An argument could be made, that even before he spoke his first parable, even before he gained his first disciple, even before the first person came to him for healing, Jesus was the kind of person the authorities would watch with suspicion. The reason? He was from Galilee.
What do we know about the Galileans? For years, I have heard that mostly-rural Galilee would have been regarded as somewhat of a “backwater” in the eyes of the city-dwellers of Jerusalem or Alexandria or Damascus. That’s part of the beautiful irony of Jesus the Messiah coming from Nazareth in Galilee; if people had been looking for God to make a special appearance on the human stage, this was not one of the first places they would have looked. And if you recall the scene where the disciple Peter denies Jesus three times, a mention is made that Peter “sounds like a Galilean” (Luke 22: 59-62) so there must have been a distinctive regional accent of some sort, and perhaps, just perhaps, even a common appearance of these northerners.
More recently, from the writings of John Dominic Crossan, amongst others, I have learned that Galilee was also a hotbed of unrest, and in the days of Jesus things were getting worse. Though I’ve always thought of Galileans making their living from the sea, with Jesus drawing many fisher-folk as disciples, the real economic driver up there was grain. The Romans, with the collusion of their local friend King Herod, were taxing the living daylights out of these grain-growing areas, and the Galileans were ready to take matters into their own hands.
To use the language of our day, Jesus, as a Galilean, would have been profiled – watched more carefully than others, treated with greater suspicion that others, his words examined for even the slightest hint of sedition. And that, is an important backdrop to today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere” said Jesus’ questioners, “[you] teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and [you] show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
His opponents think they have cornered Jesus. As a Galilean, to approve this heavy tax burden would be highly offensive; as a person well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, to approve paying taxes to the Emperor, who saw himself in God-like terms, would be like bowing down before a graven image; but as a subject of Rome whether he liked it or not, to denounce the paying of taxes would be treasonous, and to speak that aloud could be the end of Jesus.
Jesus, in true Rabbinic form, answers a question with a question. “ 19 ‘Show me the coin used for the tax’.” He said to them, “And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’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’” or in the old King James version, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”.
Well done, Jesus. In a week when he had already called way too much attention to himself – entering Jerusalem just days before on the day we commemorate as Palm Sunday, going into the Temple and overturning the tables of the money-changers – Jesus deftly turns aside a huge verbal challenge. In his heart, he understands all of life to be a gift of God and therefore everything we have and everything we are, all our possessions and accomplishments and land, to also “belong” to God. Everything precious, everything meaningful, has already been spoken for. So sure, why not take this horrid, idolatrous coin to pay that horrid, self-important Emperor? Paying the tax keeps you from getting arrested, but in no way claims any allegiance from your heart. And for readers of the gospel later on, it also contrasts two types of power as Jesus, the one held by Christians to be the son of God and ruler of the earth, holds a coin in his hand bearing the likeness and image of one who fancied himself the son of God and ruler of all, and dismissively says, “sure, I’ll pay your tax – but that’s ALL you get.”
When I come up close to this passage, and this interplay between Jesus and his opponents, I am reminded of times in my life when I have had to weigh the demands of my faith and the demands of the world, or the demands of a workplace. Sometimes I have struck a good balance, a few times I’ve either been too rigid, other times I have totally knuckled under. But when I take a few steps back from this passage so that it’s no longer just about me, I see something different: the brokenness of a world where such questions and such choices even exist.
When I listen, with new ears, to the question to Jesus about the lawfulness of paying taxes to the Emperor, I hear an admission of guilt at the core of their question. These Sadducees and Herodians are the intermediaries between Rome and the common people, having sold out to a system that is offensive to the beliefs and laws of God-following Jews. They know that while Rome brought clear benefits and advances in public services, these advances had been paid for by enslaving the people to the whims of the Emperor. As learned Jews themselves, the people questioning Jesus know full well that God’s will is for all people to be treated fairly, the earth’s resources shared equitably, and that nobody should live a life devoid of love, and yet here his questioners stand on the side of their foreign overlords. If there were a unity here on earth, between the desire for deep love which God places in every heart, and the way we actually govern ourselves, there would be no question to ask here; the law of the land and God’s great leanings toward peace and justice would be as one… but there is no such unity. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, but time and time again, we humans choose systems that favour those on top and punish those on the bottom, which is anything but the will of God. Asking Jesus this question about supporting a government whose goals are only marginally aligned with loving one’s neighbour as oneself, reveals so much about life in their day and in ours.
If you had asked me at the beginning of this pandemic, “what are some of the things you think might happen in society,” I don’t think I would have said, “well, race relations are going to get a lot worse” – but they have. Or perhaps, it’s just that we are seeing it now. This time of unusual-ness has helped us to see how bad things have been for a long, long time, and has given space for opposing voices to be raised. I also don’t think I would have said, “well, early in the pandemic, the efforts of the folks who keep hospitals clean and do the lab work are going to be praised, and then later on, their livelihood is going to threatened” – but that agenda has now been named in this province. In the same way that the question asked by Jesus’ challengers sheds a light on their nation’s general state of brokenness, the state of suspended animation that many of us are living in right now has given room for a spotlight to be shone on our brokenness. We are in difficult, chaotic times, and I acknowledge that those who govern are faced with huge challenges… but is this not a time for us to pause, and bind the wounds of old brokenness, and invite new ways of healing, rather than seeking new ways to make life harder for people who are already struggling? Jesus, as a profiled Galilean, was monitored and questioned more than other people, just because of where he came from… and two thousand years later in North America, Black people and Indigenous people and People of Colour still endure way more scrutiny than others do. Agrarian Jews 2000 years ago lived under Roman domination and kept being charged more and more taxes to pay for the advantages of their overlords… and we’re still doing that, paying for our shortfalls by messing up the lives of those whose work we continue to call “essential”?
There are times when we find ourselves in the same place as Jesus in this scene, needing to decide where to draw the line between our hopes for a world of fairness, justice and peace, and falling in line behind policies that have something other than fairness, justice and peace in mind. Perhaps the most important thing for us to draw from this, is that ignoring the question or leaving it for others to solve, is not an answer. Although the answer given by Jesus to this question about our civic duty was a crafty, clever answer, it was an answer nonetheless. In his answer, which does not denounce the law of the land but very much puts it in its subordinate place, Christ’s followers are called to involvement: in our day this means such things as voting, engaging in opportunities for dialogue, and holding our elected officials to account when their version of the world diverges from God’s vision of a refreshed, renewed world of equity and justice. We are called to express our discontent, clearly, fairly, and non-violently. We are called to go deep with God to seek ways to work for this new vision of Shalom. Yes, there are things that Caesar requires of me and they will begrudgingly find their place, but my heart is already spoken for. I live in a broken world, yet even amidst brokenness, I choose love.
The Sadducees and Herodians try to trap Jesus with their question, and Jesus basically takes a Roman coin in his hand, and says that this thing matters very little in the big scheme of things. God is love, God is light, God is life, that’s where life really happens. May those struggles of Jesus, and his call to love no matter what, inform the decisions we must make, and bring healing to the chaotic times in which we live. Amen.
Crossan, John Dominic. https://www.johndominiccrossan.com/The%20Historical%20Jesus.htm
Mayes, Andrew. Study tour notes, Israel/Palestine, March 2018 – St. George’s College, Jerusalem.
© 2020 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church