Jesus is harder to outwit than a peasant should be. That’s one way, and maybe the best way, of reading why everyone walks away amazed at the end of this passage in Matthew’s gospel.
He has the people, but is looked on with suspicion or outright hostility by those with something to loose. So persons of substance bring him a question crafted to put Jesus in risk: is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?
That was a legal question floating around, but its hard to take this as sincere; you don’t get to be someone regarded as a Herodian—Herodian as in, Herod—by not paying your taxes. One of Herod’s successor sons was literally minting coins imprinted with the image of the emperor at Caesarea Philippi as this conversation took place.
When Jesus was a little boy, the first movement against Roman rule over his people sprung up violently when Rome attempted a census to figure out the taxes to be extracted by its occupation government. Acceptance of the tax, the movement held, was acceptance of Roman rule and disloyalty to Israel’s God. They ended up paying—the force of Roman arms was extremely persuasive. But this never went away. Taxes remained a language of resistance and complicity, understood both by common people and those who governed them.
So this is an extremely dangerous conversation.The preface to the question—you’re a sincere person, a person without partiality, a teacher of the way of God—is a way of walking Jesus into a trap saying, “we’ve heard about the absolute integrity of your teaching, which makes you a man perfect for dealing with this vexing question facing us all. Here’s a bullhorn. Tell us.” Its a trap, because if Jesus says, “yes,” to the question
they put to him about whether its lawful to pay the tax, then he’s aligned himself with the props and collaborators with Roman rule, and against the Zealots who would overthrow it. If he says, “no, it isn’t lawful,” he’s probably said enough to be crucified.
But he’s been challenged as a teacher about how a person is to live properly under the law,and there’s no way to simply evade it. So he makes a request; he asks his questioners to show him the sort coin used for the tax.
They produce one, because they’re still giving him rope to see what happens.
And now he questions them—“whose head is on this, and whose title?”
“Then it’s his and you should give it to him.”
Jesus has made an answer out of the obvious: the Emperor is the lord of coins. He doesn’t explain how this is; he doesn’t suggest an explanation for why Caesar has the authority that he does. He simply says how it is: you have the emperor’s coins because you move easily within the emperor’s economy, and anyone with a coin in their pocket is already paying their debt. Its a serious question, but it hasn’t been asked seriously.
But Jesus isn’t finished, because formally a challenge on a point of law requires a response to the heart of the question: what does the law of God say about our obligation to give to authority. So he finishes the sentence; “give…to God the things that are God’s.” And everybody nodded their heads and went away amazed at how the ambush had unfolded. But it would have been helpful if some brave Judean had asked what exactly that meant.
On one level, that’s as obvious as the image on the coin. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” sings one psalmist. “The sea is his for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed” sings another. But if everything is God’s—if everything in us and over us and under us is God’s— what, how, do we give in response?
This is where I start thinking about sabbath.
In Genesis, God blessed that seventh day when there was morning and evening because at the end of the sixth day, God had seen that all made things were good, and on the next day God rested in the community of goodness God had made, watching things become what they were. The sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy spells out that the seventh day will be a sabbath to the Lord. No work. Not you or your household, or your servants, or your ox or your donkey. There will come afterward whole bunch of rules and interpretations of rules to help people keep the sabbath well. But donkeys get a sabbath too. One morning a week, the donkeys will stand there and nobody will tie anything to them. They will need no further instruction or discipline. Count on them to enjoy their donkey-ness un-minded until the next morning. The ox will not be out there forgetfully turning over the earth, zig-zagging furrows on its day off because its dad used to complain about freeloaders. It will be something without a name or purpose, munching God’s grass like the beasts of every kind in the garden, whose glassy black eyes had never yet seen a human with an idea when God called them good. That’s rest.
We were given Sabbath as a way of discovering our relationship to God, again and again—the relationship that the rest of creation cannot forget. Jesus tells the story of the rich fool who dies by himself with full barns and explains it to the people by saying: look at the ravens, they neither sow nor reap; look at the lilies, that grow without toiling or spinning. God feeds them. God clothes them.
Sabbath is trusting in the knowledge that the world is hard, but that the grass grows overnight, thoughtlessly gardened by legions of tilling earthworms and that God hears the cries of hungry ravens whose whole lives—even sometimes their hungry deaths— are about sabbath—a squawking song of dependence on the God who made them.
What does that have to do with giving, with giving to God the things that are God’s? To give—to give away what we’re clutching with anything like joy—means there has to be a part of us that can let the world happen, let God’s loving work in creation unfold apart from our trying to steer it toward productivity, and ourselves toward security. I’ll tell you—and you’ve probably seen this for yourselves—some of the most fearlessly generous people I’ve ever encountered were people without houses, people who rode the bus with their groceries.
Remember that Jesus, even as he spoke was preparing himself to give to God what was God’s—to trust his relationship to the Father enough to let the governor and the executioner take what they were going take.
We have a chance to practice that kind of freedom—
to practice freedom with what we let go, give away.
We have a chance to bear witness that we cannot fall out of God’s hand.