea Party. And one of the things we seem to be learning from movements like the new Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street - is that in some ways we really haven’t gotten very far. No surprise. Human societies go wrong. In fact, the first great social uprising of Jesus’ day had been a tax revolt too. It was lead by a strong guy named Judas the Galilean. His message was about taking back God’s Kingdom from the hated Romans - the Gomorrah of their day. That was his message and it worked pretty well - until he and his entire movement were slaughtered by the Romans.
So when Jesus shows up talking about God’s Kingdom people were wondering if he was planning a tax revolt too. As we hear in today's reading Jesus was leading more than a tax revolt. Jesus, the divine Image himself, was on his way to reveal the God whose face is unveiled not in financial demands but in self-giving love (Twelve Months of Sundays, Year A).
I have no idea what Jesus would say about Occupy Wall Street. Perhaps he would neither endorse nor condemn this particular movement. But he probably wouldn’t be surprised that another society is having another uprising about another kind of corruption. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
What Jesus might do, is ask each one of us if there’s anything about our social corruption that’s somehow keeping us from giving God what belongs to God; namely, ourselves. Is there anything stopping each us from doing that? And it’s not that we shouldn’t keep our social & political systems accountable. Absolutely. But whether we’re marching on Wall Street or on Main Street, when people watch our action, do they see the image of God’s self-giving love? And if that’s the question we’re trying to answer, if God’s self-giving love is our foundation and our starting point, well then who knows what kind of transformation we might actually see in this world. Amen.