Weekly Seeds: Truth
Sunday, October 22, 2023
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost | Year A
Sovereign God, may we always seek your kindom over empire. Amen.
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
All readings for this Sunday:
Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99 • Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) • 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 • Matthew 22:15-22
What are your obligations as a resident of a community or country?
What are your obligations as a citizen of the kindom of God?
How do these conflict?
What guides you in navigating between these two worlds?
Which do you serve?
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
There’s an icebreaker or game used at wedding showers called, “What’s in your purse?” You receive a sheet with a list of items that may be typically found in a handbag, such as throat cough drops or candy, notepads or nail polish, a library card or lipstick. Some of these items are more likely to be carried than others. There’s always a few obscure items on the list that sets someone apart from the group. You may have a band-aid but do you have a full first aid kit? A sewing kit may not seem that unusual but a fabric swatch may be unmatched. It’s a game, but the contents of the purse does reveal something about the one who not only possesses these items but also takes them along on their journey.
In the game, there are some items that you suspect virtually everyone will have. A wallet or some means of organizing identification, credit or debit cards, and actual currency. And while fewer people carry cash than before, many of us have some coins or bills on our person. When was the last time you looked at it in the way Jesus directs his antagonists?
The conversation and interaction has been adversarial. The battle is rhetorical in order to move the action toward the inevitable conclusion of the earthly ministry of Jesus, which these religious leaders reject. Not only do they reject it for themselves, because his liberating ministry threatens their power structure and privilege, they want to discredit and ultimately eliminate him.
The first story starts with the Pharisees making plans “to trap him in his words” (Mt 22:15) by forcing Jesus to make an inflammatory comment about a touchy political matter. Flattering him with the title of “Teacher,” they ask, “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” It’s a dicey question. In that day your views on taxation could get you killed. Prior to Jesus’ ministry a rebel named Judas had led an anti-taxation revolt, which the Romans crushed by pinning Judas and his cohorts to crosses. If Jesus answers, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes,” he’s a dangerous political rebel. If he answers, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes,” he’s clearly in cahoots with the unjust oppressors. It’s a nicely laid trap, filled with a slab of bloody bait.
It’s important not to overlook the nature of the flattery they pour on Jesus. Everything they said to him was true, but they did not believe in him nor did they value those attributes in him. They say it in order to trap him by his own character. They do not respect him even if their language reflects words of praise. They want to use his nature against him. The religious leaders view him with derision and contempt; they think he is weak. His power rests in his humility, impartiality, transparency, vulnerability, and love. There is no regard for him because they cannot appreciate the nature of his strength. For the religious leaders, strength lies in power over. With Jesus, it is always power with–that is the heart and the mission of the incarnation of the Christ and the commissioning of the disciples.
The religious leaders want to trap Jesus into the box they have placed themselves as subjects of empire. The benefits they receive come at a cost, part of which is the obligation to uphold the empire above all else. No matter who they claim to worship, empire has become their god. Jesus forces them to confront this truth. His disregard and courage in the face of imperial power simultaneously enrages and confounds them. This has been evident throughout this entire discourse, and their response brings the truth of their real allegiance to a point. This is not a conversation about taxes; it’s about belonging and citizenry. Whose will do you pray will be done–that of the Holy One or the emperor? Do you belong to the kindom of God or to the empire? Is your allegiance to the nation where you reside or the Creator of all? In the words of Joshua, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” (Joshua 24:15) The answer cannot be both.
Verse 15 narrates the response of Pharisees. They now attempt to trap Jesus. Allied with Herodians, presumably supporters of the Herodian dynasty and Rome, they ask Jesus about tax payment to the emperor. The question is astute. Tax payment expressed submission to Roman rule over God’s people and land. Refusal was serious dissent. Coins bore forbidden images of emperors. Most accommodated; a few openly resisted. Jesus dissembles, first not having the tax coin, then with a naive, perhaps mocking question, then with a riddle (21:21). What is the relationship of the two clauses? Does Jesus endorse paying the tax as part of the things of God, or, in privileging the second cause, as a strategy for removing the blasphemous and idolatrous coin from the land, or, reading the “and” in an adversative sense, does he disqualify payment because the land and people belong to God, not to the impostor Rome? It is indeed an amazing answer (22:22).
Currency itself is neutral. It is a tool and a mechanism of meeting needs and desires by facilitating the exchange of goods and services. The existence of the coin is not problematic or causing conflict. It’s the attachment of that particular coin to Caesar and his imperial systems. God does not function under Caesar’s system. Jesus makes the claim that God’s system (the kindom) is separate and distinct in character, nature, and participation. Jesus is not concerned about the question of paying taxes to the empire because that’s not God’s system. Jesus is entirely concerned with the participation of the children of God in God’s system.
The tax-payment scene continues to raise the question of the relation of Jesus-followers to political and civic authority. A long tradition in both Catholic and Protestant traditions reads this scene through a division of responsibilities between the church (spiritual matters, rites and piety, word and Spirit) and civic authorities (civic and political order). However, such a division separates civic and political order from divine accountability as well as from the voices and input of Christian citizens who are rendered quietistic and automatically compliant by such a dualistic schema (contrary to Acts 5:29). For many Jesus-followers, such forced nonparticipation in the processes of government is unacceptable.
It is not that Jesus wants their followers to disengage from the world. That’s not consistent with the biblical witness. The faithful Christian response is to be in the world but not of it. The duality of following The Way means residing in the empire while maintaining citizenry (and ultimate allegiance) to the kindom.
Jesus “deftly permits the paying of taxes, even to a foreign power whose rule over Israel was illegitimate, while at the same time asserting the sovereignty of God.” It is a two-part answer where the second half trumps the first half. As in the earlier discussion around taxes (17:24–27), Jesus’ followers may be paying taxes to the Roman authorities but they are not paying tribute. This is yet another instance of Jesus finding a “third way” that is neither the violence of revolt nor complicity of submission. It amounts to a nonviolent subversion of the oppressive power that does not concede Rome’s sovereignty; only God is sovereign. Amazed at Jesus’ answer, his questioners just leave him and go away (22:22).
Once again, the religious leaders attempt to put Jesus to the test, and the tables get turned. The religious leaders are amazed albeit not in a good way. Once again, Jesus has beat their test by giving them one which they fail. When confronted with the truth, their response is to turn away. They made their choice. It was not Jesus. It was not the kindom of God. It was not the truth.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
The true significance of slavery in the United States to the whole social development of America lay in the ultimate relation of slaves to democracy. What were to be the limits of democratic control in the United States? If all labor, black as well as white, became free—were given schools and the right to vote—what control could or should be set to the power and action of these laborers? Was the rule of the mass of Americans to be unlimited, and the right to rule extended to all men regardless of race and color, or if not, what power of dictatorship and control; and how would property and privilege be protected? This was the great and primary question which was in the minds of the men who wrote the Constitution of the United States and continued in the minds of thinkers down through the slavery controversy. It still remains with the world as the problem of democracy expands and touches all races and nations.
And of all human development, ancient and modern, not the least singular and significant is the philosophy of life and action which slavery bred in the souls of black folk. In most respects its expression was stilted and confused; the rolling periods of Hebrew prophecy and biblical legend furnished inaccurate but splendid words. The subtle folk-lore of Africa, with whimsy and parable, veiled wish and wisdom; and above all fell the anointing chrism of the slave music, the only gift of pure art in America.
Beneath the Veil lay right and wrong, vengeance and love, and sometimes throwing aside the veil, a soul of sweet Beauty and Truth stood revealed.
–W. E. B. DuBose, Black Reconstruction in America
For further reflection
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” ― Henry David Thoreau
“I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me.” ― S.E. Hinton
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” ― Oscar Wilde
A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at //ucc.org/SermonSeeds.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (email@example.com), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.