Last year, a group of friends from Chicago spent a weekend gambling in Las Vegas. One of the men on the trip won $100,000. He didn’t want anyone to know about it, so he decided not to return with the others. He took a later plane home, arriving around 3am. He immediately went out to the backyard of his house, dug a hole, and planted the money in it.
The following morning, he walked outside and found the hole had been dug up and the money stolen. He noticed footsteps leading from the hole to the house next door, which was owned by a deaf mute. On the same street lived a professor who understood sign language and was a friend of the deaf man. Grabbing his pistol the enraged man went to awaken the professor, and he dragged him over to the deaf man’s house.
“You tell this guy that if he doesn’t give me back my $100,000, I’m going to kill him! He screamed at the professor. The professor conveyed the message to his friend, and his friend replied in sign language, “I hid it in my backyard, underneath the cherry tree.”
The professor turned to the man with the gun and said, “He’s not going to tell you. He said he’d rather die first.”
I must say that it’s rare when I get a joke, or come across one during the week prior to a sermon that actually works for it. I want to suggest that this joke works this morning for this reason. The story of Jesus’ conversation with the Herodians about the image on the denarius does not have to do with the separation of things political from things religious, as seems to be the usual line. Think about it for a minute – other than the fact that these are two of the three things you don’t talk about in polite company, and therefore you might think would have good reason for being kept apart, why would Jesus argue that somethings don’t properly belong to God when the whole point of his God is that God is the one whom we are to love with our whole mind, body and soul? It does not make sense.
The point of my sermon is to say the opposite – to be a disciple of Jesus, is to experience the love of God so convincingly that nothing anyone can do or say can take it away. Even upon threat of death. The joke, at least in this context is a parable. Not meant to be taken literally, but to point to the reward and the risk of discipleship.
The story of the conversation Jesus has with some Jewish scholars about the image on the coin is part of popular culture. The famous line– render unto Caesar that which is Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God which is God’s is quoted by people in ordinary conversation to mean that you have to buck up and learn to sort out your priorities. We all need to make decisions – some of which are harder than others. This refers to decisions of the most difficult sort.
Preachers like it for pledge drives, because we can lean ask you to lean a little harder on the God side of the equation and politicians lean on the Caesar side of the equation to justify taxation. Given what I’ve already said about the joke, you might sense that I’m going to suggest that this common reading has got it almost completely wrong.
As usual, a glance at the context helps. Mark has been painting an increasingly ominous picture of Jesus and his struggle with the powers that be. Here, in this last chapter before Mark goes berserk with warnings of the sky turning to blood and the end crashing in, the ongoing legal match between Jesus and the legal authorities has reached a pitch point. The Herodians are ready to take Jesus, but cannot do it, because of the crowds, unless he condemns himself.
So they seek, through their rhetorical skills to make him say something stupid. But Jesus does not. He is far quicker than they give him credit for.
But back to the context. Four points:
- rural land was being taken over by big city, rich landlords and the peasants of Galilee were losing their land;
- mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy;
- farmer laborers were being forced onto the unemployment line, and
- a new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent.
The atmosphere was potentially explosive.
As we know from the rise of the Tea Party – taxes are never popular. The difference between the modern Tea Party and the historical Boston Harbor tea party, however, is that in 1773 our taxes were going to a foreign government and that the land and its laborers were being abused by that government. It was a movement not based on greed, but on freedom.
And now you realize that Jesus is not just engaged in an academic exercise with the authorities – he was trapped. To refuse to pay taxes would be inviting a crushing military response. For Jesus to encourage this response is for him to incite violence and betray the ideals of the beloved community he wants to let flower.
On the other hand, to meekly pay taxes would be to alienate his base, to betray the people who so eagerly followed him.
Instead of inciting violence or alienating his base, Jesus amazes with his answer. And the question for us is “why?” What does he say that amazes even his enemies?
First, he asks for a coin. When his questioners produce one, Jesus looks at it and asks them who’s on it. This is not a game like we play with our kids, “Whose on the quarter?” The emperor is on (almost) all of the money.
Some say that his response that we should pay the emperor what is the emperors and God what is God’s is ambivalent – a non answer that leaves everyone scratching their heads. They argue that the whole point of the story is simply for Jesus to confound us. Marcus Borg, with whom I quite often agree, says, “Jesus responded in a deliberately enigmatic way in order to avoid the trap set by his opponents. His response was never meant to be figured out. Rather, in this passage as in several others, we see his deft debating skill.”
Yes, Jesus’ Socratic skills are on vivid display here. But I think Borg is wrong to suggest that Jesus was purposefully confusing.
Here’s another idea.
Suppose we’re missing something from the story. This is not too far fetched an idea. These stories of Jesus were not written down immediately after the fact. Perhaps they were not written down for years or even decades. As we know from playing the game telephone in grade school, the oral transmission of stories can lead to some funny or even confusing results.
Imagine now, how adding gestures to the story complicates the issue – especially when the story begins to take written form. The gestures drop out – meaning is lost.
Recognizing this as a possibility one scholar (Rabbi Arthur Waskow) imaginatively adds another line to the story:
“Whose image is on the coin?” Answer: “The emperor’s.” Here’s where the imagination comes in: Jesus puts his arm on his interlocutor’s shoulder and asks, “And whose image is on this coin?”
Now that may not make immediately make much sense, but for Jesus’ contemporaries, whose primary form of social interaction and entertainment is centered around the Shabbat and the reading of the Torah, where God made the human race in the image of God, there was a smile of recognition. As if to say, “I know where Jesus is going with this.” In fact there is an ancient rabbinic teaching which they would have known about the fact that when earthly rulers put their images on coins, they all look alike, but when God puts God’s image on the human being, no two look alike.
Where is Jesus going?
As it is written, the parable ends awkwardly – Henry David Thoreau’s famous criticism of Jesus is apt – he leaves us no wiser than before.
But the reading I have offered seems not only to get Jesus out of the trap with a Socratic elegance, but also serves once again to bolster Jesus’ claim that the community of love consists, not in divorcing the work of creating just societies, that is our political work, from the insights of religion, but in bringing our religious insights to the open table of conversation.
Now – and this has to be heard for what it is – especially in this charged election week climate – there is a difference between dying for your religious beliefs because you cannot reasonably defend them in light of the common good, and risking your life for your religious beliefs because you willingly bring them to the public conversation. In other words, Jesus is not talking about religious zealotry. He is instead pointing out that all political claims imply some principal or set of principals. And to the Herodians, and indeed to his friends, he says, show your cards. Let us talk about these principals and let us ask, do they move us in the direction of the community of love that is implied by the ancient commandment to love God with all your heart, mind and soul.
I close with the words of Rabbi Arthur Waskow and the slogan of our denomination – a slogan which for some of our new members, at least, is powerful and important.
The real task of rending properly our money is not to figure out what percent of our family budget goes to the church. In fact, says the Rabbi “Jesus has not proposed dividing up the turf between the material and the spiritual. He has redefined the issue: ’Give your whole self to the One who has imprinted divinity upon you!”
The real task of discipleship, similarly, is not to figure out what the bare minimum is required of us, or what we have to do in order to be a member of a this community. In fact, we say, in the tradition of Jesus, “No matter who you are or where you are on your journey, you’re welcome here.” So ask I you now risk who you are and what you have because in that way, we will experience, afresh the power of God. Amen.