Sunday, 22 October 2017

Trinity 19: The Emperor's coin

Things were hotting up in the Temple in Jerusalem, where today’s Gospel reading is set. Over the last few Sundays we’ve read successive instalments of a long argument Jesus had been having with the religious authorities there.  Jesus had told a string of parables in which they were obviously the villains, not the heroes, as they might have expected. “You show deference to no one” they say – well, he certainly wasn’t showing any deference to them!

It’s not surprising that they want to regain the upper hand, to put Jesus in his place. After all, who is he? Just a carpenter from Nazareth. But the crowds seemed to love him, and that made him dangerous. These religious professionals weren’t necessarily bad people.  They were worried for their nation, for their families, for themselves. It didn’t pay to stir up trouble when you were ruled by Rome, and they wanted to close down this particular troublemaker before he brought disaster on them all. So they cooked up rather an unlikely alliance to stop him.

The Pharisees, religious purists, teamed up with the Herodians, supporters of King Herod, the puppet king of Israel, who was kept in power by Rome, and they came to Jesus with a killer question, which would put him in an impossible position. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor, or not?” If he said yes, he’d fall foul of the nationalists who wanted independence from Rome. If he said no he’d be in trouble with the Romans. One or other of these groups would get him into hot water, whatever he said. He couldn’t win.

Jesus’ response, though, was simply to ask for a coin, the kind of coin they would have paid that Roman tax with. And they produced one, with no trouble at all.

Now at this point, many Bible commentators will tell you that they shouldn’t have had this coin with them in the Temple anyway, and that by getting them to produce it, Jesus has tricked them into condemning themselves. I’ve said it myself in the past. Roman coins had pictures of the Emperor on them, and Jews were forbidden to make graven images. The Emperor was supposedly divine, too, which made it even worse. This is why Jesus calls them hypocrites, this argument says, pretending to be so holy while they have brought this blasphemous coin into the sacred precincts of the Temple. 

It’s a neat argument. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold water. There’s no evidence that you couldn’t bring Roman money into the Temple. You just weren’t allowed to use it to pay the Temple tax, which funded the maintenance and ministry of the Temple. That tax had to be paid in coins called Tyrian Shekels. That’s why there were money changers in the Temple, so that you could change the money you normally used into as much of the Temple currency as you would need. Those Tyrian Shekels were minted in the city of Tyre, as the name suggests. But here’s the thing. Tyre was a pagan, Phonecian city, and Tyrian Shekels also had images on them, just like those Roman coins. In fact they had the head of the Phonecian God Melqat on them, who was also known as Baal. Large swathes of the Old Testament are devoted to proclaiming Baal to be a very bad thing indeed. Why were these Tyrian Shekels acceptable in the Temple, then? The answer turns out to be rather prosaic. Tyrian Shekels had a reputation for being pure silver, not adulterated with other metals as some were. The religious authorities, it seemed, really weren’t bothered about what was on the coins, so long as they were worth what they said they were.

So this “blasphemous coin” interpretation of the story really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny at all. And that makes me wonder why it has been so popular, why people keep unquestioningly repeating it. It seems like it’s one of those things that we want to be true, even though it isn’t. And I wonder why that is. My suspicion is that we want to feel that Jesus is being really clever here, that he’s outwitted the Pharisees and Herodians. They’ve tried to trap him, but they’re the ones who’ve ended up with egg on their faces. My guess is that deep down, we like that. We like the idea that “our man” has pulled a fast on one them. They wanted to regain the upper hand, but with this trick with the coin, he’s come out on top – and that means we who follow him are on top too.

But if that’s not what’s happening, then what is? It’s true that the Pharisees and the Herodians go away amazed, but what is it that has amazed them?

To understand that I think we need to look more carefully at the answer he gives them, an answer which, frankly, is pretty baffling.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.  What does it mean? What is Jesus saying? Firstly, perhaps, he’s reminding his questioners – and us – that we all  have to live in the world as it is.  There isn’t an opt out mechanism. People have tried to separate themselves from the grubby complexities of life throughout human history. They’ve withdrawn to the desert, formed utopian communities, refused to participate in government, and shunned those who’ve disagreed with them. It’s not just religious people who’ve done this. Political purists can be every bit as exclusive as religious ones.

But all these separatist ideological experiments tend to run into the same difficulties in the end. It’s all very well to draw a line in the sand, to say “this far and no further” but where should we draw it, and how firmly. Radical groups always split – and often keep splitting – over the issue of how pure is pure, how separate is separate, how different do we have to be. Even the famously peaceable, simple-living Amish have split many times, over things like whether they should use electricity or wear clothes with zips in them. It may seem strange to us to fall out over these things, but they’ve come to matter to the Amish. They want to draw a line between themselves and the rest of the world, but they all draw it somewhere different.

“Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s” says Jesus. “However much you might want to have nothing to do with Rome,” says Jesus, “ that’s not an option. Rome is part of your reality, for good and ill, part of the world God has set you in. Pretending it isn’t won’t change anything.”

But then Jesus goes on. As well as telling us to “give the Emperor what is the Emperor’s”, he also tells us to “Give to God what is God’s” . That’s the sting in the tail. Because what is God’s? To put it simply everything is God’s. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” say Psalm 24. Ultimately, wherever our human loyalties and investments are, God’s claim on us goes beyond them and takes priority over them. And that means that, whether we like it or not, there will almost certainly come a time when the demands of the world around us and the demands of our faith will come into conflict, and there will be no easy, painless way out of that conflict. Jesus knows this, but he’s seems not to be afraid of it, and that, I think, is what really amazes these Pharisees and Herodians.

I don’t think they’re amazed because Jesus’ response is clever. I think they are amazed because it isn’t. He isn’t trying to make them look stupid, or win some sort of word game with them. He isn’t trying to wriggle off the hook they are dangling in front of him. If he was, this provocative answer was a strange way of doing it.  In fact, within a couple of days of this encounter he’ll be arrested and crucified. His ministry was always going to end like that, and he knew it. His commitment to least and the lowest in his society was bound to lead to a head-on collision with the Roman and Jewish authorities, the people who  had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and clinging onto their power. They were never going to tolerate the challenge he confronted them with.

I’m reminded of Daphne Galizia, the Maltese journalist who was blown up this week, apparently because of her long and lonely struggle to expose corruption in Malta. I don’t know what motivated and sustained her in that, but I think the courage that Jesus shows here as he walks straight into the jaws of death comes from his deep awareness that, indeed, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” That includes him, as it does all of us. We are held in God’s hands. We are ultimately safe, whatever the world does to us. Jesus knew that and he trusted it, and that meant that when the demands of love came up against the demands of the authorities in his world, he was able to keep his feet on the path he knew was right.  

So, I don’t think this is a story about a coin trick that turns the tables on some cunning opponents. I don’t think it gives us clever answers to the dilemmas we face as we negotiate our way through the complexities of life.  I don’t think it’s a story about cleverness at all. I think it’s a story about courage. , the courage that comes from knowing deep down in our hearts that we belong to God, that we bear his image, that we’re named, known and loved by him. If we can grasp that, no power on earth can ultimately destroy us.

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