Sermon by Matthew Potts PhD '13, Associate Professor of Religion and Literature and of Ministry Studies, Harvard Divinity School, Oct. 18, 2020.
My six-year-old son Danny sometimes rides his bike along with me while I jog. Especially under these pandemic circumstances, it’s a nice time for Danny to get some space from his brother and sister and some time alone with Dad. And he takes advantage of it, basically chatting non-stop from my first step to my last. He’s particularly fond of posing questions meant to trap me into superlative affirmations, like: “Dad, am I a terrible soccer player, or the best soccer player you’ve ever seen?” “Dad, am I bad at drawing Pokemon, or am I the best Pokemon drawer in the world?” Or my favorite, this one actually posed to my wife Colette on a walk: “Mom, do you hate me, or am I your favorite kid?”
Danny knows the power of a well-crafted question. And the Pharisees and Herodians are up to something similar in this passage from the Gospel of Matthew this morning, when they ask Jesus this question about paying taxes. They’re trying to trap Jesus. It’s important to note that the Pharisees and Herodians cooperation here is surprising. The Herodians were associated with Herod, the client king of Judea, and were appointed to rule and supported by Rome. The Herodians also authorized the chief priests. The Pharisees were no great fans of the Herodians, because – like many Judeans – they resented Roman rule and the Herodian capitulation to it. So, these two factions, divided over the question of who should rule Judea, come to Jesus and ask this question. This is not just any question, and these are not just any two groups. It’s a trap. If Jesus says, pay the tax, then the Pharisees can denounce him; if he says, don’t pay it, then the Herodians will. Either way, Jesus loses.
This is what makes Jesus’s response so clever. He avoids both traps while still managing to tell the truth. Because if we are to render unto God all that belongs to God, and if God is all in all, then what is left for Caesar? I should note that there’s a long tradition of Christian theology that basically reads this line as evidence for God’s rule as administered through two concurrent and fully sanctioned authorities, the secular and the holy, or in a previous age, the king and the pope. But that seems to me to misunderstand Jesus’s basic separation of Caesar’s rule from God’s here, and the subsequent implication that God’s rule entirely overwhelms the significance of Caesar’s.
It's a good response, but it’s also a political response, the sort of response we’ve become painfully familiar with in this election season. And maybe it’s because I’m tired of the evasions of politicians this October, but it makes me wonder: is Jesus just worming out of a difficult question here? Is cleverness or evasiveness a virtue on its own? Is Jesus trying to spin his response, to tell the truth only by implication, out of the side of his mouth, so he won’t have the suffer the repercussions for telling the truth directly?
It does sound a little like this is what Jesus is doing, on one view, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Because we know that Jesus was in fact quite willing to speak uncomfortable truths to the Herodians and Pharisees and chief priests. In the chapter before this he tells the priests that the tax collectors and sex workers will be welcomed into God’s kingdom before the leaders will. In the next chapter he will spend most of his breath denouncing the scribes and Pharisees when he’s not foretelling the destruction of the Temple and God’s judgment upon all those who fail to serve needy. And Jesus suffers the consequences for his provocations; at the end of this diatribe in chapter 26 the chief priests finally decide to arrest Jesus and have him killed. We know how this story ends, with trial and crucifixion, and it ends the way it does way largely because of what Jesus is saying right here.
So, there is something more than clever political spin in this answer. This isn’t an evasion. It’s an accusation, an accusation unmistakable in that charge Jesus makes, ‘you hypocrites,’ an accusation that spurs exactly the violent response any spin would seek to avoid, an accusation that leaves his interrogators awestruck. So what is it? Why does this answer, which at first glance seems an evasion, instead expose Jesus’s interrogators as hypocrites?
Let me fill out the setting for this story a bit more. We are in the twenty-second chapter of Matthew, the homestretch of the gospel. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He has arrived for the final time in the city where he will meet his death. Recall the first thing he does once he has entered Jerusalem, with the crowds of revelers cheering him on. He goes to the Temple and he overthrows the tables of the money changers. Roman currency was not allowed for use on Temple grounds, and so all the Jewish pilgrims from all over the Empire who were visiting Jerusalem for Passover, all of these folks (many of whom were very poor) were hoping to offer sacrifice at the Temple and had to change their Roman and foreign coins into Temple currency. Jesus sees these poor people arriving from all over the diaspora, he sees them being swindled by the moneychangers and the dove sellers at the Temple, and so he overturns their tables and calls them thieves and robbers.
Now, it’s a day or two later, but Jesus is in the Temple again, and the priests and elders are sending folks to trap Jesus precisely because of the commotion he just caused to temple business. This is the background for the Herodians’ and Pharisees’ question to Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar?” Jesus answers their question with a question of his own: “Whose image is on the coin, and whose title?” And somehow this simple question is both an accusation and a provocation. Why?
Jesus asks for two things, the image and the title. Much like our money, ancient Roman currency was stamped with the profile of a person, in this case the emperor Tiberius. But under that image was inscribed the following title: Caesar Augustus Tiberias, son of the Divine Augustus. Think of that. This is rank idolatry. This coin names the emperor as God’s son. This coin, on its face, arrogates to Caesar what rightly belongs to God. This is why Jesus asks his interrogators to speak this title out loud, and it’s also why they avoid doing so: because it’s blasphemy. The Son of God asks these Herodians and Pharisees who the Son of God truly is, and they won’t answer, but they don’t need to, because their response in jangling around in their pockets.
So much for the title; what about the image? This isn’t question without reference. Recall how the book of Genesis recounts the creation of human beings. In the image of God, the scripture tells us, God created them, using the same Greek word for image Jesus uses here. This is the Jewish claim, the Christian claim, that we humans bear the image of God on our bodies. So these leaders, these chief priests and Herodians and Pharisees are exploiting the poor, exploiting the crowds, betraying this image of God, all for the sake of a blasphemous image of Caesar stamped on the silver in their pockets. The extent of their failure to recognize God’s image in the people is only made more dramatic by our story from Exodus this morning, where God withdraws from Moses’ sight, obscures himself from Moses’ vision. There is no other vision of God than the image of God we have in our neighbor. The sight of any human being is the only vision of the divine we are privy to.
This is what’s at stake in this lesson. This is why Jesus’s response is a provocation and an accusation rather than an evasion. It’s why the Herodians and the Pharisees give up trying to trap Jesus with questions and instead turn to trapping him with swords and soldiers. When we understand what Jesus is asking, it is easy to condemn these Herodians and Pharisees. But as I’ve listened to our leaders and those who would become our leaders answers difficult questions of their own these last several weeks, I’ve been led to wonder: Do we fare any better than these Herodians and Pharisees? They are easy to accuse, but can we be as easily absolved?
What would it mean if we truly accepted the premise of Jesus’s response, that every human being reflects God’s sacred image and that therefore to displace our concern for human lives and flourishing with a devotion to power and fortune is on its face a blasphemy? What might it mean to build a politics out of Jesus’s vision, to build a world not out of the mealy mouthed evasion of politicians who hope to remain in power, but instead out of our collective commitment to that fundamental claim, that basic, essential, radical claim: that each human life is sacred, that each human being bears God’s image. What could our world look like if we honored the image of God stamped on the bodies of our neighbors and our enemies and ourselves, instead of reverencing revenue and the promise of ever rising profits.
To cite two grim examples: The private prison industry in this country is a $4.8 billion business. Its history reaches back to the years following the civil war, but it has exploded with the metastatic growth of mass incarceration in this country since the 1980s. Its profitability is absolutely without question. Also without question is the image of God stamped on 2.3 million souls languishing in American prisons right now. Or consider the firearm industry, which is a $16 billion business, with evident sanction in our country’s founding documents. Nineteen million firearms were sold in the United States in the first six months of this calendar year. Meanwhile 33,000 people, each one bearing God’s indelible image, have been killed by guns in America in the last nine months. These are just two examples from our common life in America, but already I have to ask: what have we given over here to Caesar which in fact belongs rightly to God?
This is the basic question Jesus posed in response to the Herodians and the Pharisees. And if we’re honestly willing to listen, it’s also the question Jesus poses to us. It’s not a question of tax. It’s a question of faith. Sitting in a space of worship, as the Herodians and Pharisees did then, as we do now even as you listen to this broadcast wherever you are, it is also a question about worship. “In whom do you place your faith, Jesus asks. Whom do you truly worship, Jesus asks. Where do you place your trust?” Jesus asks. “Whom do you truly and finally serve,?” Jesus asks. Is it image of Caesar on those coins, or is it the image of God on each face in the crowd around you? Jesus’s hearers then knew they had no answer, or rather, the only answer they had was one they were not willing to speak out loud. So they walked away. When Christ comes and asks us the same question, I hope we will have found a better response.