(Please read the passage a number of times before reading the reflection. What is the passage saying to you? What strikes you in the story? Rest with it for a while.)
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 number of years ago I heard a woman tell a story of when she attended a very large gathering of Christians at the Acer Arena in Sydney. At one point in the gathering the lighting was dimmed and the music was slowed, and the volume lowered, and a hush came on the congregation. A pastor, lit by a single light on stage began his call for an offering by asking the people to take their credit cards out of their purses and wallets. He asked them to hold the credit cards up high and he urged them to give their credit cards to the Lord. The woman telling the story, was incensed by this. She did not see it as freely giving to the Lord, but as gross manipulation of the people in order for them to part with their money and give it to the organisers. The whole Acer arena was silent for a moment so, she jumped up from her seat and shouted aloud over and over again, “God does not want your credit cards, God wants you!” At that the security guards rushed to where the shouting was coming from but when they saw she was seated in a corporate box they did not arrest her.
One of the things I have learned about wisdom in the last seven months is the need to release all notions in our minds of separation between sacred and secular. There is no sacred life and there is no separate secular life. There is only one life, and we are to live it to the full. We tend to see Sunday as sacred and church buildings as sacred and what goes on there as sacred, but we see Monday and work, education, politics etc as secular. We tend to behave one way in church and another way in business or in school. Sometimes we use one to influence the other. Sometimes we use spirituality to manipulate a situation to get our way. Other times we will justify our decisions in the church by appealing to what we deem to be best business practice or because it benefits the majority.
Wisdom reminds us that there is only one life and to live it to the full.
Matthew lets us know at the outset of today’s Gospel reading that the intention of the Pharisees was to entrap Jesus in what he said. They had realised (Matthew 21:45-46) that when Jesus told his parables that he was speaking about them and so they wanted to arrest him. When we don’t like what someone is saying publicly about us, we will do all we can to silence them. All over the world political leaders wishing to hold on to power at all costs are silencing the media if they ask critical questions of their leadership or if they do not speak favourably about them.
When the armies of the Roman Empire conquered a country and made it part of the empire, the Romans would use the elite of that country, the king, the rulers and local government to manage the country on behalf of the empire. The Herodians were those who oversaw the country on behalf of the Romans in Palestine. It was their role to make sure that Palestine remained loyal to Caesar and the empire. The Pharisees sent some of their followers and brought the Herodians along with them so that they could trap Jesus with some questions about his position in regard to Caesar and the empire; and the Herodians would be there as witnesses. If Jesus said the wrong thing he could be arrested on the spot, removed immediately and executed. To be caught publicly saying anything that sounded like treason or disloyalty to the emperor would mean certain execution. The Pharisees could then say it was the Herodians acting on behalf of the empire who arrested and executed Jesus not them. So, their plan was not to catch him out on a religious matter but on a political matter.
They said to Jesus. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" In reply Jesus said, “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." Jesus ends his reply by saying, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." So, Jesus shows no disloyalty to the emperor by answering, “Give to the emperor what is the emperors and give to God what is God’s.
We know that the coin was the emperor’s and to be given to him but what things were to be given to God? When Jesus answers the question, Jesus answers with a wisdom that transcends the thinking and reason of this world. Jesus sees life not from within a dualist framework of sacred and secular, right and wrong, true or false or good and evil but from a heavenly perspective, a kingdom or realm of God perspective which sees beyond all earthly divisions and attempts to categorise and separate and manipulate and divide and conquer. The perspective of Jesus is a perspective of the unity of all things. All life is connected. All life is connected to the one source, to the divine. From this perspective there is no us and no them. There are no enemies for we are all part of the one, and connected to each other.
Rather than knowing for sure what is to be given to the emperor and what is to be given to God, rather than knowing for sure what is truth and what is not, perhaps Jesus invites us to step back from dividing life into different and separate categories and learn to stand within ‘a kingdom/realm of God’ perspective which just sees all life as connected. It sees all life as connected because God is life and God cannot be separated. There is one life, to be lived fully. Living a fully human life will never be lived by separating life into the sacred and the secular. There is only one life and you are living it now in this moment wherever you are and whatever you are doing, whether at church, or work, or school, or partying, or shopping or at bible study. God is all around you. God is in you. You are in God. We all are in God. All things are in God.
Prayer – Rather than using words at first, please sit somewhere you can observe nature: amongst flowers, plants or trees, where you can watch birds or insects living life. As you watch, allow some of what you have read to rest in your being, not arguing about it your mind, just letting it be. If words arise, form them into a prayer to God who is life and the giver of life and without whom there is no life.
Minister of Campsie Earlwood Clemton Park Uniting Church Congregation