The Conundrum of a Coin

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 45:1-7 OR Exodus 33:12-23
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Some years ago I was working with a medical team in rural Honduras. We were in a village new to us, seeing many patients while assessing if the area had sufficient need and community interest to establish a permanent clinic there. It was Semana Santa (Holy Week), and there was a lot going on. The small Catholic parroquia was the center of fervent liturgical prayer and sometimes gruesome pageantry, including a Stations of the Cross procession through town on Good Friday and a bonfire on the church square to begin Saturday night’s Easter Vigil.

The medical team, however, was staying on the roomier grounds of the nearby Iglesia Evangelica, which observed the week before Easter rather more quietly. The pastor was an engaging man who worked tirelessly for the welfare of his congregation and extended great hospitality to his North America guests. Without his assistance, easygoing manner, and negotiating skills, the medical mission would have failed.

Judging from his church’s communal worship, though, Semana Santa seemed just another week, with evening Bible study and Wednesday church services that hinted at – rather than calling attention to – the significance of the Sunday to come. Even so, it still surprised me when, on Easter morning, he chose as his Sermon text the opening verses of Romans 13.

As best I could grasp with my inadequate Spanish, we were to understand the Resurrection to mean salvation was now available to anyone who put faith in Jesus and obeyed the secular government. Later that afternoon, I – along with a few others from the medical team – asked him to elaborate. Though I was again hindered by my inadequate command of the language, I managed to ask if Paul’s instruction that “every person be subject to the authorities, for there is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1), was in any way qualified by what preceded it in Romans 12, or by the knowledge that those very authorities later put Paul to death.

Judging from his response, I’d hit some raw and tender nerve. He looked at me and said, “You don’t understand. The reason this country is poor and the reason there are drunks in this town is because there are Catholic churches – like the one just up the hill – with statues in them.” And that, for him, was the end of our discussion.

I share this story not to shame a good man, but to illustrate in a particularly colorful way how certain scripture texts – such as Romans 13:1-7 or this Sunday’s gospel reading – can launch some Christians off the exegetical rails. But who am I to judge? Such passages are dangerous precisely because they are seductively transparent without being self-explanatory. If they were easy to understand, they wouldn’t engender so many incompatible readings. They stick out as “irritant nodes,” that, were they found in Torah, would give rise to aggadic midrashim, those imaginative elaborations on sacred texts by which rabbis made sense of obscure passages.

Where Jews argue through stories, however, Christians often club one another with dogmatic assertions. Consider, for example, what various Christians have made of this Sunday’s passage from Matthew. Depending on the exegete’s political theology, Jesus’ enigmatic response to a political question asked in bad faith has been taken to endorse or underwrite a hierarchy of visible authorities, two kingdoms, sphere sovereignty, tax resistance, patriotic fervor, obedience to dictators, the Deutsche Christen, and the Barmen Declaration. Like me, you may prefer one or more of these readings to the others, but only the most doctrinaire deconstructionist would suggest they are all equally valid.

This “render unto Caesar” passage appears in all three synoptic gospels, and even shows up in altered form in “Saying 100” of the non-canonical “Gospel of Thomas.” The apostolic community clearly considered this an important story. Precisely how to understand and apply it, however, they did not say. Slight variations in content aside, are there are textual clues that, however ambiguous, may help the reader identify better, more persuasive readings than others?

First, the synoptic texts make clear that the question posed to Jesus is meant as a trap. To publicly answer with a simple “yes” or “no” is political suicide in occupied Judea. Matthew and Mark have the Pharisees joining with the “Herodians,” a ill-defined group or movement that – whatever their precise identity – surely made strange political bedfellows with the champions of Torah observance. If nothing else, then, we should be careful in deriving political conclusions from this encounter.

Each of the synoptic accounts place the episode among a series of edgy encounters within the temple. (The “Thomas” saying, consistent with that text’s almost total disregard for the physical body, leaves these details out.) How, then, can the Pharisees so quickly produce a denarius with the image of “the Divine Caesar?” For the attentive reader, this may seem a classic “gotcha” moment: Pharisees within the temple confines handling a coin with the image of a living god/human, in clear violation of Torah.

Yet the preferred temple currency, the Tyrian half-shekel, had the image of a pagan deity, Melqarth-Herakles, on one side. Furthermore, the Mishnah, the rabbinic commentary on temple observance compiled and redacted at least a century after the destruction of the second temple, says that a coin is not impure in itself, but becomes impure when used for another purpose, such as jewelry (Mishnah Kelim, 12:7). Maybe the Pharisees were hypocrites, plain and simple. Maybe it just wasn’t that big a deal.

Perhaps this week’s Old Testament reading(s) help us out of this mess. The Exodus passage emphasizes God’s glory, mystery, and power, reassuring us that God is with those in whom he has found favor even when they challenge Pharaoh. But how do we know, when faced with conflicting claims to authority, if we’re on Moses’s side or Pharaoh’s? The passage doesn’t say.

The Isaiah reading – perhaps the most uncompromisingly monotheistic statement in the Hebrew canon – asserts that even Cyrus, a pagan conqueror, is God’s agent of mercy and deliverance. No one, it seems, has power and authority without God’s blessing. Just how far are you willing to push that? Is every ruler and event in the history of Creation, no matter how heinous, fully and deliberately chosen by God? If whoever’s in power is God’s anointed, as some seem to claim even today, then what, pray tell, were God’s reasons for anointing Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot?

Matters become even more problematic in light of verse seven: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.” If God creates darkness and woe – even if it all comes out right in the end – are we ready to credit God with the Shoah? Were the Deutsche Christen doing God’s will in pledging their allegiance to the Führer? Does it comfort those who are suffering now if we tell them, from a safe distance, that God’s ways are mysterious, or that all things work together for good?

I suspect how we make sense of such difficult passages ultimately depends on who we understand the God revealed in Christ Jesus to be. When the Pharisees asked Jesus their lose/lose question, he surely knew that, sooner or later, his opponents would find a way to kill him. As with Paul, that death would come at the hands of Roman imperial authority. Then again, Paul’s high-mileage mission to the gentiles was helped immensely by a Pax Romana imposed on the Mediterranean world by brute military force. Was that what God was up to?

Did God anoint Tiberius Caesar and Pontius Pilate explicitly to pacify Judea and execute God’s Son? Did God actively will Jesus’ death, and if so, is that because an angry God demands blood sacrifice to be appeased, even if God also raised him from the grave? Is bloody violence – threatened or actual, redemptive or retributive – the source of all authority? Does the death and resurrection of Jesus leave Caesar in charge of earthly matters because we need an earthly ruler to impose order by any means necessary on a troubled world? Or is there, as C S Lewis writes in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “a deeper magic at work” in God’s mercy and grace, threatening to overwhelm our precious notions of law, order, and justice?

I’m not going to answer these questions for you. I pose them because the way you answer them will help you clarify what Jesus meant by saying, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In such contentious circumstances, we, as Christians, must do something profoundly Jewish: we must wrestle with the text. We must struggle not simply with words, but with the Word revealed therein, hoping for his blessing even if the encounter marks us with a pronounced and painful limp.

From that dreadful struggle, perhaps you will learn how to make God’s authority known to the world through the witness of your life. Perhaps. This alone is certain: to even begin to comprehend the more obscure passages in the God’s Word, you must first wrestle with Jesus’s enduring and inexhaustible question: “Who do you say that I am?”

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