It’s a Trap

Primary Scripture: Mark 12:13-17

We’ve talked the last few weeks about Jesus trying to teach his disciples about the work and role of the Messiah. I fear that it is too easy to poke fun at their inability to take in what Jesus is saying. And maybe a little too tempting, as well. The truth is, there is room for some confusion about this. When Jesus came on the scene, there were at least 3 competing visions of the Messiah to come:
An earthly ruler who would reign justly
The Son of Man who would come from heaven to transform the whole of creation.
The Suffering Servant described in Isaiah, who would be tortured and killed as the ultimate sacrifice for humankind’s sin

As Jesus taught, it became clear that he was not the first. And he combined the idea of the second and third. Listen again to these words from Mark 10:
“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

Jesus claims the title “Son of Man” implying that, after suffering and dying, he will rise and continue the transforming, healing work he has started.  

There were several groups competing for the political power that Jesus would leave unclaimed as Messiah. They included the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, whether teachers, scribes and elders. Mark identifies these groups with the Temple in Jerusalem, not unlike the way news media identify the people who make up our governing bodies using their location as a shortcut.  Things happen “On the hill” “In the White House” or “In Tallahassee”

Anyway – when Mark talks about Jerusalem, he is thinking about the people who are in power there. And when he writes about these people,  he is writing about their place at the intersection of religious and civic power. The chief priests were appointed by Roman Governor. They are powerful, but they live in a city that is occupied by a foreign power. This makes their relationship with the state complicated and difficult.  I suppose the relationship between church and state has never been simple.

I want to say clearly here, because it is easy to misinterpret – Mark is not anti-Judaism or anti-Jewish. Mark is not calling followers of Jesus to be so. These leaders are simply Marks’ representation of the conventional authority, the status quo. They represent the powers here on Earth, with whom tensions are building as the power of the Kingdom of God is revealed in the Messiah… in Jesus.

The tension rises faster, now that Jesus has come to Jerusalem (we’ll hit that story on Palm Sunday in a couple weeks). This conversation between Jesus and some Pharisees and Herodians is meant to be a trap. It follows a similar encounter that centered on an interpretation of scripture, which resulted in Jesus telling a parable against them. They had already considered arresting Jesus, but they feared the reaction of the crowds. They again hoped to undermine his authority, in an effort to deflate his popularity amid growing crowds.

To be honest, they had good reason to fear the crowds. Remember, the chief priests are serving at the intersection- maybe right out in the middle of the intersection – of the needs of the Jewish people and their occupiers. They serve in the temple in the land promised to Abram, at a time the people are subjugated by Rome. Their place as religious authority helps maintain order, which is critical during major celebrations and feasts.

We’ve seen some of the crowd images like these in the news…
Muslim pilgrims filing through the tents on their way to the holy mosque in Mecca
The packed sidewalks and courtyard outside the Vatican, as people await the pope’s Easter address
Closer to home, I think of the crowd on the mall in Washington DC to hear Martin Luther King, Jr

This is something like what Jerusalem would experience as travelers arrived to celebrate the Passover feast… which was coming soon after Jesus and his followers arrived.

In addition to the chief priests, the Romans kept a close eye on the temple and surrounding areas, and it was no secret that if there were any signs of unrest, even just the appearance…the garrison of soldiers would use force to address it.

No wonder, then, these men were seen by some Jews as protecting the people by maintaining control. And that they were seen by others as colluding or sympathizing with the very people that occupied the holy city.

The priests likely felt they needed to assert power over Jesus to prevent some sort of Roman intervention. One way to do so, to dampen the enthusiasm of his followers, was to set a trap for him, to make him look foolish, to ask him a question about the law with no right answer – and with significant political ramifications:
So they sent some Pharisees and followers of Herod out to bait him, hoping to catch him saying something incriminating. They came up and said, “Teacher, we know you have integrity, that you are indifferent to public opinion, don’t pander to your students, and teach the way of God accurately. Tell us: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (The Message)

Now, Jesus knew this was a trap. He understood the dynamics at play here, not just in terms of the temple and Rome, but what the act of paying taxes meant.

This is not at all like the tax system you and I participate in, as part of a civic duty in a democratic society. The tribute tax was a sensitive subject for all involved in this conversation directly, as well as all those watching the scene unfold. The people in Jerusalem and across the Roman Empire were expected to pay Rome a tribute – a concrete expression of their being subjects of the Empire.

When they ask Jesus “Are we to pay the tax or not?”, they are asking, in effect, “To whom do we pledge allegiance?”

If he says “no” – don’t pay the taxes, he will be speaking against the Roman authorities and inciting a level of insurrection against Rome.

If he says “Yes – pay the tribute”, Jesus risks stirring up the crowds, many of whom are poor and looking for respite from the taxes and burden of occupation, especially in the form of a Messiah.

This sets up exactly what was hoped for: a lose-lose situation for this young upstart rabbi. Both answers are equally likely to hasten his arrest.

Jesus rises to the challenge.  He reframes the question or at least redirects the focus of the debate… In his response, he challenges the leaders to consider this…Can we manage a relationship with Rome AND remain faithful in our relationship with God?  And he does this by asking for a coin – a tribute coin.

They hand him a denarius.  It is made of silver with an engraving of Caesar on it, as well as a declaration of his deity.
It is a political token.
A reminder of the power of the Empire.
A reminder of Judea’s place under its rule.
A reminder where you stood as a Jew in Judea.

In other words, it is a tangible and expensive reminder of the intrusion of this worldly power into the land promised to Abram by God all those generations ago.

Jesus asked about the coin – “Whose head is this, and whose title?”  They had no choice but to say the truth, though they didn’t like it any more than the people… “The emperor’s.”

Then Jesus surprised them again. Rather than answering directly about the lawfulness of paying the tax, Jesus answers in two parts. First, he says “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s”

The coin is his. It has his name on it. His face.
It has value to him.  It belongs to him.
Give it back.

But then he goes on to say this… “and give to God the things that are God’s.”

And they were utterly amazed at him.
I imagine stunned silence.  Perhaps jaws drop open.

Once again, he has told the truth, but told it slant,as Emily Dickinson advised, then dropped the mic and walked away. leaving them to determine what to give God.

You see, just before he asked for the coin, he asked them  “Why are you putting me to the test?”

This was a deliberate reference to the law as described in Deuteronomy, when Moses is speaking to the people.  He says…Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.

The Kingdom of God has drawn near in the person of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Son of God. He is not to be put to the test, not to be messed with…

And because they were the chief priests, they would have known that just a few lines above those words in the Torah, they would find these words

Now this is the commandment— the statutes and the ordinances— that the Lord your God charged me to teach you  to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long.

Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Just as clearly as the face of the emperor marked the denarius as his to be returned, so do the commandments of God mark the people who know and fear the Lord. We may not bind them to our arms or fix them on our foreheads, but Lord help us if the word of God we claim to follow is never on our lips, has slipped like a lost memory from our minds, and is no longer burned into our hearts.

How do we give to God what is God’s?   We remember who we are.

We recall that we are not graven images of God, stamped onto a coin or printed on paper
We remember the claim of God on our lives from the very beginning
We claim and proclaim the truth that we are image bearers,
  the ones created to show forth and to see the face and hands and facets of God
  in ourselves and in others

In other words, we are – especially gathered as a church – a tangible and valuable –  precious reminder of the intrusion of the Kingdom of God into a world that would corrupt love with power.  

How do we give to God what is God’s?
We assure that not one of God’s beloved children is kept from hearing the good news that God is for them, that God is in them, and that they, too, are image bearers.

We give ourselves, heart, soul, mind and strength
to the work of loving God,
to the work of loving our neighbor
to the work of following in the way of the Messiah who transforms, heals, reconciles and makes whole.

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