A few years ago, in the early morning hours of January 1st, Laura and I were in a cab on our way home after ringing in the New Year with friends at a party in Tribeca.
There were more cars and people on the street than usual for 2:00 in the morning, but all in all it was pretty quiet. We caught a red light on Worth Street near Foley Square, and while we waited, I almost drifted off to sleep.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The sound of someone tapping on the window snapped me to attention.
I turned my head.
There, in the middle of Worth Street at 2:00AM on New Year’s Day, was a pedi-cab with two passengers buried under Lord-knows how many blankets in back.
I rolled down my window.
“Hey,” said the pedi-cab driver, “where’s Times Square?”
Now, living downtown, I’ve grown accustomed to giving people directions. I probably explain how to get on to the Brooklyn Bridge walkway at least two or three times a week. I’ve pointed plenty of people to the World Trade Center, to the Seaport, even where to pick up the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. But that’s still the only time someone in this neighborhood asked me for directions to Times Square.
Have you ever been asked a question that told you more about the person asking it than any amount of information your response could possibly convey?
That’s how I feel about that moment because, just in hearing the question, I learned that this person had no business charging people any amount of money for any ride anywhere in Manhattan and that the people under the blankets were in for a very long, very cold start to the New Year.
Sometimes a question tells us everything we need to know.
One day, some of the religious and political leaders of Jesus’ community asked him a question that revealed a great deal about their intentions.
This morning’s lesson from Matthew’s Gospel introduces us to two groups of people whom Jesus would have known well. The first group was the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a group dedicated to strictly applying the Jewish law to all aspects of their life. Unfortunately, as is the great temptation of religious groups like this, Pharisees often fell into hypocrisy and legalism, characteristics for which Jesus had no tolerance, as evident by the numerous confrontations he would have with then throughout his ministry.
In addition to this, because of their emphasis on the Law, the Pharisees viewed the Roman Empire as a pox upon their land. To the Pharisees, the Romans were pagan intruders in the Land of the Jews.
The second group, the Herodians, who took their name from the Roman endorsed king over the land, had an entirely different view. They saw the Romans as something positive. In other words, the Pharisees and Herodians were on opposite ends of the political spectrum when it came to attitudes toward Rome.
The fact that we find these groups working together in this passage of scripture is, therefore, evidence of a bipartisan conspiracy against Jesus.
The conspirators’ plot was to set a trap for Jesus and the bait would be a question, a loaded question to which any answer would cause him trouble.
When the moment was right, they set out their bait.
“Teacher,” [they asked,] “we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”This was a trap, a trap because to answer yes or no would cause a backlash.
If Jesus said, “Yes, pay your taxes,” his opponents could spin it so as to say to the Jewish peasants, “See, Jesus supports Rome. He doesn’t care one bit about you.”
If he answered, “No, don’t pay them,” his opponents could accuse Jesus of preaching treason and label him a dangerous radical.
Jesus, however, recognized the trap for what it was. The Pharisees and Herodians were up to no good.
Recognizing their agenda, Jesus returned with a question of his own, “Why are you playing these games with me? Why are you trying to trap me?”
He then asked them for a coin, and he held it up for them to see. “Look at this. This face on the coin, whose is it? Whose name is this?”
“The emperor.” They said. “Caesar.”
Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
And that’s how Jesus eluded a trap baited with a question about taxes.
This episode from Jesus’ life gives us another example of how he took what people knew and breathed something fresh, something holy into it. Take the Sermon on the Mount, for example, in which Jesus pushed people to recognize that God’s Spirit was breathing new life into ancient and familiar teachings.
“You have heard it said, “You shall not murder,” but I say that if you are angry with someone go and be reconciled to them.”
“You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say, “If someone slaps you, turn the other cheek.”
“You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Jesus said things like this to show people who wanted to live a godly life exactly what one looked like.
It was a teaching tool.
It should come as no surprise to us, therefore, that when confronted with a loaded question taken from the contemporary debates about how people felt about Rome in and around Jesus’ home that he turned it into a teaching moment, too.
“You want to label me a political conservative, and you want to call me a liberal, but I say your labels don’t apply to me.” That’s the essence of what Jesus told the Pharisees and Herodians.
“You’re trying to trap me with a question about what’s written on a coin, but I say that God only cares about what’s written on your heart. So, you tell me, what’s written on yours?”
What’s written on your heart? Whose signature is on your life?
Those were the questions Jesus asked of the crowds gathered both in support of and against his ministry. These are also the questions that Jesus asks us as we gather to worship him today.
The lesson that Jesus taught here, the gift he offered to people who were hungry for a deep, life changing faith that went beyond the legalism of the Pharisees was the good news that each person in the crowd belonged to God.
They belonged to God not in the sense that a toy belongs to a child, but like that child belongs to his or her parents, parents who care for their child without counting the cost, parents who seek to protect and teach, and parents who sacrifice their own desires to help the child that belongs to them.
This is like the love of the God to whom we belong.
If breathing something new and holy into the familiar was thematic of how Jesus taught, then sharing with all people the good news that God loved and blessed them regardless of their backgrounds was thematic of the content of his message. The message that he proclaimed told everyone from the poorest widow, to the richest businessman, from the most pious Jew to the most crooked Roman official that they were a unique creation of God, a masterpiece from the hand of the divine artist.
When we come together to worship God, we do so, in part, to remind one another that we do indeed bear the master’s signature on our hearts. Our lives, the lives of our children, the lives of our friends, the lives of those for whom we pray, belong to the God in whose eyes all life is precious.
We’re all asked a lot of questions and, sometimes, we’re looked foolish doing so. More important than these, however, is the question Jesus asks of us, “To whom do you belong?”
We belong to God.
All that we are, all that we have, these are gifts of grace.
The life we live, therefore, is a sacred journey during which God invites us to not only experience the wonders of God’s love daily, but to take these wonders to heart, to be changed by them, so that all that we are and all that we have may be offered to God in thanksgiving and praise.
May the One whose Image we bear bless us with the faith, hope, and love we need to experience the joys of this journey.
Thanks be to God. Amen.