Sermon October 18 Rendering Unto Caesar Matt 22:15ff Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you ever feel sorry for the Pharisees? When we're hearing Bible stories like the one we just heard from the gospel of Matthew, we're clearly not ever meant to feel sorry for the Pharisees.
In our gospels they're pretty much unilaterally presented as the embodiment of wrongness in relation to Jesus and the disciples. They're hamstrung by their own rigidity, obsessed with compliance with the LETTER of the law and not its spirit, they collectively represent the OLD way, the WRONG way, the imprisoned-by-traditions way.
And in passage after passage of all four of the gospels, we watch them scrabbling in their own self-righteousness, trying in vain over and over to wrestle Jesus' message to the ground and crush it permanently, stifling its virtue of freedom in the simple abundance of grace and love and kindness with demands for rectitude and propriety and rules.
We are very much not meant to feel sorry for the Pharisees. And yet – when we see them here in the passage we just heard, trying AS USUAL to trip Jesus up, bring Jesus down, tie him in knots and leave him silenced –
I feel like maybe we should feel a bit sorry for them. Or at least feel a sense of kinship with them. And compassion because of it.
Perhaps just in this moment. When we see them here in this passage. If 'generalized pity' for the Pharisees seems somehow to be a step too far. AT LEAST, in this moment, when we see them here in this passage, I feel like we need to concede a bit. And think about where they are.
Not just "where they are" actually – which is in the temple in Jerusalem – but "where they are" metaphorically. Like, where they are in their spirits. What they're dealing with. The context they're trying to process.
Because "where they are" metaphorically, the context they feel like they're having to navigate, in that moment when they confront Jesus in the temple – is pretty much stuck under two jurisdictions at the same time.
Literally, they're in the temple in Jerusalem – which is held so completely and unilaterally under GOD's jurisdiction that there's a rule that no one can even bring Roman money into the building. That's why there are moneychangers outside the temple – the ones made famous especially by Jesus going after them that one time in a great temper. They're there because Roman coins that have the face of the emperor on them aren't allowed inside the temple where only God is "lord". It's totally God's jurisdiction, as it were. So people's offering literally has to be changed from Roman coins into temple coins before they can go inside.
So the Pharisees are in the temple in Jerusalem which is THAT completely and unilaterally existing under God's jurisdiction – but at the same time that temple itself sits on Roman-occupied territory. So they're just as surely in that moment literally under the Roman emperor's jurisdiction. Or "Caesar's" jurisdiction, in more traditional biblical language. Because "caesar" is just the latin word for emperor. It's where the word "kaiser" comes from in German. Or "czar" in Russian.
So under God's jurisdiction AND under Caesar's jurisdiction. That's where the Pharisees "are" literally when we see them in this passage, but also metaphorically all the time. Having to deal with and process and make sense of how to be, how to exist, how to live, under two different jurisdictions, in the same place, at the same time.
Two sets of operative principles, two sets of norms, two sets of expectations, two worldviews, both in force, both demanding allegiance or compliance -- and sometimes they conflict -- in the same place, at the same time. That's the reality of the Pharisee headspace here. It's the reality of their headspace all the time.
And honestly? If that doesn't awaken in us even a little bit of fellow-feeling and maybe some compassion for them? Because I mean, arguably, as ALSO people of faith, we're ALSO caught to some extent trying to live the values of a faithful life – under God's jurisdiction, as it were – while at the same time embedded in a world of Caesar's jurisdiction....
But after this past week? When as Nova Scotians we got forcibly reminded of the need to get our heads around our OWN two jurisdictions, the two worldviews that are operative here? Where we live in this place under government but also under treaty? It took no time before things were on fire.
Which is ridiculous. And it's shameful. But even for those of us open to doing the work, ready for doing the work, still -- we really should feel some sympathy for the Pharisees. Because trying to reconcile in one's mind and one's living the parameters of two different jurisdictions, two different worldviews, two different ways of understanding mutual responsibility, and they're operative at the same time and maybe in conflict – it's hard.
But that's what we have to do. That's just the way it is. Because these two jurisdictions, these two worldviews – being citizens and being treaty people – they both bind us in this place. Just as the two jurisdictions, the two worldviews – God as Lord and Caesar as Lord – both bind the Pharisees in the place where they are. They have to reconcile that. And it's hard.
Not that that's the message we get from THEM, mind you, in this passage. Quite the contrary, in fact -- if anything, as they line themselves up AS USUAL to trip Jesus up, bring Jesus down, tie him in knots and leave him silenced, they seem to be being their usual arrogant selves, entirely confident they're managing the whole situation perfectly, and really just on the attack.
And maybe, initially, that's what Jesus thinks too. When they come at him raring to go, fairly dripping with all their best smarminess. "Oh, tell us, O Teacher: we know you're always sincere and only ever speak the truth about God's way.... So tell us. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?"
And they're not seeking information – they're clearly perfectly satisfied they've got that question worked out: it's part of how they've had to manage this reality of living under two jurisdictions. They're just trying to trip him up.
And probably, at this point, that's all Jesus can see because it's all he's really looking for.
But then something unexpected happens.
When we hear this story from Matthew's gospel – the Pharisees confronting Jesus in the temple, "is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not" – we usually assume that the key moment in the story is Jesus' famous last line. "Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God."
And obviously that's ultimately the point, and the message, and the gift of this passage, is that teaching.
But I think in fact the key moment comes earlier. When something unexpected happens. When Jesus' response to the Pharisees coming at him and confronting him... is to ask one of them for a coin. And the Pharisee gives it to him... and it's a coin with Caesar's head on it. Inside the temple. And shouldn't that have been changed at the door? Isn't there a rule about that?
It's a gotcha moment, but honestly -- as far as we can tell, none of the Pharisees even seem to notice they've been got! All that swaggering – navigating life under two jurisdictions? Oh, they're right on top of it. They've even drawn a great big official line at the door of the temple to make sure it's stays perfectly pure as God's House Under God's Jurisdiction. They've got this whole situation under control.
Except they really don't, do they. Jesus is standing there inside the temple holding the coin one of them just gave him inside the temple, with Caesar's head on it big as life. They don't really have this situation under control at all.
Because in fact it's really hard. To try to hold fast to the values of faith, to sustain any sense of purity, as it were, of life 'under God's jurisdiction' and following God's way. When at the same time they're also fully and completely embedded in – and under the jurisdiction of – the empire around them. Trying to function under both jurisdictions at the same time. Constantly having to think, here are the expectations and duties of citizenship, and there are the expectations and duties of faithfulness, and what if they're in conflict and how will we know what's right? It's hard.
I think Jesus felt sorry for the Pharisees in that moment. I think he looked down at the coin they'd handed him, and looked back up at all their arrogance and all their smugness and all their swagger that they were totally on top of this really hard thing -- which is holding on to faithful values that no one should go hungry and no one should be homeless and the first duty is to care for and protect the most vulnerable – when at the same time being embedded in a world that's all about me first and hierarchy and power –
I think Jesus felt sorry for them, in that moment.
We often read that famous last line like it's a rebuke. I think his voice was gentler than that. I think he wanted to give them a gift. Something that would help.
Because "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God"?
As though that's a piece of advice? As though those things can be divided? As though it's possible to draw a hard and fast line between earthly jurisdiction and God's jurisdiction?
LITERALLY the God in question is professed by the Pharisees as having created all of it. What can possibly "belong to Caesar" when even the gold that "Caesar coin" is made of was literally created by God?
When we hear this story from Matthew's gospel we usually assume that the whole point is that famous last line. Like it's a piece of advice. As though what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God can be neatly divided. When in fact, in the construct Jesus sets up here, literally nothing belongs to Caesar.
There's no hard and fast line being drawn. Not for the Pharisees and not for us two thousand years later when people try to justify rhetoric about how churches should stick to spiritual matters –
In the construct Jesus sets up here, EVERYTHING earthly is a spiritual matter, divine jurisdiction, because our faith is in a God who created all of it. And cares about all of it. And sustains all of it, such that it's "in God's spirit" in fact that all of it and all of us live and move and have our being.
So that last line – it isn't a piece of advice. It's the gift into those two theoretical jurisdictions of one single perspective. As Jesus reminds us "My yoke is easy and my burden is light". Give to God what belongs to God? Everything, in fact, belongs to God.
All the Pharisees have to do, all we have to do, is live like we believe that. Amen.