Fox Creek February 2020

Argue like Jesus

Week of Sunday 16 October: Pentecost 18
Gospel:  Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So 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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius.20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They 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.’ 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Jesus makes no friends in this reading. Certainly, his supporters enjoyed the repartee, but none questioners were won over. They were outsmarted, and their malice made clear, but Jesus was more hated at the end than at the beginning.

The story is a complete contrast to the modern day politicians who try to offend no one, and thus are captive to populism and its momentary sentiment. Anyone with an agenda can paralyse such politicians with a smart question like the one from the Pharisees and the Herodians.

It happens in church too, when we put being nice over being honest and true. We become powerless if we let our own Pharisees set the agenda rather than the Gospel set the agenda.

The story speaks to me on two levels. One is the level of the theological statement “Give to God what is God’s.” I am also fascinated by how the story may model how I manage occasions where someone’s true agenda is hidden under that pseudo piety which seems so hard to counter.

Give to God what is God’s

The story is richly ironic. They try to set him up with false flattery; (butter would not melt in our mouths.) “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.”  The problem for them is that they are correct!  He shows them no deference at all.

It was a trap, of course. Any good Herodian; what we would call a collaborator with Rome, supported paying the tax.  Any good Jew was outraged at the impost of this tax by Rome. Jesus was being asked to nail his colours to the mast. Support the tax, and he would lose the support of the people who adored him. Deny the tax, and he would provide a reason for his arrest.

Jesus response was stunning.

The obvious point for the listeners, and for those present at the original confrontation, is that the Pharisees actually had the coin in their pockets! That was damning. They were condemning themselves by carrying the unholy coinage of Rome into the Temple itself. Even before Jesus makes his brilliant reply, the questioners are exposed as insincere.

The force of his questioning is not quite so obvious to us today.

“Show me the coin used for the tax, he asked.” And there, in the holy temple, the Pharisees gave him a Roman coin with its idolatrous inscriptions and image.

“Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’”

Emperor is a heavily loaded word. We have lost the meaning in our culture. It is not actually in the Greek text, which uses the word Caesar. NRSV uses emperor in an attempt to convey some of the force of the story.

Octavian, the first emperor, had called himself Caesar after his Uncle Julius who adopted him in his will. Imperator Caesar has the overtones of military victory; all conquering one. He was properly called Emperor Caesar Augustus. Augustus means worthy of worship.

The translation Emperor gets closer, in our ears, to the intent of the text, because Caesar sounds too much like a familiar name. It would be as if they had said, “It is Octavian’s image on the coin.”

But even Emperor is not enough. We have lost some of its meaning in our time. We need to re-load it with the sense of Divinity. The coin and its inscription was a claim to Divine Authority and Power greater than that of the God of Israel. (The First Paul, Borg and Crossan, discusses this in detail in its fourth chapter.)

Just which Emperor Matthew had in mind in his telling of this story does not matter. It was probably not Octavian, the first Augustus, who died in 14CE, but the implications are the same.

The story asks us, “Who is God? Where is your allegiance? Who will you follow?”

The story is easily twisted to support an easy separation of church and state. It is used to tell the church to stay out of politics. There is no separation of religion and politics in Jesus’ time. Such an argument is fallacious.

Borg and Crossan characterise Roman theo-politics in this way:

Religion -> War -> Victory -> Peace

You must first worship and sacrifice to the gods; with them on your side, you can go to war; from that, of course comes victory; then, and only then, do you obtain peace.... At its course, Roman imperial theology proclaims peace through victory...  pp106

The crucial difference between the program of Caesar and the program of Christ is between peace through violent victory and peace through nonviolent justice.... There will be peace on earth, said Roman imperial theology, when all is quiet and orderly. There will be peace on earth, said Pauline Christians theology, when all is fair and just.  pp121 (The First Paul: Reclaiming the radical visionary behind the Church’s conservative icon Marus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan SPCK 2009)

Theology and politics were and are inseparable. There is no other way to give God what is God’s. I cannot separate out issues which do not concern God and only concern “Caesar,” the state. It all concerns God.

The answer Jesus gave is quite brilliant. How can a Herodian argue? Give Caesar what is Caesar’s. He is God. How can you complain about that?

Give to God what is God’s. How can a good Jew argue with this?

Of course, you could argue that it’s not so simple as Jesus said.  But there is only one way to explore the implications of Jesus’ statement, and that is to abandon the simplistic, black and white wedging statements of shallow rhetoric, and actually engage seriously with the issue.

In strategic terms they came hoping to put a wedge between Jesus and his supporters, or cause him to compromise himself with the Roman authorities. Jesus actually puts a wedge between them! The Herodians and Pharisees cannot discuss the real issue seriously because they fundamentally disagree about it!

In theological terms Jesus has stated the basics: Give to God what is God’s.

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the lord is one.  And you shall love the lord thy God with all your  heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

In terms of practical living, Jesus shows we must also live in the realm of Caesar. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Here we need the wisdom which comes from reflection and avoiding simplistic answers. Bill Loader sums it up with a classic example:

Jesus' reply is profoundly subversive. If everything is God's, then in all things I will seek God's will and that will entail measuring all things, including governments, by the vision Jesus has given us of God's rule or kingdom. God's compassion knows no bounds, so it will always be an irritant to regimes which stifle it and it will stand in conflict with oppressors, whoever and wherever they are.

This is why Christians of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany challenged the Nazi ideology and its practices. Others justified keeping their vows to the state by using such texts to divide up reality into compartments. But there would not have been any Christian to tell the tale if the Confessing Christians had not exercised discretion in the way they resisted the government. Jesus was not stupid either, when confronted with the invitation to suicide for his cause, as here. Hence the deliberate ambiguity of his reply. Strategies for change in society require common sense. Jesus was not joining those who had reached such a point of religious despair that they saw the call to open conflict as the only option. Their ascendancy brought Israel down and devastated its heartland.

The governments of Australia or the United States are, thank God, much different to the government of Nazi Germany. Yet the  dynamic for us is the same: where does Caesar ask too much, or for that which is not his to ask?

Argue like Jesus

What we see in current political debate is a popularism that seeks to capture the most votes. Votes and power are God. Although much of Jesus message is uncompromising; give to God what is God’s, much of his message “bristles with ambiguity.” While some “parables ... evoke penny-dropped experiences” many simply “ pass over people's heads.”

Jesus refuses to be simplistic and popularist. He does not engage on the terms of a popularist agenda.

I recently saw the power of his approach while watching an episode of the 7pm Project, an alternative “it's news, but not as you know it” current affairs program on Australian television.  One night a week the 7pm Project has a regular panel member whose role is to be a conservative “shock jock.”

One such night featured a guest from the United States, who was supporting a more humane stance on the issue at hand. When the guest was introduced, our shock jock immediately weighed in with a reactionary statement and question. “Let’s be honest; don’t you think...?”  It was designed to be impossible to answer in any way other than what he wanted. The result was hilarious.

The American obviously had wide experience with Fox News! He stepped around the question, made no attempt to be popular, apologetic, or conciliatory, and bluntly outlined the hidden agenda of the questioner. He briefly and forcefully stated the facts of the issue. He was not unnecessarily rude, just blunt, “calling a spade a spade.” It all happened in less than a minute.

Our shock jock sat speechless. His fellow panel members continued the interview with broad smiles.

In the story this week, Jesus does not simply win an argument. He provides us with a model for managing hostile and vexatious attacks; for dealing with that pseudo piety that is often so hard to counter in church meetings and over coffee.

Firstly, he does not appease. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” What he says is not nice or polite. It is not church language. But it is true. Too often we do not name self interest, racism and greed for what they are. We seek to avoid conflict instead of speaking truth.

He continues by outlining the real agenda of the situation. He exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Herodians when he asks for the coin.

This is an important step, because he goes beyond rhetoric, and shows real substantive cause for his claim.

This is the difference between him and the shock jock approach. He is not simply shouting louder. We too often confuse a bald, honest statement of the facts, with being aggressive or unchristian. Pseudo pietistic trouble makers count on this.

Secondly, Jesus speaks to the real issue.

It always helps if you can come up with a witty and succinct statement of what is right and true at exactly the right moment!  However, succinct does not mean simplistic. Articulate does not mean black and white.

With or without the genius of Jesus’ statement, the point of his response is critical. He goes to the issue: Give to God, what is God’s.

Thirdly, Jesus is prepared.

His answer sounds neat and easy; a catchy dualism that solves a difficult issue. But it carries within it the hard choices we all need to make when a Caesar has overstated his claims for our allegiance.

The point here is not so much that Jesus can give a snappy answer, off the cuff. There is always someone more articulate than us! I think his answer betrays someone who has thought about the issues.

Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame... 1 Peter 3:15-16.

How often do we come unstuck in the work of the church because we have not thought out the issues? How often are we in too much of a hurry to get an answer, instead of taking time to clarify what is at stake?

Part of the reason I am often unwilling to speak baldly like the American pundit I mentioned, is that I am unprepared, whereas he knew his subject backwards. I’d bet he had practiced being succinct on the issue.

If I am to go to the wall on an issue I need to have my thinking clear. Otherwise I will have to be a nasty bully, or lose, because I will not be able to state the truth clearly but respectfully.

Too often I go home from a meeting and do not sit down and figure out what was really going on. What was being done to me by that person who was so obviously wrong, but who left me inarticulate?

Perhaps giving to God what is God’s involves working out the dynamics of a discussion, and spending the time to clarify the central issues. It also involves not being polite, but being true. If we do not “call someone out” when needed, we are not giving God what is God’s.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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Matthew G. Zatkalik 10-10-2011
Octavian, the first emporer, had called .... emperor Yes... hate that word... the wrong spelling seems to be hardwired into my fingers! Thanks. Andrew

In their pockets?!
Paul Sheppy 14-10-2014
How do you know that they Pharisees had this coin "in their pockets". What the text says is they had one brought. That is not quite the same thing! In our eagerness to fall in with damning the Pharisees, have we over-egged the pudding here? Andrew: A fair question, Paul! But neither does it say they sent outside the temple to get one. Personally, I think Matthew overdoes the attack on the Pharisees. It's not unlikely that Jesus had some sympathy with them:

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