(for the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost, October 19, 2014)
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? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 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.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
The same day some Sadducees came to him, saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses said, “If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.” Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.’
Jesus answered them, ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.’ And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching. (Matthew 22:15-33, NRSV).
Our passage consists of two testing questions posed of Jesus in a single day. Both are asked by religious leaders. Both intend to trap.
Jesus, however, like the reader, knows this from the outset. He is ready. So are we. Before he answers he will also point this out to his questioners: ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?’
The Pharisees and Herodians ask about the Roman tax. After a flurry of flattery they pose their conundrum: ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’
This was quite the moral question of the day. Rome occupies Israel. To cover costs the Jews are forced to pay. A few opportunistic Israelites to do the dirty-work. They become outcasts. Non-Jews.
And then there is the question of the religious validity of this giving. Should they pay and live? Should they refuse and die? What guidance does scripture offer?
Perhaps very little. But theirs is a real question. How much do we co-operate with Israel’s oppressor?
The answer: more than they realise. After all there is no real challenge in Jesus request: ‘Show me the coin used for the tax’. They reach into their purse and produce Rome’s coin immediately. It is rapidly becoming their currency. They are familiar with the emperor’s face. Clearly there are hidden benefits to this occupation.
If they wish to deal in the things of both Emperor and God then Jesus’ answer is eminently fair – and exposing: ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ If you think you can work for both masters then pay them both.
No wonder they left…
Later the Sadducees also set their trap. Theirs is hypothetical, highly unlikely. It asks earthly details of a resurrection they do not believe in.
Jesus answer is wonderful: ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.’ They set themselves up as teachers yet restrict their imagination to what is known here. Jesus quote: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” departs from their question. It asks them to reconsider the assumption behind the test.
And the listening crowd are ‘astounded’.
I wonder how these ‘disciples’ reported to the ones who sent them?