I know. I know. I get it.
We have endured a week of contentious Supreme Court hearings.
We’re days away from a wild election—millions of us already have voted—the crazy talk is on steroids, and some folks are waking up at 3:00 AM with cold sweats about a bad election night.
So, we come to in-person or online worship this morning in hope of eking out an hour of solace—perhaps some quiet prayer, uplifting music, and socially distanced kumbaya.
Yet, gosh darn it, when we hear Matthew’s Gospel, we experience tension upon tension as the Pharisees and Herodians plot to entrap Jesus in a double bind on taxes.
Instead of kicking back with some old George Winston mood music, Jesus must confront his sparring partners’ malice before invoking spiritual jujitsu that leaves them stammering as they walk away.
Instead of more stress this morning, how do we find glimmers of good news in today’s scripture that empowers us to navigate the coming days of God knows what?
First, let’s unpack the play-by-play in today’s story before gleaning kernels of wisdom for our own lives.
We have left behind several Sundays of quirky parables for a straight-up if strident conversation between Jesus and his adversaries.
No one likes paying taxes, but the issue in today’s exchange pours salt in the wound, since the annual tribute tax to Rome requires Jews to subsidize the foreign oppressor.
The Pharisees and Herodians were strange bedfellows—the former despising Rome while the Herodians were in cahoots—but they coalesced to double-team Jesus.
The trap was easy to see coming: if Jesus agrees that Jews should pay taxes to Caesar, he’s capitulating to the oppressing Romans and renouncing Jewish nationalism, yet a negative answer encourages tax dodging and political sedition that sets up big trouble.
Of course, Jesus sees the trap and refuses the bait.
Since Jesus does not carry the traitor’s coin, he asks them to produce a denarius—a poor man’s day wage—inquires about the coin’s icon, drops his paradoxical bomb and sends them away stammering.
Jesus’s adversaries did not want a tax-planning seminar but sought entrapment with a clear winner and loser—sound familiar?
Jesus gives no tax guidance, nor does he claim the tax’s legitimacy.
Jesus does not acknowledge Rome’s authority or its reverse.
But Jesus raises a big question that continues for you and me to this day: what truly belongs to God—holding our ultimate allegiance—and what belongs to temporal governance, especially in dark times when the government commits acts of injustice like apartheid, or fascism or sadistic treatment of incarcerated children?
This perennial question has a very textured 2000-year provenance in Christian discourse, getting wildly off track, for example, in Martin Luther’s Two Kingdom teaching that Christian leadership is relegated to spiritual matters while paying concurrent obedience to the dominant and potentially corrupt secular authority—the perfect setup for future Nazism.
We’ve done much better when embracing the ancient Jewish precept that God is Lord of all creation without lapsing into a spiritual/temporal false dichotomy.
Fast-forward 2000 years from Jesus’s tense encounter and 400 years from Luther’s miscue: where does it leave us today?
How do we pay absolute allegiance to a God who loves us abundantly without doing it on the cheap in our stewardship, even as we take our rightful place a temporal world that has necessary costs of doing business?
In the Venn Diagram of our lives, we celebrate a worldly presence while rejecting the false dichotomy of spiritual/temporal.
We are not 19th century utopians who flee the complexity of society in the elusive search for a perfect world—a quest that rarely ends well.
Like Jesus, we get our hands dirty amid the bedlam of a broken world, doing so as imperfect embodiments of God’s love.
In Jesus’s name, we celebrate that which is good while calling out injustice or false allegiance that diverts God’s reign.
Like the Jesus who used spittle and prayer to bind up the wounded, we see God’s hand at work in simple acts of justice-making and compassion as we walk humbly with our God.
Like the disciples after feeding the 5,000, we’re all for daily peace and quiet, even when there is more heavy lifting just around the next corner.
Like Jesus, we should be smart enough to see those with malice coming our way, but we also should invoke paradox intervention instead of violence to fend them off, especially when rational discourse will not move the ball forward.
Taking scripture’s cue, we navigate a dystopian world as God’s servants who are wise as serpents while being innocent as doves.
As Easter Christians, we invoke hope—not naivety, but hope—to sidestep the quicksand of hate and dystopian mush.
My friends, we are but days from a crescendo in our public and political discourse, and we could spend neurotic hours attempting to predict the zigs and zags that will transpire in the coming weeks.
The gospel witness never depicts Jesus in a naïve or flummoxed state—and neither should we amid the tension of this season.
Repeatedly, Jesus proclaims a Kingdom of God’s righteousness—God’s basileia—that breaks into this world and redeems it from its brokenness and pain.
Before the heavy lifts of Jesus’s earthly ministry—including its own crescendo in Holy Week—Jesus finds solitude for pray and communion with God.
Such prayer never implies an escapist trip to a spiritual day spa.
Rather, it equips Jesus to focus more clearly upon his ministry of justice and reconciliation, keeping him agile in times of confrontation and fortifying him for deeds like mounting the cross as his final act of love for this world.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to do no less.
Like Jesus, we journey through a world that is simultaneously temporal and spiritual, navigating the day while searching for the redemptive and transcendent.
Like Jesus, we get our hands dirty while proclaiming God’s love and addressing the broken realities of the human condition.
Like Jesus, we can use paradoxical engagement over violence when confronting hostility or malice.
Like Jesus, we embrace God’s in-breaking reign while living out a vision that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven: in doing so, we seek to wean ourselves from the spirit of power to embrace the power of the Spirit that brings more justice, more joy, more right relationship with God and neighbor, along with a radical demand for a re-evaluated life and a renewed creation (credit to Bishop Assistant Mary Glasspool clergy correspondence).
Like Jesus, we proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, even if it is not in hand.
Like Jesus, we find God’s peace even when the world looks most foreboding.
Even when the arc of the moral universe looks wildly convoluted, we embody Christian hope, proclaim Good News to a disheveled world, and re-commit to our daily witness that the arc truly bends toward justice right here and now, in the spirit of God’s holy name.