Let’s Face It
October 22, 2017
Jennifer Garrison Brownell
Just yesterday, Jesus revealed the abuses of those in power, knocked over the tables which represented the fleecing of the poor, embarrassed the powerful and made a scene at the very time when those in power most wanted to keep things calm cool and collected.
No wonder they are looking for a way to destroy him today.
They? Who are they? The Herodians and the Pharisees who come to question him.
If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then the Herodians and Pharisees – usually enemies – are best pals. The Herodians (those who follow Herod) just want to live and let live within the Empire. They want to go along to get along, whatever it takes. “Just keep the man happy, stay under the radar and he won’t bother us too much.” That’s the Herodians.
The Pharisees (those who follow the law of Moses to the letter) take seriously the commandment to make no idols. They consider following Roman laws and especially paying roman taxes to be unacceptable. “We are a people apart and better, and every action must reflect that.” This the Pharisees.
So these two – the Roman rule followers and the Bible rule followers get together to question Jesus. They ask him a question that is sure to be trap: “Should we pay taxes or not.”
If Jesus says yes, affirms that they should pay taxes, the Pharisees will have a reason to denounce him. The rules they follow the letter don’t permit carrying coins with the face of the emperor on them.
If he says no, don’t pay taxes, the Herodians will have their opportunity. They want to keep peace with the Roman oppressors, even if it means turning their backs on their own beliefs.
Where are they when this conversation takes place? They are in the inner sanctum of the temple – not court outside, with traders whose tables Jesus was pushing over yesterday.
In the very center of the holiest of holies, right in God’s presence, Jesus answers their question with a question.
“Any of you guys have a coin on you?”
They reach into a pocket automatically and pull out a coin.
But wait, none of them – Pharisees or Herodians – should have carried a coin at all! and certainly not in the temple. Because no matter what else they disagreed on, they both took their rule of living from Moses, from the 10 commandments. On the coin was Caesar’s face, and under the face which they knew so well, the words proclaiming that Caesar was God! Idol worship!
But mindlessly, they reached into their pockets, they pulled out a coin. Without thinking, reflexively, unconsciously.
And there it is, right in the palm of their hands – the face of the emperor who thinks of himself as a god and who makes sure that everyone else thinks of him as a god too. Pause to consider the weight of carrying a god in their pockets – a weight in so everyday, so ordinary, they don’t even think twice about it. Don’t even think twice about what it means to carry this idol into God’s house, to pull it out and wave it around right under God’s nose.
Finally Jesus answers the question – give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s. And realization dawns.
What is God’s? All of it.
What is Caesars? None of it.
He’s not a god after all, he’s just a face on a coin.
Here is Jesus, standing before us now. Hey, he says, any of you have a coin on you? And whether you are carrying a quarter or a cell phone, symbols of empire are so ubiquitous that we only have to pull them out of our pockets.
But carrying empire around all the time can weigh us down more than we know. The weight of empire can make us feel heavy and unhappy. And if we are staring too hard at the coin in our hand that we don’t always notice the glory of God moving along ahead of us.
The writer Leonard Sweet tells a story about the Simple Way community. A group of radical Christian activists, Simple Way members live together in a rough neighborhood of Philadelphia. One of their acts of service was to set up a table in front of their home, and give food away to anyone who needed. The city council, concerned about the people crowding the sidewalk during the food giveaway passed a law, making it illegal to give food away. The Simple Way members prayed about what to do – this was an important part of their ministry and they truly felt that God had called them to feed the hungry in their neighborhoods. The next week, they again set out the tables. When the police came by preparing to shut them down, they saw something remarkable. With each sandwich, each piece of fruit, each cup of water, Simple Way members offered a blessing as well as the food. They had consecrated the meal before they shared it, and by consecrating it, they had turned it into communion, and by turning it into communion, they had turned the food giveaway into a religious rite.
Our God is not small enough to fit into a pocket, to fit into anyone’s rules. Our God is gigantic, vast, unfathomable. God, our God, is a little harder to carry around – Our God is too big and wild for that. Our God is even too big and wild to SEE.
Think of Moses, seeing God’s not from the front, because it’s too much Moses, getting just a glimpse of the divine backside as God moves by. No wonder we’d rather reach into our pockets. It seems so much easier – the gods we can carry than the God we can’t. And yet all we are invited to do in this life is to meet the awesomeness of that God with our limited understanding, our human heart and mind.
I invite you now to take your pledge card out if you have it with you. These pledges are released today– out of our pockets into the work of the church in the world. They are a promise, that we will meet God’s glory with all the curiosity, hope and faith that we can, this year and always.