A Provocation: Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost: October 22, 2017: Matthew 22:15-22

Matthew 22:15-22
22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.

22:16 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.

22:17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

22:18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?

22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.

22:20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

22:21 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.”

22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

A Question or Two:

  • So, IS IT allowable to pay tribute, or is it not?
  • Are you really sure?

Some Longer Reflections:

This contest scene is kind of fun.

The basic elements are unexceptional: Jesus and the Pharisees are jousting.  The joust concerns the duties and responsibilities of people of faith in a world dominated by Rome.  Jesus amazes them.  This is all pretty ordinary.

But the specific details of this joust are not at all ordinary.

First of all, the Pharisees make common cause with the Herodians.  This is more than odd.  The Herodians are allied with the Empire.  The Pharisees are most definitely not.  The Pharisees send their students to the Herodians and they cook up a test that could get Jesus in trouble with the Jewish people.  Apparently they want their students to pass for Herodians, for collaborators with Roman power.  Maybe they wore costumes.  They would probably have to, since the Pharisees dressed like observant Jews and the Herodians wore what are called elsewhere “gorgeous clothes.”  So, up walk the Herodians, with a bunch of disguised students (think of them as graduate assistants) in their midst.  They ask their question.

Why did they need to be masquerading as Herodians?

That was so that Jesus might be suckered into playing up to Roman collaborators and saying that it was acceptable to pay tribute to the foreign dominating power.  Or maybe he would give a fire-and-brimstone refusal, and that would anger the Herodians and get him in trouble with Rome.  Either way, Jesus loses.

Except that the graduate assistants aren’t as good at passing for Herodians as they could have been.  Jesus sees them right away and calls them “play-actors” (that’s what ὑποκριταί means, after all).  And it’s important to translate it that way.  The line is hilarious.  Jesus is telling them that they need a better costume department.  Or they need more practice talking with the accent of a Herodian.  Or that their attempts at method-acting are a little weak.  Let the line be as funny as it really must have been.

So he asks for a coin.

At that point, two things could have happened.  Maybe the Pharisee-graduate-assistants-posing-as-Herodians actually had the idolatrous coin in their pockets, at which point they found themselves called out as posers.  Or maybe they did not, in which case I can hear them cursing their props department for not thinking about what Herodians would need to have in their pockets before sending them out on stage.

Either way, Jesus plays with them.

The storyteller does not say that Jesus took the coin.  He just looked at it.  “Whose head is that, I wonder?”, says Jesus.  “It’s the emperor,” the poor graduate assistants say, thus revealing that they not only have an example of idolatry on their hands (literally!), but that they are holding the coin of collaboration.

This is masterful.  They are SO caught.

Jesus then says something cryptic about giving to the emperor and giving to God.  The general meaning is clear enough, but the complications are where the lesson is lodged.  Is he actually advocating paying tribute?  Or is he saying that anyone who has the coin of collaboration might just as well pay tribute?  Or is he saying that, since they all have to pay tribute in any case, they should pay while remembering who it is that called them to be Jews?  Or is it more complicated than that?

As is the case with most decent teaching, the complication and the pondering are more important than the answer.

 

 

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