October 18, 2020

Devotional: The Taxman

          Have you ever been to a comedy show and an audience member begins to heckle? I’m always amazed at the audacity, that someone feels they can just interrupt a performance and attempt to engage the person in conversation- one would never do that during an play or sermon! Well, at the risk of offending those of fine Scottish heritage, did you know that the first hecklers came from Dundee? To heckle actually means to tease or comb and it was used for dividing two types of fabric or flax for making yarn and the capital of the jute industry in the nineteenth century was in Dundee. It just so happens that the hecklers in Dundee then established quite a reputation for being trouble-makers, often due to arguments or debates. In fact, in a heckling factory, one heckler would read out the day’s news while the others worked, to the accompaniment of interruptions and furious debates. And thus, we get our modern word for heckler from the hecklers of Dundee.

Jesus, had to deal with his fair share of hecklers. And today, we have two groups, who often don’t get along with each other, finding some commonality in their desire to heckle Christ. This is the first of three attempts in the Gospel of Matthew on the part of religious leaders to entrap Jesus and discredit him in front of others. If that’s not heckling I don’t know what is. They want to engage in a debate with Jesus in such a way that it makes his followers find fault in him- but of course, just like with most hecklers, it doesn’t go their way.

It should be pointed out that the Pharisees and Herodians rarely paired up together. Politically speaking they have nothing in common. The Pharisees, which in Aramaic means, “set apart” were the leaders within the temple. It was they who established the laws, liturgy and rituals of rabbinic Judaism. Therefore they felt Jesus was a threat to the comfortable control they had over the Jews. Less is known about the Herodians. They may have been a group who supported the pro-Roman Herodian dynasty and therefore because their political party aligned closely with Herod the Great, would have been rivals to the Pharisees who saw Herod and the Romans as the oppressor. Or They could have been a sect of Hellenistic Jews, basically a mix of Judaism and Greek mythology which would have made them heretics in the eyes of the Pharisees. But here in this story the two parties put their differences aside and attempt to entrap Jesus with their question about paying taxes.

The tax in question was likely a “head tax” placed upon the Hebrew population in Israel by the Romans. Completely different from the tax that is mandated in the Old Testament in support of the Temple, which Jesus did indeed pay. The question of paying taxes to Rome was a contentious issue in Jesus’ day. If Jesus answered yes, then He could be seen as supporting the Roman occupation which would then result in the Pharisees and his followers turning against him. The entire understanding of the messiah at this point is, that he was to save the people from their oppressor, so to say yes, that they should pay taxes would have revealed to everyone that he was not the messiah they had hoped for. On the other hand, if Jesus were to answer no, He would be seen as plotting against Rome and would have surely been arrested on the spot.

Both parties smirk at their opportunity to give Jesus false flattery and set up this trap. However, he sees through their trickery and calls them on it. Jesus calls for a coin and asks them to identify whose head and title is on the coin. It is important to remember that the coin Jesus receives is a denarius. You might recall a few weeks ago I mentioned that a denarius was a full days wage for the common labourer. Which means that for someone to just have a denarius in their coin purse at this very moment, Jesus is not speaking to common labourers or the poor. Jesus’ audience at this stage are the wealthy- political and religious leaders whose job it is supposed to be to serve the common and poor.

The face and inscription on the coin is of course that of the emperor’s. It would have read, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.” Which means that two great laws within the Hebrew tradition are being broken on that very coin. One, it is blasphemous to claim divinity by the Roman Emperor, and Two there was a prohibition against human images, on anything, coins, paintings, statues,  because it was seen as idolatry. So, in truth, a Jew who was obedient to the commandments would not be comfortable holding this coin at all. Which of course, begs the question, who had this coin on their person in the first place.

Jesus then responds with, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” At which point the Pharisees and Herodians are amazed. This actually happens more than once in Matthew. Think of the disciples in Matt 8:27 when Jesus calms the storm, “they were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?”” or when the crowd is amazed by Jesus’ healing in  Matt 15: 31, “So that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking and the blind seeing.” Jesus amazes his followers and the crowds through miracles and now the Pharisees and Herodians are amazed through his wit and wisdom. Basically Jesus’ answer was not only satisfactory but thoughtful and really hushed his hecklers.

The problem is that Jesus’ answer has lead to centuries of debate on what he meant. Some scholars say this passage is proof that religion and politics should be kept separate. Others argue that this proves that Jesus taught that it is our duty as disciples to support the government and be involved in politics. It has even lead interpreters to state that we shouldn’t pay taxes because they are blasphemous and idolatrous.  For me, when Jesus asks about who appears on the coin he is pointing to a few things about our relationship with God and Country. The image of the emperor that is stamped on this coin-is stamped by human hands for a human purpose. When God created humankind God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” God has stamped us for God’s purposes.  Maybe this is a bit of an alarming statement- particularly for those of us who like to have some control on our lives- but in truth it is meant to bring comfort. God will not forsake us. God cares for us. God affirms who we are. When we belong to God we belong to the people of God, the body of Christ in this world.

Ultimately who we are, what we do, every ounce of our being, is wonderfully and fearfully made by God. To be perfectly honest, I heckle God fairly often, questioning God ALL THE TIME. And yet, God listens, maybe even laughs, definitely puts me in my place, stamps me with God’s image, makes me ready to give to God what belongs to God and amazes me every day. Amen