Where’s the Trap?

Matthew 22:15-22
October 16, 2011
Steve Hammond

Those people were always trying to find ways to trap Jesus, and the one we read about this morning was pretty serious. If Jesus said they should pay their taxes to the Roman occupiers he was going to lose a lot of credibility with his followers. If he said they shouldn’t pay their taxes, they had the charge against him they needed to get Rome to arrest and kill him. That’s why the Pharisees brought some Herodians, or supporters of Herod along with them, in case Jesus said something they could report back to Herod.

The trap, though, never sprung. Jesus managed to grab their bait and walk away unscathed. The Pharisees and Herodians left shaking their heads and more determined than ever to find a way to get Jesus, which they finally did a few days later, sort of.

It would be easy to turn this confrontation into some kind of contest, with Jesus as the winner. Ralph Milton on the blog Rumors writes, though, “I’m always a little uncomfortable with these stories of how the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus, and he turns the tables and makes them look silly. “Look! See how our guy beat your guys!” One-up-man-ship. It seems inconsistent with the personality of Jesus I find in the rest of the gospel stories. You don’t show God’s love and justice by putting other people down, even (especially) when they deserve it.”

I agree with him. I don’t think Jesus was trying to demonstrate how clever he was in getting out of their traps. Rather, he seems to be trying to show them the trap they were already in. So he asked them to pull out that now famous coin with Caesar’s image on it. And they did. And that’s the trap they were already in before they tried to spring theirs on Jesus. They confronted Jesus in the Temple. Remember? But they weren’t supposed to have such coins with them. That’s the whole reason behind the money changers that you read so much about in the Gospels. They were there to exchange the coins with Caesar’s image on them, and thus regarded as an idol, for coins that were acceptable for the Temple’s treasury.

So it could be that Jesus was simply pointing out their hypocrisy. But it could also be he was trying to show them, and us, how pervasive the empire was. You couldn’t get away from Rome even on Temple grounds. It’s influence was everywhere, even when you were trying your best to avoid it. And besides, even if no Roman coins managed to get onto Temple grounds, they would still be spending them once they left.

Jesus tells them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. That is one of Jesus’ tougher statements. Love your enemies may be hard, but it’s pretty straight forward. This statement leaves you with all kinds of questions like what is God’s and what is Caesar’s. Should I pay taxes as a Christian, or should I not pay taxes as a Christian? Where does civil disobedience fit in? Can a Christian fight in Ceasar’s wars?

You hope that we will, at least, be trying to figure out what is Caesar’s, if anything, after we have figured out what’s God’s, and not the other was around. But as William Willimon writes, “Un- comfortability, a sense of dis-ease engendered in us when it comes to conflicting allegiances, is not a bad place to begin any Christian reflection about relations between God and government.”

That seems true to me. But I’ve also been thinking there is an additional empire we could be thinking about as we read what Jesus said. And it overlaps, it appears, quite easily with the more traditional notion of a political empire.

Anybody here have a credit card with them? Whose image is on it? Or whose logo? MasterCard? Visa? American Express? Discover? Those are really the gold coins of our day. And they may well point us to what the real empire is. Give to Caesar’s what’s Caesar’s and God’s what’s God’s. But what about Wall Street? What are they expecting from us. The American Empire may expect a lot of us, but the economic empire even more, not only from individuals like us, but the political empires of this world.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is starting to make some noise. People are finally asking why the economic imperatives of Wall Street have become the focus of our legislative bodies rather than the needs of people. And it would be to the church’s shame if we sat this one out, not to mention if the Church sided with Wall Street.

Most of you have probably seen that iconic statue of a bull on Wall Street. As the Occupy Wall Street movement has spent more time on Wall Street, people are beginning to remember their Bible stories. Do you remember the story of what happened when Moses went to the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the ten commandments and didn’t come down for a long time? The people gathered all their gold, melted it down, and made it into an idol. Do you remember what that idol looked like? A bull. Hmm…

I’m not suggesting the children of Israel picked a golden calf because there was going to be one on Wall Street someday. But to me, it is a vivid reminder of how linked idolatry and empire are.

I think a big part of the Bible, including the overarching theme of the Book of Revelation is that question of how do you live as God’s people in the empire. How do we follow Jesus when we live in the American and Wall Street empires?

This is not easy stuff, that thing about exchanging Caesar’s coins for coins acceptable to the Temple treasury. Once those coins without Caesar’s image on them had been procured and placed in the offering, they would have to be taken from the Temple and re-exchanged for more coins with Caesar’s image. That’s how hard this stuff gets. And in cleansing the Temple, which one person noted on Facebook this week was the original Wall Street Occupation, Jesus reminded us quite vividly that it’s usually the poor who suffer the most from empire’s machinations.
How do we get out of this trap of empire ourselves, both political and economic empires and their unholy alliances? First of all, we need to realize we are trapped. It’s so easy to make this whole thing about following Jesus simply about heaven. But Jesus was so much about earth and empire. That’s why he taught us to pray about God’s realm, God’s empire coming to this earth. It was a challenge to the Caesar’s of this world.

Another thing we need to remember is that we don’t get out of this trap alone. This is what the Church is to be about, helping each other follow Jesus while we live in the Empire. Look at the empire he lived in. All churches are called to be alternative Christian communities, people who are learning the alternative of the realm of God to the realms of this world.

I got a call from John Bergen, our Peace and Justice Intern, on Friday morning. He said that he couldn’t meet with Mary that afternoon because there was “kind of an emergency.” His cell phone was breaking up and he said he would call later or we could call him. So I began to speculate on exactly what “kind of an emergency” exactly is. It’s obviously not an emergency. My first thought was he forgot about a paper that was due on
Friday afternoon. But there was this brief thought that went through my head wondering if he was on his way to New York City. That’s kind of an emergency.

He did call back a little later and, indeed, he was in New York. After the Occupy Wall Street Gathering Mary organized in town on Thursday, John and some of his friends took off on an all night drive to Wall Street. Mayor Bloomberg had announced that the Wall Street Occupiers were going to have to vacate the park they were in by 7:00 on Friday morning. So it was kind of an emergency. Fortunately before John and his friends got there, the Mayor backed off.

I think that was what Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees and all of us. This is kind of an emergency. There is so much that comes into our lives everyday that we don’t take the time to notice what a grip empire has on us. But we have those coins and credit cards in our pockets. These empires demand our allegiance at every turn, but our allegiance is to God’s realm. How do we do that?

Give to the empire what’s the Empire’s. Give to God what’s God’s. Again, if I read the Book of Revelation correctly, that’s always been a primary challenge to the church and will be until the end of all things, or new beginning of all things, when the Empires are gone, the nations are healed and the Lamb sits on the Throne. But in the meantime, we are in this struggle together and we get to follow Jesus, seek God’s realm, in this empire.