Avoiding Traps and Giving God Everything

A sermon based on Matthew 22:15-22
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 19, 2014
by Rev. Scott Elliott
As you might imagine good lawyers show up well prepared for examination of witnesses in any legal proceeding. A prepared lawyer can usually tell if a witness is going to be easy to lead (or some like to say “trap”) into damaging testimony. The tell signs are the witness acting rude or condescending or playing games with the questions or facts signaling they are more interested in something other than the questions or accurate responses. Such distractions allow a prepared lawyer to kinda judo flip the mischief into the witness not seeing where questions are going until it is too late.

One time I was cross examining a deputy who treated me like I was stupid from the moment we were introduced. So, using my incredible acting skills, I made him think he was so much smarter than me that he focused on how he’d trap me and show me up, not on where my questions were leading. It was only after that deputy completely discredited a Breathilizer test– the lynch pin of the case against my client– that he paid attention. By then it was too late, and he lost the case for the state – and rightly so.

We have this sort of witness interrogation stuff going on in today’s story, Only one of the questioners is prepared, Jesus. While the disciples of the religious elite are wholly unprepared and so they lose the case, sorta speak.  Jesus had been challenging the unpopular Roman rule and it’s appointed religious elite since the start of what we now call Holy Week and the crowd was loving it, so much so Caesar’s henchmen, the religious elite could not just arrest him or what they had without upsetting the throng gathered for Passover. So they decided to try and trap Jesus into saying something to either upset the crowd–who did not want to pay taxes to Rome; or to blatantly upset Rome by illegally urging the crowd aloud to not pay the taxes, a treasonable and arrestable offense.

Perhaps thinking themselves beneath chatting with the likes of Jesus, the elite sent their arrogant and condescending agents to do the questioning. The agents thought they were smarter than Jesus and start with condescending flattery.

Here’s a free legal tip, if a lawyer ever starts a question by buttering you up, watch out.

The elite’s lackeys’ buttering up which was sure to please the crowd and not untrue, went like this:

Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think.

That’s set up stuff and it might work if the follow up questions are a bit more subtle. But the lackeys segue awkwardly, even humorously, trying to throw the trap, abruptly asking after the sugary sweet schmoosing, “You are super nifty Jesus” . . . “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

Jesus is one smart cookie. Not only is he “aware of their malice” as the text tells us, but he begins setting a counter trap by cleverly misdirecting their attention snapping at them “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” The questioners have now gotta be put off their guard thinking “Oh no he knows we are enemies likely to trap him!”
Jesus lets them know that he knows it’s a trick, but them misdirects them, easing their minds with what they must have been considered an unexpected easy simpleton like question– as if he’s such a poor rube, as if he’s never seen one before, he asks for a coin: “Show me the coin used for the tax.” Now the elite have to be thinking “Pfffft he’s so poor and stupid he doesn’t even know what’s on a coin, let alone have one.”

Since they had coins to show the crowd, and he didn’t, Jesus’ words show how much better these elite are than him– and most of the crowd for that matter.This misdirection would have suggested to them that Jesus didn’t understand they were trying to trap him after all because they had to be thinking he was going to stare at the coin and eventually answer either “Yes pay Caesar” or “No, don’t pay Caesar” and either answer “ Ha Ha!” was a trap.  “Yes” the crowd turns on him and they can arrest him for his disruptive conduct during Holy Week. “No,” Rome has all it needs to arrest him for rebelling in front o a crowd of witnesses against the Empire.

Jesus tells them to “Show me the coin used for the tax.”  Digging for the coins to show they have one – and know what one is– the elite don’t even give a second thought to Jesus setting them up to give evidence against themselves. They just do not see it coming. They fall right into his trap as we are told, “they brought him a denarius.”
A denarius was the smallest Roman silver coin of the realm. It represented, as I mentioned last month, a day’s wage. It is significant because it was a particular Roman coin with the image of Caesar on it. 1

See these elite lackeys sent by the Roman appointed religious leaders and Jewish king, are in one respect like Jesus and the crowd, they too are Jewish and Jewish law prohibited carrying coins bearing images. 2

In other words having the coins in violation of Jewish law discredits those elite in front of the crowd. They have abhorred contraband, tainted sacrilegious Roman coins. Who’s the traitor in the eyes of the crowd now? The religious elite.

The trap is closing. And Jesus goes out of his way to put teeth into the trap asking them to say aloud for all to hear in case they have never seen that particular coin, “Whose head is this, and whose title?’”   The image is, as I said, Caesar’s, and the title on THAT coin for Caesar is “Son of God.” When the elite describe Caesar’s head is on the coin, the trap is closed, the teeth set: they’ve just confessed that they are carrying and own the idol of a Roman deity. More than that, Caesar is in essence “the ruthless Pharaoh” of First Century Palestine. It is Caesar who now oppresses the Hebrew people. And these agents of the religious elite have in their pockets, not only a day’s wages while many starve, but that the coin they carry asserts that the one who oppresses them – Caesar– is divine in nature. It’s an outrage sure to further align the crowd with Jesus.
Pretty effective questioning. Jesus is a master at it.

To add to the wounds to the now trapped elite, Jesus then escapes what they must have considered a foolproof trap. As soon as “They answered that the emperor’s’ head and title are on the coin, Jesus “said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”

Over the years many religious elite have tried to read this answer to justify separating political and religious obligations, as if Jesus was teaching that we should be obedient to our emperors. That’s what the elite have pitched this story is about. That’s actually . . . poppycock– a word I actually learned from a federal judge I clerked for . . .poppycock. Jesus was not obedient to the state, that’s why Rome arrested, tried and executed him. Paul was also not obedient to state that’s why Rome arrested, tried and executed him. Indeed all the martyrs killed by Rome were like Jesus and Paul disobedient to Caesar by following the real Son of God. Jesus, Paul, early Christians and the early church challenged the state head on.
In fact if you think about it, this church with its anti-slavery beginnings was formed over the issue of challenging the government too. Our forebearers deliberately challenged and set out to not obey laws that helped slavery. We actively opposed them and worked to free slaves–a crime at the time!
Here’s the thing, what Jesus is doing in the story is “simultaneously evading a trap and turning the trap against hostile interrogators” 3 all the while making us think about human image not being in a coin, but how we are supposed to be God’s image. Regardless of class or status Genesis tells us we are all made in God’s image . . .

What Jesus meant in the context of the story by saying “Give . . . to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” with respect to the coin, was literally “it’s Caesar’s coin— give it back to him.” 4 That is Marcus Borg’s conclusion in his fantastic new book Convictions. Dr. Borg goes on to note that today’s story does not answer the obvious follow-up question “And what belongs to God?” He writes

The text does not answer this question, but the answer is obvious: everything belongs to God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” as Psalm 24 puts it. And if everything belongs to God, nothing belongs to Caesar.” 5

Everything belongs to God . . . if that is true –and surely it must be– then what is the meaning of Jesus’ statement “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s?”
It seems to me Jesus’ statement cleverly traps us all into a narrow conclusion of hearing that broadly all is God’s; and that we are to give God what is God’s. We must give our all to God and all back to God.

What’s really interesting is that a lot of us might think first of our money, our silver denarius, our day’s wages but Jesus doesn’t seem to care much about money in this or any other story. He traps the elite with the literal idiolatry in their purses (the face of Caesar and the claim he was the Son of God). They are caught with the idiolatry given to money and power, so much so it overrules their allegiance to, and reverence for, God and the scriptural calls to justice, fairness, love and peace.

Jesus’ answer “It’s Caesar’s coin give it back to him” is meant to completely diminish the huge place money takes on in day-to-day life, what we might call our living for the all mighty buck.

Jesus’ focus is on ALL that is God’s, which in the big scheme of things – in a universal or even an earthly sense– far, far outweighs, out shines, out values and certainly dwarfs any elite powers’ coinage or even personal behavior like backing the powerful and seeking to control behavior and beliefs like the religious elite do in the story. Or like they do today worrying about personal prosperity and trying to control sexuality, abortion, gay marriage, prayers in school, or their thoughts on Creationism, all issues that ARE NOT championed by Jesus or any other prophet in the Bible.  The issues Jesus and other prophets champion are about justice, fairness, love, and peace. 6 (see 152).

In the story today Jesus is trying to get everyone listening to not fret about money, not to revere it and to not only give all over to God and do it God’s way, but to also consider the vast sum of all the things that God has made and revere God in it all. You know . . . consider the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, a sunny day, a smiling face, the moon, fall leaves, children’s laughter, a loved one’s touch, rainbows, jokes, music, books, movies, grass, oceans, brooks, food, loved ones, the list goes on and on and on. All the glorious stuff that really ought to matter is God’s.

That, I think, is Marcus Borg’s point, that Jesus is teaching us that Empires’ coins and taxes and power mean nothing in comparison to that which is God’s. When we dedicate, pay homage, idolize, revere God in and through all that is then our lives are focused on what matters, God. God in lilies and children and birds and sunsets and such. And most especially God in justice and fairness and love and in peace too. That’s what the Bible is about, it’s what Jesus’ teachings are about– understanding all that matters is God’ and all that should matter to us is God. When we do that we do not just feel blessed, but become blessings. Indeed we become fully the image of God, what the Bible from the start tells us we really all, all, all are intended to be– GOD’S IMAGES IN CREATION.
It’s not the Caesars and religious elite who stand out and matter as they’d like us to believe, it is everybody and everything. Which is the point of Psalm 24 (1-6), the words I read earlier:

The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.

The face of God is in everyone and is everywhere. May we revere God in it all.
1.Borg, Marcus, Conversations with Scripture; the Gospel of Mark, p 96.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Borg, Marcus, Convictions p. 164.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid at 152.