Enough is Enough
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 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.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Back when Christina and I were fairly newly married, we went on a trip to the UK and Ireland with a class from our university. We had planned and budgeted to just go along as participants, but since we were a few years older than all of the other students on the trip, the university, in its wisdom, decided that we should help lead the trip and they would pay us $600 each for doing so. We were struggling so much with money because we had both been going to school together, it seemed like a great idea to come home from England with a paycheck. See, we thought that they would either credit our student accounts, write us a check, or just give it to us when we got home.
But as we arrived in Dublin, the professor and main leader of the trip handed us $1200, American, as our payment. I guess he thought that we would like to spend it on the trip. We had made all these plans to just take out 100 British pounds at a time from the ATM in England or 100 Euro while in Ireland. Or just use our credit card. We would have felt a lot more comfortable not having that kind of cash on us, but here we were with more money than we wanted and no way to deposit it.
That money hung like a millstone around my neck for the whole 23 days that we were there. Or maybe I should say a millstone around my waist – because it sat heavy in my anti-theft money belt that I ended up having to use for this purpose. Instead of being the blessing that it should have been, the money became a curse to us because it made us so uncomfortable for the whole trip. In those days, $1200 was an amazing amount of money for us. We may never had $1200 at one time. I think I made $400 a month and Christina still had not found a job after college. Those 12 $100 bills were so heavy as we walked through the streets of London, even in our final week. We never got used to it. Even though if they were weighed together, the bills probably did not even weigh one ounce, they were absolutely breaking my back. I’ve often wished I could go back and find a different solution so that I could have enjoyed the journey more.
That’s how glory works. It is a blessing, but it is heavy. We sing praise to God, saying, “Glory to God,” or “God is glorious.” But we never think about glory beyond the fact that it has something to do with God. But glory, the word in Hebrew that we translate as glory, means weight. Glory is heavy. Glory is heaviness. Glory is a blessing, but glory is backbreaking. I learned that the hard way on my trip to Europe, and found that I didn’t want glory, myself. Glory is too heavy for me.
In the scripture, Jesus, who had, in the previous passage, just answered all of our questions about the kingdom of God, by calling it a wedding banquet, is approached by the Pharisees. It seems like every time Jesus is gonna have some trouble, it’s because the Pharisees have shown up. This time, they have brought with them their own biggest enemies as backup: The Herodians. We might think the Pharisees really hate the Sadducees. We might think the Pharisees really hate Rome, but who they hate most, well, at least until they meet Jesus, are the Herodians.
The Herodians were the followers of the Herods. Herod the Great was named “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate and his sons, both called Herod, were made administrators over regions around Israel. It was not like the Jewish people made Herod the king, he was shoehorned into the role by their captors, the Romans. The Herods were considered traitors and most Jews at the time of Jesus would have considered Herod an illegitimate king. His son, Herod Antipas, we know him from the story of John the Baptist where he arrests John for making a fuss about his leadership, for being a prophet of God. Then Herod put John the Baptist to death, almost on a whim. The Herods were seriously hated and their followers were considered to be cronies of the worst kind. If Jews in the first century had driven cars, they might have even had bumper stickers that said, “Not my king,” with a picture of Herod beside it.
But Herod was glorious, in that traditional sense, I was talking about before. When Herod the Great was made king, he started building. He renovated and expanded the Temple in Jerusalem. He built an enormous port in the city of Caesarea and a colossal fortress at Masada. He had power and influence and he used it to create glory – weight – heavy things – buildings. He used it to bring glory to himself, to his lineage, and to his followers, his cronies.
But, what does a king, even an illegitimate one, need in order to build glorious buildings? He needs money. The Pharisees bring this problem to Jesus and hope that he doesn’t watch his words because they have brought the Herodians, who are a dangerous element among them, along with this problem, they have brought them to Jesus.
The old saying goes: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. They have brought their second-biggest enemy along with them in order to trap the first-biggest enemy: Jesus. I said they hated the Herodians most – that is until they met Jesus.
Matthew 22:15 says that the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus with an unanswerable question: “Should we pay taxes?” If he says “yes,” then he will lose followers and face. He would become just another cog in Herodian/Roman machine. He becomes an enemy of most people listening to him. If he says “no,” then there are Herodians there to arrest him for inciting a revolution against taxes and the government. His ministry would be over prematurely. The Pharisees knew that John was killed by Herod for much less than this.
And, if this question wasn’t bad enough, they come to him with Cheshire smiles, maybe those of us who grew up watching Leave It To Beaver can imagine Eddie Haskell’s face right here. They say to him through smug lips, “Teacher, we know you have integrity, teach the way of God accurately, are indifferent to popular opinion, and don’t pander to your students. So tell us honestly: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:16-17, MSG).
Their trap was set.
But Jesus doesn’t fall for it, does he? He could have said, and been right, that the Empire had no business in Israel and that Herod could pay for his own building campaigns, or ask Rome to fund it, if he wanted to build them so much. He could have said, rightly, that paying taxes for the public good is a good thing. He could have said that it seemed like their taxes were too high and that it was getting in the way of the people living good lives. He could have said that they all enjoyed many of the fruits of paying taxes – who doesn’t like a road? There were many, many right things to say here and they all would have been wrong.
Because he would have made teams, with him as the captain, with each statement. He would have created a system of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ As he affirmed the things they already believed, he would have joined their teams, political parties, other ideological groups. There would have been almost imperceptible shift and it would have separated people. As he spoke one of those many ‘right’ things to say, in his midst, the ones who agreed would have said to themselves, “Ah-ha! Jesus is a part of my political party!” And the ones who didn’t agree would have faded away and stopped listening.
Jesus doesn’t want to join their political parties. He wants them to join his.
First, he has to ask for a coin, because he doesn’t have one. I think that’s important. He doesn’t have a coin of his own. He has successfully been able to rely on the kindness and generosity of the people he meets on his travels. He doesn’t even have any money when they ask him about taxes. He has to ask someone to loan him a coin for his illustration.
He holds it up and asks whose face is on it? This is one of the more brilliant things about the way Jesus talks. He asks questions and lets them fill in the blanks. With the story of the Good Samaritan, he asks, “Who was the man’s neighbor?” In this one, he casually asks, “Whose face is on this? Oh, Caesar’s? Then maybe give it back to him.”
Now the unsaid question, the one that begs to be asked and answered, staring in the face of these followers of Herod and those who would use them for their own purposes even though they hate them… the question that is assumed here is, “On whose land do we stand right now? Oh, it belongs to YWHW? The Lord God’s? Maybe you should give it back to him.” It is an unsaid question that calls them all away from what they think they know, the ways that they think that God is on their side and only their side. He lets them know, and he lets us know, that there is only one side. God’s side. God’s glory. God holds it all. Whose is it? God’s? Then, maybe, give it back. It’s too heavy for us anyway. Even a coin was too heavy for Jesus to want to carry. Glory and all its weight belong to God and God can handle it. Maybe give it back.
Now, for us, whose church is this? Oh, Christ Jesus’? Maybe we should give it back to him. This church is heavy. It is glorious in the traditional sense. Imagine having to lug it to a new location, brick by brick… it would be astonishingly heavy. That makes it glorious. Now imagine adding the weight of all of those who are impacted by our church – all of us who love and serve one another – now add the preschool, its teachers, and its parents – and our AA and NA groups – all of our renters – the women at New Entra Casa – our neighbors we pray for – and on and on and add up the glory – all of the weight – and we can’t carry it. We have to give it up.
That’s why glory belongs to God. We need God to carry it for us; glory holds us back. It holds us down. And Christ makes us free. By giving the glory – all the stuff – the weight – the burdens, by giving it all to Christ, we become free.
And so, may we let go of glory. Like the coin with Caesar’s face on it, all of creation is marked by God and belongs to him. Give it up. Give it back. Let go.