Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
Writer and humorist David Sedaris tells a story of when he was eight years old
and moved to a new town where the only family on his block
who didn’t own a television were the Tomkeys.[i]
Instead of a TV, the Tomkeys had a boat,
and on the weekends,
they would leave town and head for the lake.
That year, Halloween fell on a Saturday.
David and his sisters dressed up and went
from house to house collecting candy.
The next night, as David and his family sat watching TV, the doorbell rang…
…and there, on their doorstep, stood the Tomkeys,
the parents dressed normally
and the two children in Halloween costumes.
The father explained that they had spent the weekend at the lake
and so the children had not been able to trick or treat.
“So I guess we’re trick or treating now, if it’s not too late.”
“Of course it’s not too late,” David’s mother said.
Then she told her children to go and get the candy.
“The candy’s all gone,” one of David’s sisters said.
“We gave it all out last night.”
“Not that candy,” their mother said. “The OTHER candy.”
“Do you mean OUR candy?” another sister asked.
“The candy we earned?”
The children knew this is what their mother must mean,
especially when she fixed them with THAT LOOK
that mothers can give.
They hurried off to their bedrooms.
In his room, David grabbed the brown paper bag marked “My Candy. Keep Out.”
He dumped it on his bed
and started searching for the crummiest candy,
the only things he would even consider giving away.
As he divided his candy into piles according to what he liked best
he knew that any minute
his mother would come into his room
and indiscriminately grab whatever she could
to give to the Tomkeys.
Then it occurred to David that the only thing to do
was to eat as much as he could right then and there.
So he started unwrapping the miniature chocolate bars
and cramming them into his mouth.
Moments later, his mother entered the room, and in desperation,
he started breaking apart the candy he couldn’t fit
into his mouth because, as he explained,
“while it hurt to destroy them,
it would have hurt even more to give them away.”
As his mother grabbed a roll of Necco wafers, he pleaded with her,
“Not those. Not those,”
and as he did, bits of chewed up chocolate
sprayed from his mouth.
His mother just looked at him and said,
“You should look at yourself. I mean, really look at yourself.”1
It is the invitation the Bible offers us every day: look at yourself.
What is your life built upon?
Who are you, really?
What are you capable of doing and being?
This charming little text from Matthew
sits in the middle of some stressful reading.
Jesus has entered Jerusalem. Its holy week.
And not only has he come in to great fanfare,
he has come to the temple, the holy space of holy spaces
and has found moneychangers taking advantage of
ordinary folk, poor folk
as they try to do their best in the eyes of God.
So he runs them off: turning their tables and sending them away.
So THAT has happened.
And then those who are profiting from all of that,
the leaders of the temple,
come up to him and ask him why he thinks he can do that….
And in response, Jesus offers them parables.
Just before today’s confrontation,
Jesus has just finished three winding, twisting, curving parables
a wedding banquet no guest wanted to attend,
a horribly run vineyard
so bad that the owner had to clean house
fire the lot and get new management
or the one about two kids,
one who says they’ll play along but doesn’t
another who plays aloof, but, in the end,
does what is asked
three winding, twisting, curving parables
which while they might have been clear as mud
they certainly did the trick.
Everyone hearing Jesus would have known that Jesus was
staking his claim here.
Those confronting Jesus didn’t get it.
Those who were using the grace God had given to them
the gifts God had given them
the opportunity God had given them
to manipulate the system
or to put themselves above others
or to shut others out
they didn’t get it.
The coming and present reign of God would be about
comforting the afflicted
release of the captives, sight to the sightless, food for the hungry.
Welcoming ALL to the feast
as Jesus made clear in that wedding banquet parable.
The year of the Lord’s favor, for which Jesus was willing to DIE
would not be about preserving the status quo
or winning a political and military victory
just so that the elite could continue being the elite.
It was a tense, stressful set of lessons for them to sit through, I’m sure.
So when we come to today’s reading,
things shift. From parable, to confrontation.
Today’s reading is the first of several confrontations
that fateful week. Where those who didn’t get it
set things in motion to have Jesus condemned.
We need to remember all that when we want to make this text just about taxes.
The bible was written thousands of years ago,
some parts of it date back three or four thousand years
and it takes some work on our part of discern what it might be teaching
about a 21st century tax code.
Something similar could be said
when we want to look at this page in our Bibles
and say that its all about the Separation of Church and State
render to Ceasar and render to God, and all that…
There is too much going on here, and in the rest of the Bible
to offer that smooth, that easy, that uncritical of a reading
to be able to point and say:
Look! See! There is is! Told you so!
Some like to look at this fairly concrete Gotcha moment
where the Pharisees and their strange buddies the Herodians
(more on them in a minute)
Some like to look at this fairly concrete Gotcha moment
where the Pharisees and the Herodians
try to trap Jesus into choosing two horrible options
and construct a gotcha moment of their own:
what did Jesus say about taxes?
what did Jesus say about the separation of church and state?
We should resist doing such things.
For while this text speaks volumes about taxes,
or about what Jesus thought about the relationship between the emperor
and the Kingdom of God
it won’t be understood outside of the broader sweep of the movement of God
that we believe is alive in other parts of the text as well
and THAT takes a community to discern
and efforts at reading the other parts of scripture, too
and a realization that we have to put it into OUR context
which isn’t so easy to do,
and a heart that doesn’t seek the Gotcha moment
as if the Word of God was meant to be a weapon of some sort.
So Here is Jesus
Teaching hard things, advocating for those on the margins
challenging the comfortable
and they—the comfortable,
decide that they’ve had enough.
In this text it’s the Pharisees and the Herodians
but other texts will add other adversaries.
Most of them will be one of various Jewish groups.
We remember that Jesus, himself a Jewish rabbi
doesn’t attack them for being Jewish
or even for being a Jewish leader.
This is a struggle within Judaism, not against Judaism.
At its heart, it’s a struggle to the best values of Israel.
But here the Herodians are added to the mix.
We don’t really know who they are, other than that their name
tells us that they are the loyalists to Herod
and with it, they support or defend or acquiesce
to mighty Rome.
They were strange accomplices.
We might expect the Pharisees,
stanch observers of the Law
and the Herodians, the collaborators with Rome,
to be at each others throats,
but here they are united in their opposition to Jesus.
They have decided to use Taxes to TRAP Jesus.
This Tax was a hated tax. Its not taxes in general that is at issue here.
Jews in first century Palestine paid all sorts of taxes:
temple taxes, land taxes, customs taxes, just to name a few.
The tax in question was the imperial tax,
paid in tribute to Rome to support the Roman Occupation of Israel.
That is right: first-century Jews were required to pay their oppressors
a denarius a year to support their own oppression.
Now, the Herodians didn’t see it this way.
They advocated supporting Roman “governance” of Israel.
But the Nationalists, opposed to Rome,
found the tax humiliating.
And to add to the general insult of the tax,
the coin they had to use,
the one engraved with the image of Tiberius Caesar
included a proclamation of his divinity
forcing them to break the first two commandments.
I don’t know about you,
but after reading through all these stories this summer,
I am constantly impressed by the narrative genius of the bible writers.
This is better than any Aaron Sorkin screenplay.
The scene is set:
Jesus has been teaching the crowds about the coming reign of God
and directly challenging the establishment.
So they come in to trap him:
They use flowery language,
the language of respect and deference and care.
They are trolling Jesus:
“Jesus, teach us, since you are sincere and offer the way of God
in accordance with truth:
this hated, awful, disgusting tax
this tax that pay for all these soldiers
that makes rich the tax collectors
that keeps us down
teach us, oh great one,
is it lawful?”
As far as trap questions go, this is a good one:
If Jesus says yes, he risks alienating the Pharisees
validating the pagan deification of Caesar on the coin
supporting the oppression of the poor…
If Jesus says no, he risks sedition, treason
and you can be sure the Herodians are prepared
to report any whiff of that to Rome.
And you can almost feel the crowd inch closer to hear what Jesus might say…
I wonder if you could have heard a pin drop.
What is our impulse in trying to set God up this way?
We love these trick questions? The impossible situations.
The catch-22 with no way to offer a response anyone might like.
What is it in our nature that longs to delight at someone in this space?
That sees people squirm and relishes in it.
This week the political news world was a buzz
over a gubernatorial debate in Florida
which was delayed some 5 or 10 minutes
when the two candidates fought like petulant children
over the letter and the spirit of the debate rules
and one of them breaking the rules so
he could have a fan on the podium.
And people ate it up.
They loved seeing the two squirm and evade and look unprepared
and all the while the issues and the problems took a back seat.
The theatre was spectacular. But no one won that debate in Florida.
One friend, who lives in Florida, said on Facebook: Geez, we all lost last night.
Jesus asked for the coin.
He didn’t have one, but the Pharisees did.
He asked for the inscription. They told him about it.
And Jesus turns the tables again:
Give to the emperor the things of the emperor.
Give to God the things that are God’s.
And they were amazed. They left him and went away.
Those seeking to trap Jesus won’t stop.
They’ll come back, and eventually they’ll succeed in sending Jesus away.
But for now, Jesus has done something extraordinary:
Jesus has affirmed that all things are God’s, really
This tax, that vineyard, these moneychanging tables
those poor and disenfranchised and starving
they’re God’s children too.
He refused to denounce or support that tax, or the emperor
or the game itself.
Jesus won’t play the petty mind games, the childish Gotcha moments.
Jesus will stay focused…to the end. Give to God, what is God’s.
And, when you think about it, All things Belong to God.
So, maybe one thing for us to ponder today,
instead of looking here this time for something specific about our Taxes
and Jesus’ approval of the fair tax or the progressive tax,
and instead of looking for justification for our position
in our fights over public religion
prayer in the public school
or displays of the 10 commandments
maybe today we should look at this selfish tendency we have
to be right, to win. At all costs.
To eat all that candy because by God
THEY’re not going to get it.
Not MY candy that I’ve earned!
That’s what they were doing in this text: they were doing whatever it took to win.
Strange bedfellows, colluding against Jesus.
Trolling Jesus. Trying to trap Jesus.
Where do we see ourselves right THERE?
So, Halloween isn’t all that far away,
just 12 days from now.
My kids are all excited. I’ve got my costume, do you have yours?
We’ve been seeing houses decorated with lights and tombstones.
My local CVS has been bulging Family-Size packs of candy
for weeks now.
I’m remembering my Halloween spent in Guatemala
with the festive Dia de los Muertos activities there
where they lovingly decorate family catacombs
and fly kites in the cemeteries,
and I’m wondering if my sister-in-law will dress up as a Banana again.
There will be glow sticks
and miniature Snickers
and so many tootsie rolls. So many.
But what happens if someone comes the next day, and wants some candy?
Will we have the heart to open OUR stash,
and to share with those who didn’t get to join in?
Someone might whisper that its not FAIR.
They didn’t follow the rules, they didn’t follow expectations.
Its not FAIR.
But the question for Jesus often isn’t what is fair.
The question is where is God’s heart?
Where is grace? Where is love?
Jesus is pointing us to see all things, ALL THINGS, as opportunities for
seeing, acting, feeling, doing God’s way.
Give to God the things that are God’s
Oh, please Lord. May we join with Jesus. Amen.
[i] David Sedaris, “Us and Them” from Dress your Family in Corduroy and Denim. This illustration originally preached in a sermon by the Rev. Mark Ramsey entitled “In the Right Hands.”