(This first appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on October 31, 2014)
“Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
(Matt 22:17-22, NIV)
About 4 years ago, my wife and I decided that to get rid of the television. For me, the final straw was watching my 5 and 3 year old daughters held totally captive by the onslaught of commercials while I sat at the dinner table working on a paper in the pursuit of my Master of Divinity degree. I called their names again and again, trying to get their attention to no avail. It was then that I realized that even a parent with the benefit of close interaction with and deep love for his own flesh and blood children was no match for the multi-billion dollar resources of toy manufacturers to impart values, so long as we were competing for their limited attention. So I exercised my trump card and pulled the plug on the cable. As it turns out, the transition was much harder for the adults in the home; the kids adjusted quickly and began to use their imaginations again through play and reading.
I could go on and on about the various ways a television-free family has preserved the sacred space of the home. But what treasure most is the absence of political dysfunction playing out in my living room. Because what disheartens me most is seeing the cultural effect of such dysfunction in our society. All around me, I watch friendships disintegrate, families divide, neighbors hammer wedges between each other. It is absurd. With the deep problems in this country, how in the world is it sane to respond with such vitriol towards fellow citizens? It is as though we are all on a ship that has struck an iceberg and instead of uniting together, we are arguing vigorously over the color of the dinner napkins in the dining hall. And what makes me most indignant about the toxic partisanship and lack of civility in our political discourse is that it is 100% intentional. Our incivility and division is actually the point of all this bad political theater.
You see, in a democracy those who hold power have a fundamental dilemma, which is that, theoretically, power rests in the people. And there are a whole lot more of “We the People” than those who seek to rule us. So in order to get people to abdicate our power, our rulers use the oldest trick in the book: divide and conquer. In other words, so long as we are fighting amongst ourselves, we will never recognize that we have more in common with one another and more shared interests than we will ever have with the interests of those who pull the strings of government. This has been used for centuries. In this nation, it has been used with enormous success to keep poor and working class whites, for example, from uniting with poor and working class blacks who are both getting the brunt of failed policies. But the whites are told blacks are the problem and blacks are told whites are the problem. Across the board, you can see the artificial lines drawn everywhere between us. Urban is pitted against rural, conservative is pitted against liberal, church denominations are encouraged to fight with one another over doctrine, rather than unite under the mandate of Christ to preach the good news to the ends of the earth. And because these appeals to hate your sister or brother are so persuasive, because the media, the government and the marketplace are so skilled at exploiting our anxieties, we often take the bait. We fail to look across the railroad tracks and see that I have infinitely more in common with the folks that live on the other side than I will ever have with the principalities and powers that manipulate us both.
In Matthew 22, Jesus doesn’t take the bait. You’ve heard the story: the Democrats and Republicans… I mean the Pharisees and Herodians attempt to trap Jesus by coming at him with the question of the Roman head-tax, the kēnsos (census) tax. Is it lawful to pay the emperor’s tax or not? They ask him. Yes or no? But it’s a trap. If Jesus says yes, then he sides with the Herodians, who are in bed with political power. But in so doing, Jesus will alienate the crowds who have been following him looking for a savior from Roman oppression. If Jesus says no, then he will be cast with the zealots and be crushed by the Empire.
So Jesus says, give me a denarius. Tell me whose image and inscription is on it. (By the way, I love that Jesus doesn’t even have a denarius on him; that’s a whole sermon in itself.) The coin has the image of Caesar and the words, Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus Pontifex Maximus (“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”). Jesus exposes his challengers by getting them to pull out an idolatrous coin in the holy Temple, bearing the image of the emperor, who claims to be the Son of God. Jesus resists being roped into conventions of power and money worship. Jesus resists playing into the game of “whose side are you on?” The coin belongs to Caesar, Jesus says, it has his image on it. So give it to him. But if the coin has Caesar’s image on it and therefore belongs to him, then what has God’s image on it and therefore belongs to God? That, of course, would be you. You belong to God. But so does your neighbor, black, brown or white, male or female, gay or straight, old or young, abled or disabled, urban or rural, immigrant or native born, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, incarcerated or free, poor or wealthy, conservative or liberal, republican or democrat. We bear God’s image. So give your allegiance to God. And don’t take the bait.