Sermon based on Matthew 22: 15-22. Todays’ scripture reminded me about a small piece I heard about from last November in BuzzFeed, an entertainment and social news website. The website reported that Chip and Joanna Gaines, the popular couple who are the stars of the HGTV series Fixer Upper, attend a church that does not support same-sex marriage and views homosexuality as a sin.
The Gaines’s however have never commented on air about their views regarding the LGBT community, same-sex marriage or their faith, and many of the reader responses to the BuzzFeed article took issue with the media company's motives in reporting the story, some describing it as a “witch hunt” or the new mantra, “Fake news” or as some would suggest a “gotcha” question.
The Gaines’s didn't immediately respond until January 2nd of this year when they released some comments in a blog titled “Chip's New Year's Revelation.” In it, Chip said that he and Joanna don't always “see eye to eye,” but added, “If Joanna and I, who are best friends, don't see lots of things the same way --- how on earth do we expect a world of strangers to magically align? The reality is, we may not all get on the same page and I think that's okay.”
Then, alluding to this past Fall’s presidential race, Chip said, “Jo and I refuse to be baited into using our influence in a way that will further harm an already hurting world.” Chip continued to say, “If there is any hope for all of us to move forward, to heal and to grow -- we have got to learn to engage people who are different from us with dignity and with love. ... We care about you for the simple fact that you are a person, our neighbor on planet Earth. It's not about what color your skin is, how much money you have in the bank, your political affiliation, sexual orientation, gender, nationality or faith.”
Chip's response and especially his comment that he and his wife “refuse to be baited into using our influence in a way that will further harm an already hurting world,” we could see as a cynical way to avoid taking a position. However, in my opinion even though I personally disagree with the views and interpretation of scripture of that church they attend, Chip’s response is spot on. For as many of us know there are many social matters about which Christians disagree --- the death penalty, nuclear weapons, guns etc., --- to say nothing of Christians colliding with some of the values of the larger culture like the materialism. These divisions not only among Christians but in our society, makes it way too easy for many of us to be “baited” into deepening the divides in the world today.
Instead as we follow Jesus, it's worth noting that Jesus was a master at handling those “witch hunt, fake news or gotcha” questions that seems to be in the news every day. Today’s gospel event recorded in Matthew is a prime example.
I would begin today’s passage earlier. In Chapter 21 vs. 23, Jesus had been speaking to the “chief priests and elders,” then in vs. 45 Jesus is speaking to the “chief priests and Pharisees.” Now into our 22nd chapter the Herodians are brought into the picture, which means that the tension would have been ratcheted up. The “Herodians” were followers and supporters of Herod Antipas who ruled the regions of Galilee and Perea from 4 BC to AD 39.
What this indicates is that earlier Jesus had been speaking with the religious leadership. Now, we have an added group, representatives of the political leadership. This Herodian group had the power of the sword. Normally, the Pharisees and Herodians would be ideological opponents and would not have been seen together. Here, these divergent groups gather together in their powerful opposition to Jesus, for as we know politics and religion makes strange bedfellows.
The dialogue begins with these two groups, Pharisees and Herodians addressing Jesus as “teacher,” which sounds respectful, though by this time Matthew’s gospel, makes clear that when Jesus is called “teacher” it is only by those who don't follow his message.
The Pharisees and Herodians appear to flatter Jesus by proclaiming him “sincere” but then seem to take some of that away by saying that he cares not for other opinions. The sense of it all seems to be that Jesus is sincere, but does not know what he's gotten himself into. Jesus is in over his head to which these religious and political representatives where happy to inform Jesus.
Now the Pharisees and Herodians spring their trap cornering Jesus into a delicate debate. These two groups launch into an important question of that period, because tax was an important issue in Jerusalem. It touched on the question of how the Jewish people were to relate to their occupying power, the Roman Empire. It was a tricky question on that the religious and political forces in Jerusalem might have thought that a street preacher from Galilee --- the “sticks” --- might not be up to the task of dealing with it.
We also know from other sources, that at the time of Jesus, this “poll tax” was much hated by the people. The zealots, mainly rural anti-Roman terrorists --- or “freedom fighters,” take your pick --- flatly refused to pay it. The common people, the clear majority of whom were poor, sympathized with the zealots on this point.
Is it lawful to pay taxes the “poll tax” to Caesar or not? Which means that if Jesus says that the tax should be paid, he would lose much of his support among the people. On the other hand, if he says the tax should not be paid, the Herodians are right there to arrest him for sedition. Gotcha! By the way, back to the irony of religion and politics being strange bedfellows, because the Pharisees and Herodians, here portrayed as united in their opposition to Jesus, were themselves split on the question of paying the tax. The Pharisees generally, if somewhat tepidly, like the people opposed the tax, while the Herodians, naturally, supported it.
Matthew records that Jesus was “aware” and flatly called them “hypocrites.” Jesus then asks for the coin, a denarius, which was used to pay the tax. This simple action was an exceptionally deft political move. Note that the entire conversation has taken place after Jesus has “entered” the Temple. Coins with Roman images and inscriptions were not allowed in the Temple, so Jesus didn’t have one, but they did!
What's more, this episode takes place on the morning after Jesus had driven the moneychangers out of the Temple. The reason the moneychangers were there in the first place was to change Roman coins that had an image into Temple coins which had no image at all -- at a 50% mark up.
By asking for a coin, Jesus sent the message to the on-looking crowds that he, quite properly, did not possess one of these coins. When the Pharisees/ Herodians team gave him one, they reveal that they did possess such coins, and had them on their person, at that moment, within the sacred precincts!
Driving home his point, Jesus wants to know whose image is on the coin. The word used in Biblical Greek I think is better translated as “image,” not “head.” I feel this is an important detail because by pointing out the “image,” Jesus was referencing the Torah, the first 5 books of the Old Testament that restrict “graven images.” His message is clear: The image of Caesar is an idol. Jesus also asks what inscription was written on the coin, which, in at this period, would have been: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.”
By asking for the inscription on the coin in front of the crowd, Jesus exposes the pretensions and pagan ideology not only of the occupying Romans but with those who collaborate, in this case the Pharisees who were tepid in their support as well as the Herodians who were all in.
Then comes the famous saying: “Give, therefore, to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.” To which many people of faith within hearing distance, would know that “the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof.” Everything is God's. There are no exceptions. In so saying, Jesus avoided the trap, while at the same time delivering a powerful message about the priorities and values of those who were out to get him. The Pharisees and Herodians can only be “amazed” and leave.
This illustrates one of the potential benefits of how Jesus dealt with some “witch hunt, fake news, gotcha” questions. Jesus could deftly avoid escalating conflict, but also providing an opening for those trying to trap him --- in this case the Pharisees and Herodians --- to reconsider their position. Jesus was teaching at the same time he avoided the trap. This of course is not the only time Jesus was able to avoid the challenges but likewise teach.
Nonetheless let us gets us back for not only is taking the bait an important skill for us, because in our world today, baiting is a very popular technique. This practice shows up every day in our ongoing discussions of religion, politics, social issues and other topics. Friends have parted company because of deep disagreements that could have been bypassed or addressed more civilly had the issue been posed differently or deflected by one of the parties.
One of many places where this practice shows up is in conversations with young people. Michael Bruce, who works with at-risk youth, says that one of the hardest things about working with youth is deciding which questions to answer. Some questions, of course, such as “When is lunch?” are simply seeking information and have no hidden agendas. But other questions, says Bruce, are techniques of power struggle, especially those queries that come in rapid succession or keep being repeated. He says that initiating power struggles is a learned behavior that is often employed by youth who are not aware of what they are doing. Who hasn’t heard something like this: “Can I play video games?” “Not until you have finished your homework.” “I haven't played all week. Can I play and do homework afterward?” “You need to finish your homework first.” “How come you won't let me do anything I like to do?” “You need to finish your homework.” “I don't get it. Why can't I play? Give me one good reason.” “You need to finish your homework and then you can play video games.”
What that means for us is that Jesus' example in these moments suggests two things for us. First, let us model appropriate behavior ourselves. And second, let us try not to take the bait from others. Both are counter cultural and redefine power.
Like any attempt to follow Jesus, some things are easier said than done. We can protest, “Jesus was the Son of God, but I'm a mere mortal.” And when our emotions are running high, it's easy to get hooked and drawn into arguments and power plays that resolve nothing and help no one. Still, attempting to model Jesus is a way of maturing spiritually.
To begin, let us remind ourselves of the underlying premise: because of the gift of grace given by Jesus in his life, death and resurrection to all of us, we are loved. As loved we love others. From that faithful basis, it's worth looking at ourselves especially when we communicate whether we are just looking for information or friendly discussion or whether we're trying to poke a hornet's nest in other people’s lives. When we are uttering religious, social or political pronouncements, our grounding is in God’ love. As others are grounded in God's love. From that we know not everyone sees things as we do.
Second, if we recognize that we are the one being baited, even if done unintentionally --- we might try this: make a clear and countering -- but very civil -- claim from the other side. For example, Being a white man and member of the clergy, I get put into this power play, baiting me to join them against others, a lot, “Well, pastor you must agree with me … "because me being white and knowing the Bible" ….” Rather as loved children of God, let us remember what we know to be true, God's grace whereby we have faith as well as God’s diversity; God’s kingdom in that “Good people can differ.” From that premise, let us begin to work ourselves out of the corners we have placed ourselves.
There are times, of course, when it is important to hold our ground and declare our position, but let us begin from our faith; adopted as forgiven, joyful, loved children of God without taking the bait of others hook, line and sinker. In today's text, Jesus modeled for us that practice as well as taught a God's revealing truth: Give to God the things that are God's.
God is not interested in producing “witch hunts, fake news or Gotcha” moments in our lives. Rather we are to give what we have received from God, we are loved and forgiven in grace. Joyfully following the example of Christ. Amen