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Who Earns Your Trust?: Sunday, October 22, 2023

The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost:
Matthew 22:15-22

I came across a very helpful article the other day: “35 ways to avoid answering questions.” Ignore the question; (my wife will tell you:) miss the question because of bad hearing; question the questioner (“you tell me!”); attack the question or the asker; start to answer and then… drift off…

A behavioural psychologist at Harvard has said that in political debates, most people just notice outrageous question-dodging; not more subtle evasion. He says “this is because we have limited attention, and most of the time when we’re watching debates, we spend that attention on social evaluation — Do we like this person? Do we trust this person? — and only generally monitor content.”*

The gospel story today is less a theological commentary — it’s not like the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus gathers people around and says ‘listen up’ — this is more like a political debate where you have three people up on stage… Three people who, like in most political debates, don’t seem to like each other very much at all.

“[T]he Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said.” That’s how the episode starts off. Again, this isn’t Jesus looking for a teaching moment. It’s Jesus experiencing the first barrage of attacks that in a few days are going to climax in his cross.

“So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians[.]” Here’s an interesting development in this debate. Politics makes strange bedfellows, as the saying goes, and here we have a coalition of Pharisees and Herodians. The first group is an everyday religious reform movement, concerned with honouring God in one’s daily life. The second group — a bit of a mystery, but having some connection with the ruler of the territory (Herod), from which they get their name. Not everyday people, but elites; not so much concerned with God as with keeping peace between their people and Rome. They have very little uniting them, save their common threat of this largely rural grassroots movement that has now descended upon their city.

“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God…” one of them says, in my head, with the same slippery voice as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Another picks up: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” It’s the perfect question to entrap their opponent. If Jesus says ‘don’t pay taxes,’ the Herodian party will be upset; they can’t risk upsetting Rome! But if Jesus says “sure, pay taxes,” Jesus would upset the Pharisees, and those under their sway. They’d argue: ‘Can’t you see that Roman influence is corrupting our society? Don’t you notice how the tax collectors are betraying our people?’

So we recall what that Harvard psychologist said: “most of the time when we’re watching debates, we spend that attention on social evaluation — Do we like this person? Do we trust this person? — and only generally monitor content.”

So the point isn’t ‘does Jesus say THIS’ or ‘does Jesus say THAT,’ because he evades the question, in a sense. He attacks the questioners (calling them “hypocrites”), he buys time in asking for a coin, he turns the question on them (“you tell me [whose head this is]”), and he ends with a pronouncement that — if I’m right that this isn’t a theological teaching moment so much as a battle of opponents — is an invitation for his hearers, then and now, to reflect on our relationship with the world, and our relationship with God. And he leaves them speechless, because he’s not falling into their trap, or playing the game their way.

Not to mention that if the one who had pulled out the Roman coin from their pocket was a Pharisee, that person might be facing some hard questions themselves. Why is this person, supposedly so concerned with being an upstanding Jew, so tied up with the Roman system themselves? This perfectly upright religious person appears to already — against their party — be honouring Caesar. And perhaps is lacking in their honouring of their God.

And the Herodians — and us in our own day, citizens of states that make sometimes significant claims on our lives and have power, in one way or another, over life and death — they are disturbed by Jesus’s response, too. Sure, there’s some acknowledgement of Caesar. But the final and lasting question reverberates: what do we owe God??? What in the world isn’t owed to God???

And as that Harvard psychologist said, it’s not so much about the answers, or the content. Instead, confronted by this Pharisee, this Herodian, and this Jesus, “we spend the time on social evaluation… Do we trust this person?”*

Jesus, with the coin is asking: in whom will you invest your trust?

Have I been honouring God in the way I do business in this world?

Am I giving to God from my first-fruits, or am I giving God the crumbs that are left over?

Am I letting Caesar determine the rules of the game, and consequently, my relationship with God?

So there are big questions being asked. And they’re being asked not from a good, inquiring place, but from a place of anxiety and even animosity, because the power players are being threatened. So the questions are going to ramp up. And the result is state-sanctioned murder. This is the world we live in.

But Jesus refuses to play that game… play by those rules. And he invites us to ask bigger, deeper questions. To be curious about our relationship with God, and about how we get along in a complicated, often harsh world. We ask these dangerous questions with the safety net of God’s unconditional love.

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter