|And the Survey Says
In the fall of 1980, the television game show “Family Feud” had players from the Kansas City Royals and the Philadelphia Phillies on as their “families.” It was promoted as a rematch of the just completed World Series, with both teams playing for a charity. From the Kansas City Royals, the participants were Dan Quisenberry, John Wathan, Dennis Leonard, Willie Wilson, and Paul Splittorff. The Philadelphia Phillies were represented by Del Unser, Larry Bowa, Mike Schmidt, Dick Ruthven and Garry Maddox
Richard Dawson was the host, and the game consisted of players trying to guess the most popular answers given by 100 people to a simple question. The most memorable survey during the 5 episodes of this “baseball family feud” was “name a food sold at baseball parks.” The Royals player hit the buzzer first, and said “nachos.” The Royals started clapping and saying “good answer, good answer.” Richard Dawson, uncharacteristically, stopped them and said, “Don’t encourage him. That was a terrible answer.” At least one of the Royals took offense, and made a move towards Dawson, as if to do him harm. The others held him back, but supported their team mate by saying that nachos were a popular food; at least they were at Royals Stadium. So, as far as the Royals were concerned, “nachos” was a good answer.
But Richard Dawson was right – it was a terrible answer, at least as far as the game was concerned. Not one person on the survey said “nachos,” which maybe shouldn’t surprise us. The Royals were the first team in the Major Leagues to introduce nachos at the ballpark, and nachos hadn’t made it as a menu item to the west coast teams, where the game show was based. And nachos certainly hadn’t made it to the survey audience, which at that time consisted of prisoners at San Quentin who were serving life sentences.
Depending on whom you ask a question, an answer may be good, or it may be terrible. For the Royals, “nachos” was a good answer. For the purposes of the game, it was a terrible answer. Depending on when you ask a question, an answer may be good, or it may be terrible. In 1980, “nachos” were unknown in many stadiums; but today, most people who have been to a baseball game would know about nachos.
Part of our growing and maturing in faith is knowing that we have to ask the “who” and “when” questions. Who am I apart from God? Who am I apart from a community of accountability and faith? When do I love my neighbor? In Bible study, we are often invited to ask who it is that we identify with in the story. When does this story call us to take new risks for the sake of the kingdom?
As helpful and as important as this is, the temptation is to make the “who” question only about us, and the “when” question only about today. Sometimes, we have to take a step back and look again at who is in the story and when it takes place before we can ask our own “who” and “when” questions.
If we succumb to temptation, however, then we have a great opportunity to make this passage the basis for a political sermon, to proclaim the Biblical position on taxes. Many of the commentaries certainly used this passage to try and identify what they believed to be the correct and true position of the Bible on taxes.
It was noted that the Jews at that time, particularly the Pharisees, were theologically opposed to living under any other leadership than their own priesthood, so taxes were seen as an unholy burden. A little later, the Christians, particularly in those churches to whom Paul wrote letters, were theologically disposed to believe that human governments are the chosen vessels of God’s power, and therefore paying taxes would be in keeping with the will of God.
There were the Herodians, who were culturally Jewish but supportive of Roman rule. They considered paying taxes their civic duty. And there were the Zealots, whom the Romans likely considered terrorists. They not only refused to pay their taxes, but were actively engaged in attacking the system.
So, we have support for paying taxes to do good. We have support for not paying taxes because they are evil. And we have support for paying taxes in obedience, if not always with zeal, because it is the price of living together in the world.
The Herodians favored the tax. The Pharisees resented the tax. The Zealots actively fought the tax. So it should be clear that there is more than one position in the Bible concerning taxes. Yet we still have this question: Should the authority of Caesar be recognized and the poll tax paid to him?
If Jesus affirms payment of the poll tax, he would no doubt have pleased the Herodians but would have made himself an even greater enemy of the Pharisees. He would have also alienated the common people. The poll tax was a fixed amount, the same for every person. For the poor, it could be the equivalent of living in an 80% tax bracket.
If, on the other hand, Jesus denies that the poll tax has to be paid, he would have made himself out to be an enemy of the state and subject to the charge of sedition. It seems that there are no good answers; there are only terrible answers for Jesus.
Before answering them, however, Jesus asks them to show him a coin. We ask the “who” question – who has the coin? We ask the “when” question – when do they have the coin? There was nothing illegal about having a Roman coin. It was how many transactions were made possible in their day-to-day living in a Roman province. We would expect a Pharisee to have Roman coins to use in the public markets, and for paying their taxes. Being able to show Jesus a Roman coin in the marketplace would have been a good answer to the question, “Can you show me a coin?”
But it was the Pharisees who had declared that Roman coins had to be exchanged for Temple money in the Court of the Gentiles. Though they were a fact of life in the world, graven images were not to be allowed within the Temple. Jesus is teaching in the Temple when this story is being told. Being able to show Jesus a Roman coin is now a terrible answer, because the ones who declared it wrong were asked the question when they were in the Temple.
If our reading was simply a Biblical version of the Family Feud game, then this is about Jesus making the Pharisees and Herodians look bad by stealing the question and then giving the #1 godly answer on the survey. And while it is possible that the gospel writer may have wanted these questioners to look bad, I think we can expect more from Jesus than a story about how clever he was in dealing with those who opposed him.
The way to unlock this passage hinges on remembering that the “who” is Jesus, and the “when” is just before the crucifixion. Listen again. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s to have. The coin has Caesar’s image on it, so the coin goes to Caesar. Give to God what is God’s to have. And then Jesus continues to give everything he is to God, with his death on the cross. And what looked like a terrible answer to the world was revealed on Easter morning as the best good answer of all time.
Now we are ready to ask our “who” and “when” questions: “Who has God’s image? When do we see it?” I was created in the image of God. You are created in the image of God. The hungry child, the battered spouse, the leprous outcast, the alien resident in our midst, the Pharisees and Herodians, and even the Roman soldiers -- all bear the image of God.
So go ahead, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s – but give yourself to God. Give your neighbor to God’s care in your prayers. Give the sick and the imprisoned to God in your service. Give the lost and the sojourner to God in your witness. Give the smug and the enemy God’s love so that they too may know that they are the children of God who bear God’s image.
Our prayer as disciples of Jesus Christ is that God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. When we give the good answer, the kingdom comes, and the world is transformed through the gift of love and grace revealed in Jesus Christ. When we give our hearts and our lives to God, the kingdom comes, and the world is transformed as we make room for more hearts and more lives in God’s love. When we humble ourselves so that the Holy Spirit may work in and through us, the world is transformed, and the image of God is seen in each person.
There are lots of ways that we show the world that we give ourselves to God. We give to God what belongs to God when we sit together at table. It happens when we gather at the Lord’s Table in worship, and when we sit at the family table in someone’s home, and when we share around the tables found in the soup kitchens and shelters for those who live on the margins of society. In the sharing of the meal, and in the presence of Christ, the image of God is revealed.
We give to God what belongs to God when we dance together in celebration and when we sing together in praise. It happens when our celebration takes place in the sanctuary, and it can happen in the public places when we rejoice with those who rejoice, and we mourn with those who mourn. In the sharing of our lives, and in the presence of Christ, the image of God is revealed.
We give to God what belongs to God when we forgive each other our sins. It happens when we kneel at the altar railing, and when we reach across our misunderstandings and disagreements to affirm that even faith is only the servant of love. In the sharing of forgiveness, and in the presence of Christ, the image of God is revealed.
We give to God what belongs to God when we show each other mercy. It happens when we help prisoners re-enter society, and when we help single mothers clothe their children, and when we mentor at-risk children, declaring that bad choices and bad situations do not have the power to keep Jesus in the grave. In the sharing of our hope, and in the presence of Christ, the image of God is revealed.
The kingdom comes when we bear the image of God in holiness, and it is holiness that helps us to see the image of God in others. Holiness begins when we give to God what belongs to God.
When you give yourself to God, God makes a home in your heart – and that enables you to make a home for others. It is when you reach out to strangers that lives are changed, and people believe in the good news of Jesus Christ.
When you give yourself to God, your heart is fed by the Bread of Life – and that strengthens you to feed those who are hungry in body and spirit. It is when you feed the hungry that lives are changed, and people believe the good news of Jesus Christ.
When you give yourself to God, you will know the peace that passes all understanding – and that enables you to work for peace and reconciliation in the world. It is when you forgive and show mercy and help people find their common ground in God that lives are changed, and people believe the good news of Jesus Christ.
People today still ask if we should or should not pay taxes. Depending on whom and when the question is asked, there are good answers and there are terrible answers. And if we want to use Jesus being asked about this to justify our answer, we will be part of a long tradition within the church that has missed the point. We gather in worship today, not because we have issues with taxes and governments, but because we have come to give ourselves to God. We gather in the name of Jesus Christ, not because we are looking to avoid terrible answers, but because we know that Jesus is the only good answer to the questions of how we are to live; and how we are to bear the image of God; and how we are, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to love our neighbor so that God’s reign is revealed and comes among us as it will be in heaven.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s to have, whether it is more or less. But give to God what is God’s to have – all of our hearts, our lives, and our love! Amen.