Proper 24, Year A, Church of Our Saviour, Gallatin

Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matt. 22:17).

In our Gospel reading today, the religious authorities set a trap for Jesus. Our Gospel uses a rare word, appearing in the New Testament only here; a word drawn from the pursuit of prey, the craft of the hunter: to “trap” or to “snare.” It’s the sort of thing, I suspect, that usually gets called a “gizmo” or a “what you may call it,” since the proper term is unknown to the non-specialist! The “trap,” in this case, is set by the authorities’ question about taxes: a question of ultimate importance in Jesus’ day.

Paying taxes, then and now, is a test of political loyalty. Who do we acknowledge as a legitimate authority, with a claim upon our support? But in Jesus’ day this question had an ultimate significance, in that observant Jews like the Pharisees were reluctant to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Roman occupation. For them, this was not a political or a religious issue, because the difference would have escaped them. After all, they looked for the restoration of the kingdom of David, and the coming of God’s Messiah. The political was the religious, and the religious was the political.

In their view, Caesar Augustus, and the various rulers of Herod’s family, were illegitimate authorities. Even a simple act like trafficking in the coin of the realm was a test of political and religious loyalty. The coins, like the one in our Gospel, might include a graven image, forbidden to Jews. Roman coins might also contain inscriptions that acknowledged the divine status of the emperor. None of this sat well with the people of occupied Palestine.

So, that’s the kind of trap set for Jesus. When the religiously observant Pharisees show up with the Herodians, the supporters of the regime, the plot thickens. Both groups were out to get him. If Jesus says it’s lawful, that is, in accordance with God’s will, to pay taxes, then he’ll be in trouble with thoughtful religious folk who know the implication of the answer. If he says it’s not lawful, then he’ll have placed himself in peril with the political authorities, and with Jews who support the regime: folk who are not likely to take kindly to revolutionary talk about non-payment. That’s the trap that’s set.

It’s in the nature of a trap to be at least partly disguised, so that the prey falls into it without seeing it. Jesus, however, can see this one coming. But a trap is also hard to get out of. If you are snared you are entrapped, entangled in stuff without relief, unable to get free. The question posed by the authorities in our Gospel today is intended as that kind of trap, one that will tie Jesus up in knots.

In this election year, there are political traps of all sorts set for faithful Christians. Loyalty tests abound in our polarized political discourse, forms of words that can tie us up. There are also important questions that demand an answer, when it’s not clear what the right answer is, or where a simple answer doesn’t really do justice to a complex issue. It’s easy to be snared by simple binaries, by formulations that lock us in: just say “yes” or “no”!

Probably the biggest trap is one that an increasing number of people, even members of the church, fall into. That’s the trap of ascribing ultimate meaning to our political loyalties; in other words, making our politics our true religion. In this case, being a “red” or a “blue” person is the most important identity that one possesses; more important than being a member of the church! The sort of intense animosity that in one age was, unhappily, focused on religious heretics, is now applied to our political opponents, in the church and out. Our societal disputes loom so large that they eclipse our identities as faithful members of the church, bound together by the ties of baptism, and by the deep communion we share at the altar. These sacraments, these mysteries, are set by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the true source of our life.

Note how Jesus responds to the trap that is set for him. He doesn’t answer with a simple “yes” or “no,” or reply with a slogan. Jesus tells them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). He refocuses on the fundamental issue of who we are: God’s People, not Caesar’s. Jesus doesn’t allow himself to be sucked in to the trap of answering the question as formulated for him. Things are more complex than the question allows.

Jesus’ answer addresses the fundamental issue of all political entanglements, all political traps. All that we have, and all that we are, is God’s possession. In other words, politics has its place, but it’s a limited one compared to the claim that God has on our lives. We’re citizens of the kingdom who live in this world; Christians who have political loyalties and try to answer the difficult political questions while continuing our journey to the heavenly city. We’re not “red” people or “blue” people. We’re God’s people, his own possession, and we belong to him.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee