Sunday, October 16, 2011
Giving God What's God's
In a classic TV scenario, the lawyer cross-examines a witness by posing a question with the demand: “Answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.” The witness starts to explain, but the lawyer shouts, “Just answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’!”, giving the impression that if the witness isn’t trying to cover up something, then he/she will give a simple, neat, clear-cut answer.
We also have ample evidence from the current and other electoral campaigns of politicians who’ve mastered the ability to deal with questions in various forums: news conferences, interviews, etc. Hecklers in a crowd often push questions designed to catch or embarrass a speaker. And there are people who earnestly seek information and want clear, crisp answers about where an official or candidate stands on issues. All, whether reporters, hecklers or honest seekers, want a “Yes” or a “No”.
Politicians, especially, seem to develop great skill in responding to questions without really answering them. Seldom do they feel able to say that they don’t know the answer, or that they don’t choose to answer, or to admit that their position is somewhat ambiguous. So they learn to fashion their answers by simply talking and talking, until no one is any longer sure what the question was. Or, they simply answer the questions which they want to answer: not the question asked.
If a person is being forthright and honest, it isn’t unreasonable to expect a clear, unequivocal “Yes” or “No”, or so it would seem. But, even lawyers, reporters, hecklers or seekers know that simple “Yes” or “No” answers aren’t always posssible. Persons pressed in that direction will either say less or more than they want to say, or ought to say, to give an honest answer.
In the Gospel passage (Matthew 22:15-22) Jesus shows that he’s obviously mastered the art of dealing with the difficult question, particularly with those who wanted him out of the way. Notice how Matthew frames this incident: in the opening line, with the Pharisees and Herodians going away and plotting to entrap Jesus; and in the last line, leaving Jesus and going away after hearing him. This, and the fact that they send “their disciples” to do their dirty work, their insincere flattery of Jesus, and their hypocrisy in posing the question, all demonstrate their true ulterior motives.
When fielding a question, it’s important for someone to determine why the question is being asked in the first place, the motive behind it. The very manner in which Jesus’ opponents ask the question raises some red flags. “Teacher, we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Bear in mind that these are the same people whom Matthew records earlier as having several times accused Jesus of casting out demons by the authority of demons, and who had accused him and his disciples of breaking the Sabbath Law.
Jesus, “aware of their malice” Matthew says, pulls no punches: “Why do you test me, you hypocrites?” In blowing their cover, Jesus makes clear to all the hearers that the real purpose for the Pharisees and Herodians asking their question is to entrap him, as they’d demonstrated so often before this, and to discredit him in the eyes of the people. Not surprisingly the Jewish people hated paying taxes as much as we do, especially to an occupying foreign government. At least the Pharisees did, being lay Jews committed to observing the entire Mosaic Law as faithfully as possible, even the parts which only the priests had to observe. The Herodians, on the other hand, who supported the Herodian dynasty, and were corrupt puppets of the Roman occupiers, whose palms had been greased by their overlords many times over, were less opposed to rock the boat. At that time there was a group of rebellious Jews who especially advocated withholding taxes from the Romans, since they considered it immoral, even treasonous, to support such a government. If Jesus had answered the question “Yes”, his loyalty to his fellow Jews would be called into doubt. Had he answered “No”, he’d have been seen by the Romans to be advocating rebellion.
In order to shift the discussion towards the real purpose of the question, Jesus asks his opponents for a denarius, the coin used for the head tax which every adult male Jew was required to pay, and which was inscribed “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus”. Note the fact that Jesus’ opponents possessed such a coin, showing that they already knew that it was lawful to pay the tax. Jesus recognizes what they’re up to, and forces them to answer his question, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” One can imagine them mumbling, “The emperor’s.” Jesus then declares: “So give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Any Jew worth his/her salt, especially a Pharisee, would know beyond any doubt that everything, without exception, belongs to God. The prophet Isaiah (45:5) had summarized that well: “I am the Lord and there is no other; besides me there is no God.”
In saying, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's," Jesus simply confirms what the questioners themselves have already been doing. Without answering the original question, Jesus intimates that since they pay taxes, it must be lawful; it was something all Jewish citizens did. Being no Zealot, Jesus agrees that taxes should be paid. Matthew had previously underscored this in Chapter 17 where Jesus sends Peter to get a coin out of a fish’s mouth to “pay the [temple] tax for both of us.”
The core and focus of Jesus’ answer to the original question is his statement, "Give to God the things that are God's". God's claim on every human being has no limits; it embraces all aspects of creation and life, even paying taxes. This second part of Jesus’ answer moves well beyond a simple “Yes” to the question of whether it’s right to fulfill civic obligations. God has claim to everything in our lives and in creation. God is the source of truth, and you and I are committed to live by that truth. God is the source of justice, and we’re committed to making that justice real in our society and in our world, something which, for the Christian, is not optional. When civic authority expresses something of God’s truth and justice, we rejoice and support that. When it falls short of God’s truth and justice, our Christian obligation is to stand in judgment of what’s happening and to seek ways in which God’s truth and justice may be upheld and more fully embodied.
Each of us, in being faithful to God, has the right to be respected by others. While we have civic obligations, each of us must be allowed to live before God and maintain the integrity of our conscience. The faithfulness to God of some, for example, may prevent them from bearing arms for their country, or may lead others to bypass laws which they deem unjust, in order to achieve true justice according to their conscience. Others, equally faithful to God, may see things differently. Such decisions, on either side, may not be taken lightly or cheaply, but are to be made following the dictates of one’s conscience before God and being willing to accept the consequences, whatever the price. Holding deep convictions, yet living, working, and worshipping together with people who don’t share the same convictions requires great openness and deep humility: the kind that the great Abraham Lincoln demonstrated. When asked, during America’s Civil War, if he thought God was on the side of the Union cause, he replied that his only hope was that he was on God’s side.
There’s no formula which can tell us exactly how we’re to give God what belongs to God, but there are hints and clues. We give to God when our effort and energy is directed in ways which give health and wholeness, rather than divisiveness, to our world, our environment, our community, our parish, our family. We give to God when we reach out in love and caring to the real needs of other people, regardless of who they are or how they are. We give to God when our resources are shared in order to witness to the teaching of Jesus‘ love, mercy and compassion. We give to God when we fervently seek out those things and join hands and hearts with those persons which truly make for peace and justice for all.