Last week, while preparing for last Sunday, I nearly went cross-eyed and mute, as I tried to make sense of a very difficult lectionary text. It was difficult, because it conflicts with other Biblical texts. I decided to pull you into my misery—why suffer alone? So, we explored together which of four texts, three of them scriptural, and one based on scripture, was the right text. In other words, we asked of our texts, “Will the real Jesus please stand up?”
This week, relief. The story we have in Matthew is told in Mark, and Luke, too. And the stories are almost word-for-word the same. In fact, some people have suggested that the gospel writers may have copied from each other—or most probably that Luke and Matthew, independently, each copied from Mark. However it was, we can be as certain as it is ever possible to be certain with a gospel text, that what I just read from Matthew a few minutes ago was true to Jesus’ own thoughts and words on the matter.
What is that matter? The matter as to do with allegiances. Should the Jews be faithful to Caesar? Remember, in that day, Caesar counted himself as a god. Caesar’s subjects worshiped him and made sacrifices to him. Two gods was one too many in the Jewish world. Hadn’t God said to Moses , You shall have no other Gods before me?”
That’s the backstory of our scripture reading for today. Knowing that the Jews worshiped only one true God, the Pharisees and some Herodians, that is, supporters of the Roman governor of Judah, Herod, try to trap Jesus. They try to trap Jesus by asking him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” In other words, should the Jews add Caesar to their lonely, one-god pantheon? Simple question, really, which could be answered with a simple yes or no answer.
But it as if they have cornered Brer rabbit. The Pharisees and Herodians have bared their teeth and are about to swallow Jesus whole. If Jesus says “NO, it is NOT lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar,” then the Pharisee and Herodians can turn Jesus over to what amounts to the 1st century IRS. If Jesus says “Yes, it IS lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” then it would appear to Jesus’s followers that Jesus has bowed to the Roman Emperor. Jesus would have ruined his credibility as a rabbi, as a holy man of the one true God. However, Jesus answers in a way that would make Brer Rabbit proud.
He is quick, just like that. Swift and agile as a jack rabbit. When WE might give an answer that we would regret, and only later, think of all the “I should’ve saids and could’ve saids”—Jesus gives the right answer first go round. Jesus’ quick, pithy response: “Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” Which in effect is Brer Rabbit asking the fox to throw him into the briar patch.
We can imagine everyone scrambling to be the first to find a denarius.. On that denarius would have been a likeness of Tiberius Caesar and these words. “Tiberius Caesar, august and divine son of Augustus, high priest.” That’s blasphemy to a Jew.
We, who know that Jesus is God’s son, might expect Jesus to say, “No, don’t pay taxes to Caesar and by the way, stop using those Roman coins.” That, though, would have been folly. If a Jew living in occupied Judah didn’t pay taxes to Rome, using Roman currency including the denarius, his land would be confiscated. If he didn’t have land to be confiscated, that didn’t matter. He still had to pay his taxes. Some poor landless Jews even sold their children to pay Rome’s tax man.
So again, it would have been folly for Jesus to suggest that the Jews NOT pay their taxes. Jesus understood the Jews’ predicament. His answer, then? “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s.” Which begs the question, “What of ours belongs to God?”
Those Herodians listening in would have scratched their heads in confusion. “These poor Jews have nothing else TO give—we’ve taken it all.” It wouldn’t have taken long for the Jews, though, including the Pharisees, to answer the question for themselves. “What of ours belongs to God?” The answer was written on their doorposts—some devout Jews even wore the answer in phylacteries, that is, little leather boxes, they tied to their wrists and foreheads during morning worship. On those doorposts and in those leather boxes was written on pieces of papyrus or animal skin, this phrase: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul in mind.” Ah,” the Jews thought to themselves, “Rome may take our money, our land--but our hearts, our souls and our minds? Well, of course, THEY belong to God!”
It’s a notion not new to Jesus, but certainly lived out and spread by Jesus. Oppressed people of faith, have relied on that one truth for eons. Christian martyrs fed to lions for Roman sport, African Americans whipped and scorned by cruel slave masters, starving emaciated Jews languishing in concentration camps. They knew in a way we can’t possibly know, “You can strip us, starve us, take away our independence, you can take away our money and our land, and our homes —you can destroy our bodies even, but you can’t take our hearts, our souls and our minds.”
In that response Jesus out-foxed the Herodians and the Pharisees. Like Brer Rabbit, who convinced the fox to throw him in the briar patch, just like Brer Rabbit, Jesus quickly moves from being an almost-victim, to being a victor. Yeah, Jesus. But Jesus does more than win a war with words. In that answer, he gives hope to the oppressed Jews. Jesus reminds them, “Yes, your shoulders may be under Rome’s yoke, but you can still hold your head up. You still and will always belong to God.”
And that’s our stepping off place for today. We don’t take seriously enough, maybe, the notion that our hearts, souls and minds belong to God. We can withstand a lot when we take that seriously.
I am afraid I am scooping myself here, but this week I bought a book just out by Eric Metaxas—it’s on Martin Luther. It is titled, in fact, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. That’s exactly right. Martin Luther DID change the world. I am reading it with the thought that I might preach from it on Reformation Sunday, which is also All Saints Sunday. So, next week, actually, on October 29th. It’s a doorstop of a book, so I may not finish it before next Sunday, but I can get most of the way through it—and of course, I already know how it ends. Just to give you a heads up, Martin Luther instigates the Reformation, and a new Christian movement called Protestantism is born—surprise! The Reformation happened 500 years ago this year so it is timely.
What I WILL mention here, since it fits in with today’s scripture passage, is Martin Luther’s debacle. Where is his allegiance? Is it to God or to the Holy Roman Empire-- to God or the Roman Catholic Church Basically it’s the same question that the Pharisees and Herodians take to Jesus, right?
In 1521, Martin Luther is called before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the V. The purpose of that meeting, is so that Luther can answer for the many books and articles he has written—books and articles condemning some despicable practices of the Roman Catholic Church and condoned by the Holy Roman Empire. The most despicable practice concerned the selling of indulgences. The way it worked was, you paid money to buy an indulgence, that is a piece of paper. That purchase would allow your deceased loved one, languishing in purgatory, to be freed. Then, he or she could move on to heaven! So again, paying money to the church, would save your deceased one’s soul! The REAL reason for the selling of indulgences, was not to save anyone’s soul. That’s God’s arena. The real reason for the selling indulgences was so the Pope could fund his grandiose building program-the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Because of the newly invented printing press, Martin’s writings had grown legs, so to speak. They were moving rapidly throughout the Empire, and causing a stir. People in high places feared the gig might be up. So,the Roman Emperor commands Martin Luther to the Diet of Worms—a phrase that calls up all kinds of disgusting images. Yes, she’s on a new diet to lose weight. It’s a diet of Worms. Martin was summoned there to either defend his writings at the Assembly at Worms or recant them. This was serious. Others who had questioned the Roman Catholic Church’s money-making schemes had been burned at the stake.
For sure he felt uneasy as he made the trip from his home parish to Worms. Still, we think of Martin as a strong, courageous man—not like your average person; not like any of us. History books record him as standing tall before the Emperor himself, Charles V. I actually found on the internet, a picture of him before that Diet of Worms--his right hand in the air, his left hand his clutching his Bible.
A lot of history books, in fact, suggest that when he is asked if he will recant, our hero answers negatively in a forceful, dramatic fashion. Well, apparently, not exactly. Unlike Jesus, unlike Brer Rabbit, Martin was not such a quick thinker in that high stakes situation. Nor was he forceful. Martin says weakly, wimpily even, “I beg you time to think it over.” His voice was so faint, some in the room could not hear what he said.
That Diet at Vorms allowed Martin to “think on it” until the following day. Back in his quarters in Worms, he consulted scripture. He may have turned to today’s very scripture passage for guidance. And he prayed.
The next day he gives that famous answer, and this time, his voice is strong. He says “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise.” Here I stand. God help me. Amen” And of course, just as Jesus’ answer inspired oppressed Jews, Martin Luther’s answer inspired oppressed Christians.
So the take away from all of this, is, sometimes like those first century Jews we have to get along with our oppressors—but even in oppression it is possible to maintain a faith life. In fact, our faith life is what keeps us going. Other times, as in Luther’s case, the stars are aligned, and history takes a breath, just long enough for someone to speak truth to power. And the world is changed forever.