The Gotcha Question – October 22, 2017
The Pharisees plotted with the Herodians to entrap Jesus. The two were normally on the opposite side of politics. The Herodians, the party aligned with Herod the King, cooperated with the Roman Government and advocated the legitimacy of paying taxes. The Pharisees opposed the legitimacy of such taxes and cooperating with the Roman oppressors. Together they came up with what they thought of as the perfect gotcha question. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with the 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?” The Pharisees hoped that Jesus would support paying taxes to Caesar so the Jewish people would view him as a Roman sympathizer. The Herodians hoped Jesus would oppose paying taxes to Caesar so they could accuse him of treason or sedition against Rome. Divided in politics they were united in their attempt to trip Jesus up.
Lots of people employ the gotcha question. Reporters love to catch politicians with a gotcha question that makes them look bad. A police interrogation is always looking for the question that will reveal a suspect’s guilt. Jealous lovers ask it of their beloved. There’s something in us that loves to catch people out and embarrass them with their own words. Recently a kind of gotcha question from President Trump has gotten a lot of play in the news media. President Trump has said that any football player who doesn’t stand for the national anthem at the beginning of a football game should be fired. So this has become the new test of whether people are loyal Americans. Those who want to promote the flag boo the athletes who kneel or sit in protest, while those who advocate for the right of protests cheer them on. Yet one more divide in our supposedly United States.
Jesus’ answer to the question about taxes showed just how adept and clever he was. “Show me the coin used for the tax,” he asked. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” “The emperor’s,” they told him. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” was his famous reply.
Beside being a very clever statement and wiggling out of what looked like the perfect trap, Jesus in refusing the bait defined the question more broadly. Just what did a 1st century Palestinian Jew owe to the emperor? That was not an easy question. If one valued one’s life one better pay the tax. What it fair? Were taxes fairly accessed? What say did a Jew or the Jewish people have in how they were taxed or what the tax was used for? And what do they owe God? Everything, of course. Certainly their love and devotion and obedience and faithfulness. Their religious debt was clear; what did they owe God in the political sphere? Would using the Roman coins with their idolatrous claim on them that Caesar was a God and bearing his image be sacrilege? Caesar could stamp his image on a coin but all human beings bear God’s image. Every life is marked with God’s inscription and how we choose to live them is how we render to God the things that are God’s. These are not simple questions. They cannot be easily reduced to slogans or tweets.
If Jesus were asked the question today whether he encouraged people to stand for the flag or if he backed the fight for racial justice, he might well ask his questioners to tell him what the flag stands for. They might refer to the pledge of allegiance.
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
Then Jesus would respond, “give to the flag the things that belong to the flag and give to God the things that belong to God.”
Do all those who stand and advocate standing, work tirelessly to give liberty and justice to all? Do those who sit or kneel try to dishonor the flag or are they trying to honor what it stands for? And what do we owe God? Everything, of course. In fact everything in our sanctuary represents the spiritual obligation of praise and gratitude, which we owe God. But what do we owe God in the political sphere? In Romans 13 Paul tells us to honor and obey the secular authority, to live, in other words, as loyal citizens. Standing during the national anthem is certainly a proud and long-standing American tradition of patriotism and honoring our country. Soldiers have fought and died defending the flag and all that it stands for. There’s a strong patriotic attachment to our flag. But in the scriptures we also read that God is on the side of the broken and oppressed. “Make no peace with oppression,” the upper story stained glass window in St. John’s Church says. In the window, which we call the social justice window, Martin Luther King, Jr., the prophet Amos and St. Francis along with Jesus stand for the strong Christian tradition of advocating justice.
People don’t always recognize Jesus as an advocate for justice. He didn’t stand up and denounce the Roman Government or Herod’s leadership. He didn’t take an obviously political stand that we know of. And yet Jesus did stand for justice, what theologians call “restorative justice.” He stood with the poor and the outcast. He served those in need. He cast out evil. He healed the sick and broken. He forgave sins. He restored the sick and sinners to community. Finally on the cross he identified fully and completely with all the broken people of the world (ourselves included), and broke death’s hold on us. He spoke about God’s Kingdom and life as it should be in that Kingdom. Jesus spoke of justice – not a justice of division – but a justice that restores.
Jesus began his ministry, according to the Gospel of Luke, by reading the passage of Scripture by Isaiah
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Jesus then) rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all the synagogue were fixed on him. The he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. (Luke 4:18-21)
Jesus in himself was that message of liberation. Therefore in proclaiming the words he was also fulfilling them. In the Sermon on the Mount he said that “blessed are those who hunger or thirst for righteousness for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6) The word translated as “righteousness” can equally be translated as “justice.” Clearly Jesus stands for liberty and justice. Does he not also call us to work tirelessly so that the “liberty and justice” promised for all in our pledge of allegiance may finally one day be realized? At the very least, giving to God the things that belong to God, invites us to not reduce complicated issues to simple tweets and questions that condemn us if we answer on one side or another of a political divide.
Each of us is made in God’s image. God sent Jesus to reclaim and redeem what was broken in that image in each of us. Every person is of infinite value to God. Black lives matter as all lives matter. In God’s love we should not rest or be still or complacent when some people, simply by the color of their skin, are treated unfairly and at risk. It seems to me that the things we owe to God and the things we owe to the flag come together when we refuse to accept the racial injustice that denies liberty and justice for all in our country. We can certainly disagree about whether or not sitting down for the national anthem is an appropriate way of speaking out against injustice, but our debt both to the flag and to God should empower us to speak out against that injustice.
The Pharisees and Herodians who put the question to Jesus tried first to butter him up. “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.” Their words are dripping with hypocrisy; they believed no such thing about Jesus. And yet their words were true. Jesus did speak the truth. He regarded no one person or people with deference. His love was equal to all who needed his healing. His rebuke was given to all who denied God’s love for others.
The Apostle Paul summarized Jesus’ mission in his 2nd letter to the Christians at Corinth.
In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (2 Corinthians 5:19)
God’s work in Christ was to restore things that are broken and make them whole. That’s restorative justice. In order to do that Jesus shared our humanity, embraced our sin and brokenness, reaching out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross. Besides everything, we owe God our redemption, our forgiveness, the new lives he gives us in the power of his resurrection. Giving to God the things that are God’s does not divide the spiritual from the secular. God expects us to join him in the amazing mission of reconciling all things in his love.
Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; give to the flag the things that are the flag’s; and give to God the things that are God’s.