In his parables Jesus invites the listener to be part of the story by relating explicit scenarios that were relevant to the listener’s world. These parables also serve as implicit invitations for them to see something else beneath in the narrative. From time to time Jesus would insert a clever device or provocative form of speech, i.e., an aphorism, in which a specific piece or element would prompt the imagination and become an indelible memory. And so it is in this week’s Gospel (Matthew 22: 15-22). Jesus uses the coin to illustrate and memorialize in the mind’s eye of the listener his answer which typical of Jesus, was in the form of a question and asks, “what do you think?”
Over the centuries, many Christians have based their attitudes toward government on this passage. Some have thought that Jesus' statement establishes two separate realms, Caesar's and God's. This interpretation strikes many Americans as obviously correct, given our separation of church and state. In this historical context, Jesus’ words had little to do with taxation or political authority in general. Jews in the first century paid several taxes: tithes to the Temple, customs taxes, and taxes on land. Yet, the people were not questioning taxes but rather their question specifically was concerned with whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar who as the emperor of Rome and the son of Augustus, represented the head of an imperial domination system, and was purported to be the “son of God.” In essence, even possessing the coin was tantamount to idolatry and a violation of the commandments.
The President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, David Lose writes that three of the most powerful words in the world besides "I love you," are "I don't know." To many of us in our culture, these words seem like an admission of failure. It’s as if our admitting any kind of ignorance somehow undermines the validity of our education and degrees. How could that be? But just maybe we don’t know and just maybe telling another person that we don't know provides them an invitation to share what they know or, sometimes even better, to join you in figuring something out. This becomes especially true when you pair those three words with four others: "What do you think?" Isn’t that what we do in our Jesus Way Bible Study?
So back to the question put to Jesus in our Gospel. It was a trap. Either way a yes or no answer would have gotten Jesus in trouble. "Yes" would have discredited him with those who found the imperial domination system unacceptable. "No" would have made him subject to arrest for sedition. So is Jesus saying that we owe nothing to a false God like Caesar and should reserve all things for the true God? Or is he inviting us to recognize that while we may owe the emperors of this world some things like taxes, we owe God other things, like our whole selves? Perhaps Jesus is inviting us to put aside our attachments and allegiance to the material and temporal things of this world that our coins can buy and invite our ultimate devotion to God? I don't know. What do you think? Or is Jesus advocating a retreat from the economic and political dimensions of our lives and helping us recognize that all of these things are part of God's “divine economy?” As such, is Jesus inviting us to set the stage for our transformation…by putting on the mind of God in all of our decisions in what we do, buy, and how we spend our time? The whole world is God's including us. What do you think?