Proper 24, A
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
I live with an oompaloompa. I live with an oompaloompa and I have oompaloompas visiting my home and all of that is just fine except that I don’t actually know what an oompaloompa is except that it makes faces and sings and apparently sports purple hair (although I’ve yet to see the hair). I don’t really understand the world of oompaloompaness because I haven’t ever seen the movie or seen the play or read the book or checked out the liner notes – it’s not part of the culture that I’ve absorbed thus far in my world context.
This season we are wending our way through the Dramatic work known as the gospel of Matthew. Center stage we find Herodians and Pharisees colluding against Jesus. Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience to whom it would be frightfully obvious from the outset that this peculiar pairing portended poorly. As for me – I know little more of Herodians than Oompaloompas. We generally see pharisees on the bad guy end of the spectrum. Certainly Herod does not fare well in the Christian narrative. Quite the duo for pernicious plotting, yes? Except they were bitter enemies whom nothing could possibly unite. Nothing…except a threat that overshadowed even their enmity. A threat like Jesus.
Brief history lesson:
The Herodians: In Jesus’s time Rome ruled Israel. Rome was not known for its kind, benevolent manner of ruling. It turns out that keeping an entire population subjugated under absolute tyranny is an expensive and complex business. To that end, the Romans enlisted certain members of the subjugated peoples and made it worth those people’s while to help the Romans – report misdeeds and fomenting rebellions, crush rabble rousers before any real rousing of rabble resulted, arrange burdensome taxes all for the small price of keeping some power for themselves – a power limited primarily by their own creativity and the absolute requirement of loyalty to Rome. In Jesus’s day, the Herodians filled that niche. In addition to needing someone to carry out much of the dirty day to day ruling, the Romans needed a way to pay for this expensive venture which brings us to history lesson two, the head tax.
Nobody likes taxes, and the Jews under Roman rule payed plenty of them. This story refers to the most hated of them, the one that eventually led in large part to the Zealot revolt, which in turn led to the destruction of the Temple. This tax was levied on all Roman subjects (but NOT Roman citizens) without any regard to ability to pay. Not only did Rome (with the help of the Herodians) require the subjects of cruel repression to pay the expense of their own subjugation, but the tax had to be paid in Roman coin. No orthodox Jew should even have such coin. Roman coin held the image of the Emperor.
Our coins have faces on them – it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Remember this – the Romans considered Caesar divine and the coin was a graven image. For a dutiful jew owning the currency shattered the 2nd commandment (no graven images) and put commandment #1 (no gods before me) in some danger as well. Which begs the question why the Pharisees were able to produce the coin Jesus asked for at all…
The pharisees get a bad rap in Matthew – (the subject for multiple different sermons, but not our concern today) The fact remains, they were the custodians of the Jewish law, typically fastidious in their mission to keep Israel keeping Yahweh happy. Keepers of the temple, advocates for Jewish identity – the natural enemies of the Roman collaborating Herodians. Except today.
Center stage. Herodians/Pharisees. Jesus/Followers. Romans. The question. The perfect, now-we-got-him-and-he-won’t-wiggle-out-of-this-one-with-his-clever-God-talk question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?
A “yes” announces to an abused and oppressed people being forced to fund the cost of their own subjugation with a currency that undermines their faith that their hero considers the situation right and normal and lawful – God’s will. A yes answer should, if all goes well for the Pharisees, get Jesus lynched. The alternative “no” answer represents a clear, public open call to an act rebellion against the rule of the Romans, a certain path to expedited execution.
Effectively, Jesus says the coin bears the image and likeness of Caesar. Give it back to the only one it can belong to. Give it back to Caesar. Brilliant. No lynching. No execution. Whose image? Whose likeness?
Jesus’s answer gets him out of a sticky wicket, but raises the question – what belongs to God. Remember back to the first chapter of Genesis (1:26a, 27a) “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;…So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.
Give back to God that which is God’s…
Each person is created singularly, uniquely, reflecting something of God in their person. [But] when minting coins a ruler makes all the images exactly the same; they are flat representations of himself. When Jesus asks for the coin and poses the question, “Whose image and inscription is this?” they respond with Caesar’s name and image. … The coin belongs to Caesar, but the person, the human being, belongs solely to God (Megan McKenna).
Give yourself to God whose image you bear. It’s poetic. What does it mean? It is compelling but it is…impractical.
I read a story of a congregation asked by the preacher to take out a credit card, and draw a small cross on it. One author writes about the experience, “I did that, and for the next several months it was nearly impossible to buy something and not reflect on whether or not this purchase aligned with my own sense of values and God-given identity. It wasn’t an answer, of course, I had to think for myself about how my faith impacted my decisions about spending. And it wasn’t a burden. In fact, it was rather empowering to be reminded of my identity as a child of God, something no amount of spending or saving could change. What it did was root me in my faith and invite me to actively reflect on how my faith shaped my daily life and particularly my economic life”. (David Lose, In the Meantime)
The tax, it turns out, isn’t the point. Money is not the point at all, but rather shaping our lives, our prayers, our giving, our speech, our thinking, our consumption, our assumptions all around our identity as the image bearers of God. Soon we gather together to break the bread of heaven together, to sip of the cup of life. At the Eucharist St. Augustine invited people to “receive who you are” then to “go become what you have received.”
I have chosen to be at peace with the oompaloompas in my life. Day by day, year by year, choice by choice may I to choose to serve the God of the rising and the setting sun, the God of light who shines in the darkness, the God of the whole earth, the God who knows my name, the God whose image I bear, the God whose praises I sing. Amen.