The Pharisees’ Dwight Freeney Complex
Jesus is just in no mood to be trifled with in this Gospel.
He is a busy man and he does not have time to fool with a bunch of sneaky Pharisees who have a bad attitude.
You can just feel his frustration when he says, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”
The Pharisees are a bunch of grown men, and more than that, they are religious professionals who presumably have duties to which they are supposed to be attending.
And yet they find time in their busy schedule to waylay Jesus in the street, an upstart rabble rouser who they’re really not supposed to be acknowledging, and try to trip him up verbally into either alienating his supporters or being arrested by the Romans.
It would be like if Dwight Freeney, all-star defensive end formerly of the Indianapolis Colts, saw a high school freshman quarterback at the mall and tried to sack him.
It’s overkill, it’s inappropriate and it’s just tacky.
And the worst part is that the Pharisees didn’t just see Jesus at the mall by accident—they planned this out and went to find him. The first verse of our gospel says, “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.”
Really? It’s just embarrassing.
Every priest, as a religious professional, lives in private dread of becoming a full-on Pharisee, the example par excellence of clergy who have completely lost their moral underpinnings and let their most base impulses run amok.
If you love me as your friend and your priest, please call me on it if and when you catch me behaving like this.
But Jesus is no lightweight and the Pharisees are in for a nasty surprise.
It would be like if Dwight Freeney tried to tackle the freshman quarterback and the quarterback sacks him and then runs for a touchdown…at the mall. I don’t know, I guess the metaphor breaks down at that point.
But the idea holds. Jesus does not have time for this tomfoolery because he is now in Jerusalem and every day, the time is ticking down toward the inevitable.
But there is actually more to it than that. As Clayton Schmit at Fuller Theological Seminary points out, “By this time in the day, Jesus is well warmed up for this treacherous game of chess. He sees through their sarcasm to the malice that lies beneath and brands them hypocrites. This is why: Jesus seems to carry no coins. The Pharisees dare not carry Roman coins, for they bear the blasphemous image of Tiberius Caesar and the inscription proclaims him divine. Yet, when Jesus asks for a Roman coin, they readily provide it. There, in the sacred space of the temple, the Pharisees possess the idolatrous image.
The Pharisees are thinking two moves ahead in this game. If Jesus says that it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he alienates the people who hate the Roman occupation and its Caesar. If he says it is unlawful to pay taxes, the people will be pleased, but Jesus will then be liable for arrest by the Romans.”
This was actually a dangerous conversation for Jesus to get into at this point, because he still had a lot to do with his disciples before he was ready to be arrested, and he ran the risk of jumping the gun in this confrontation.
And anyone who thinks Jesus and the Gospels aren’t relevant to today should take a look at this passage. Whether it’s the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street movement, everyone is interested in the average person’s relationship to the government. And more often than not, the issue that pushes people’s buttons the fastest is taxes.
On one level Jesus’ teaching on taxes is pretty straightforward. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s.”
People have taken that over the centuries to mean that Christians should take civil, principled roles in civic life, pay their taxes and cooperate with the government insofar as they can in line with their conscience. Fine and good.
That teaching and that tradition help us to have a smoothly functioning society where we all get along, or at least can rely on law and order.
But there’s actually a deeper point that Jesus makes here.
That’s one of the things I love the most about Jesus. Even as he’s dealing with whatever situation presents itself in the moment, he’s also always talking to us as well, reaching out to us with some bit of wisdom or challenge that we can ponder, these thousands of years later in a vastly different time and place.
The key comes when Jesus asks us to judge what belongs to whom, and to make that judgment based on the image inscribed on the item in question.
The coin belongs to Caesar because Caesar’s image is inscribed on it.
So the question becomes, where is God’s image inscribed?
That will determine what belongs to God.
God’s image is inscribed on people, on each and every person that walks this earth.
Way back in the beginning of everything, long, long before Caesar, we learn in the book of Genesis that “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; male and female he created them.”
And that renders both Caesar and the Pharisees completely moot.
Caesar, or our modern day authorities, may be able to claim money and power and authority for a short time over a limited number of areas, but their power is so fleeting and so fragile in the end.
No matter how oppressed we may feel by the powers that be claiming authority over our lives, from Americans complaining about tax controversies to people around the world who are prisoners of conscience and persecuted for their religion, in the final analysis we belong to God because it is God’s image we bear.
Nothing and nobody on this earth can own a human being’s heart and soul because they always and eternally belong to God.
I saw that in South Africa these last two weeks.
I saw the face of God in children dying of AIDS, in mighty prophets who fought the evils of apartheid, in people living in shacks with no indoor toilets or electricity, in faithful church workers lovingly serving their communities, in ordinary people going about their daily lives.
They all revealed the glory of God and the fact that they were made in the image of God shone through them like the brightness of the sun.
But Jesus says more than that money belongs to Caesar and people belong to God.
He says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s.”
We are to do more than simply acknowledge that we belong to God, we are to actively give ourselves to God.
How will you do that this week?
It is one thing to passively understand that you came from God and to God you will sometime return, far in the future.
It is quite another to actively search for the ways you will give yourself over to God, pray and determine to be a vessel of grace, acting in the world to accomplish God’s purposes.
Consider whose image you bear as you go about your business this week.
When people look into your face, they are catching a glimpse of the Almighty Creator, our Blessed Redeemer and our Loving Sanctifier.
As you acknowledge the power of bearing that image in yourself, begin to search for the signs of that holy presence in the faces and hearts of the people around you.
And then render unto God.
Dedicate each encounter and each interaction to God.
Ask God to infuse and sanctify these moments, that God’s image might shine out more and more, that more and more of God’s people would start to realize and cherish the knowledge that we are inscribed with the love and beauty of God from the moment of our birth.
Then God’s people would find less and less of their mental space and energy given over to worry over what they must render to Caesar, and more and more given to the joy and anticipation of rendering ourselves and our lives to God.
As we used to say in the old offertory prayer, may we say of each moment in our lives, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”