One of the disadvantages of standing here, in the year 2020…and I will try to keep my focus on just this one, because I do not think there are many I need to name. I am, after all, still talking to a camera, at least for the next few weeks…but that is the sort of digression I just promised to avoid.
One of the disadvantages of standing here, in the year 2020 is the utter familiarity many of us have with certain texts. I may not have even needed to read Matthew 22:15-22 just now. Putting it on the screen so you could read it with me was almost certainly overkill. For many of you, I probably just needed to say three words from the King James translation, “Render unto Caesar.” With just those three words, not even a complete clause, much less a whole verse, many of you would have called up a memory of the text, and the memory of quite a few sermons on it.
I can guess that more than a few of those sermons centered on that particular verse from this text, rendered in the New Revised Standard Version as “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” telling you to either pay your taxes, or, since the lectionary brings this up in mid-October, perhaps pay your pledges to the church.
And, yes. Do those things. If we have a mailing address for you, you will receive our stewardship materials in the next week or so. And yes, also pay your taxes, but I hope you do not need me to tell you that. I hope you do not need anyone to tell you that because you enjoy roads, and schools, maybe having a library or fire department nearby. If you do not, well, at least here in Hampshire County, you will have an opportunity to register your disapproval of libraries and fire-fighters next month. I suppose you are stuck with the roads and schools.
I could give one of those sermons, a variation on that sermon, but in my reading this week, I was struck by a different set of three words: “along with the Herodians.” Most of us remember the end of this text, that famous sentence I already read, but how well do we know the beginning of this pericope?
“Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?’”
This struck me this week. We do not hear all that much about the Herodians in the gospels. Jesus’ regular foils are the Sadducees, the Jewish religious establishment, the Temple priests and clerical elite, at least, those the Romans permitted to have those roles, and the Pharisees, the sort of anti-establishment Jewish intellectuals of the day. I imagine their successors today sitting around trendy coffee shops complaining about the clergy, government, and demanding intellectual and ideological purity, except instead of some communist utopia, their goal is a rigid theocracy. There are some arguments that Jesus himself was, or had been for a time, a Pharisee. I should note, if you think I am minimizing the Pharisees, you are wrong. Within Judaism, at least, the Pharisees won—when the Romans destroyed the Temple, they destroyed the power base for the Sadducees and other “official” Judaism, but the Pharisee’s practices, centered around study of scripture, survived
But this leaves us with the question: who are the Herodians? You might remember Herod, from the stories of Jesus birth—the wicked king whose hunting of Jesus forced Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to flee to Egypt, who caused the three kings or wisemen to change their route home, who later had John the Baptist executed. Herod was the debatably Jewish aristocrat who Rome tolerated as a puppet king over the Galilee.
The Herodians, then, are the political establishment, the supporters and partisans of Herod and his rule And so, they, like their principal, Herod, would be highly in favor of paying the taxes to Rome since, well, Herod is the one who had principal responsibility for making sure that tax was collected, at least in the areas the Romans gave him authority, and for that and other services, Herod got a cut of those taxes.
Remember, in contrast, the Pharisees are the people arguing about ideological purity and complaining about the government. They were not fans of taxes, especially since the Roman tax would have been paid to an occupying government with coins that are blasphemous—the title that appeared on the coin would have been something like “Tiberius, Emperor and High Priest, son of the God, Augustus.”
So, when Jesus sees Pharisees and Herodians arriving together to ask him a question, Jesus knows it is a trap. This is why the text continues “But Jesus, aware of their malice, said ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?’” Jesus knows these two groups hate each other, and Jesus answer is not simply “pay your taxes and pay your pledges.”
Jesus calls attention to the coin itself—Rome was not about to go through the trouble of converting currency and Roman taxes had to be paid in Roman money—Jesus calls attention to the blasphemy on the coin likely knowing that the Herodians, who were Jewish, but not particularly devout or thoughtful Jews, would either not know, or not care about that blasphemy. So, for the Herodians, Jesus says “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” and then, to the Pharisees, Jesus says “and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus is not advocating the separation of Church and state. The position of the Romans was, quite simply, that the state was the church. The Pharisees argued that the church should be the state, but they lacked the power to make that happen. To the Pharisees, and indeed, also to Jesus, everything ultimately belongs to God. Nothing belongs to Caesar.
Our text ends “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” Throughout this passage, that pronoun, “they” is referring to the Pharisees alone, not the Pharisees and the Herodians together, and I should note that for all of the animosity Jesus displays toward the Pharisees, he never calls them stupid. The Pharisees were amazed because they saw that he gave an answer that the two groups heard in different ways. The Pharisees walked away because they could not tell the Herodians, they could not explain to the Herodians why Jesus answer was not what the Herodians thought without also indicting themselves, without covering themselves with the same target they wanted to put on Jesus.
This is not a passage about paying your taxes or paying your tithes and pledges, though, please, still do those things.
This is a story about Jesus bringing together unlikely allies, even if they are coming together to oppose him. This is a story, even, about Jesus respect for the Pharisees intelligence. This is a story complaining about people asking disingenuous questions, asking questions not because they are interested in an answer but because they are hoping to lay a trap. The Pharisees bring the Herodians with them not just because they think it will put Jesus in a tough spot, but because the Herodians bring with them the threat of state violence. This is a story about not taking the bait, not responding to provocation with escalation.
In 2007, Kenyan national elections devolved into two months of chaos. Over those two months, somewhere around 1,000 people died, and around half a million people were displaced. I lived in Kenya during the next national election, in 2013. One of the remarkable things I witnessed was the incredible effort a variety of institutions, including the churches, put into supporting campaigns against post-election violence. For months, just about every church service in every church I walked into included something about accepting the election results or committing to peaceful protest. I was amazed at the effort and the coordination. Even with that, there was still a lot of concern that it would not work. We even had conversations about pulling me out of the country. As it turns out, the combination of electoral reforms and the anti-violence campaigns worked.
This week, I received a set of talking points for clergy in the US. It includes polling that 71% of US citizens are concerned about post-election violence and asks me to tell you things like that 86% of US residents identify their role in their family, as a parent, or a sibling, or a child, as their most important identity. I see that and I think about the vandals who have defaced and stolen political signs, not just elsewhere, but across the street from the church. I think about the posts on Facebook that lament the state of “the other side” whichever side that might be, saying things like “they are planning a coup” when “they” variously includes government officials, militias, protestors, or just people who want to vote a different way. And I see the comments, comments that either agree that those people over there are the problem, or argue no, it is another group, it is the people on your side who are the problem.
The Pharisees, in today’s text, were hoping that they could get Jesus to say something that would justify a violent response. Not from the Pharisees, they were too pure for that. That is why they brought the Herodians. That is why they put Jesus to the test. They wanted Jesus to escalate the situation, to rise to the provocation with another provocation so they could point to him as a threat to the state even while they themselves opposed that same state. The Pharisees are seeking to make a short-term political alliance in the hope that they will benefit from the chaos.
Jesus refuses to feed that chaos. Jesus will still be arrested and executed by the government. Jesus will even face the same charge the Pharisees tried to lay that day—sedition from Rome. Jesus is not compromising himself or his position. Jesus is refusing to escalate. Jesus is ensuring that, when he is finally arrested, there will be no be violence…or at least, not so much violence he cannot undo it with a final healing.
We are surrounded by provocations. TV, radio, Facebook, Twitter, so many other places feed us provocations because those work. There is nothing better than fear and anger to keep people watching, reading, clicking. Nothing is a better example of original sin, nothing is a better example of the gap between the things we say we want, the things we know we should want and the things we actually want than the media we consume. I wish I could tell you to stop paying attention to political news. I mean, I can tell you that, but I wish I could believe that any of you, or even that I, could actually do that. I do, however, hope that we can choose not to rise to provocation. That we can choose to stop engaging in the cycles of escalation.
I was amazed, in Kenya, at the effort churches put into their anti-violence campaigns. I do not remember enough of the things they said. I did not pay attention to them at the time because I never thought I would need to do anything similar.