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Isaiah 45:1–7 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1–10 | Matthew 22:15–22
The gospel today is proof that Jesus can get out of any argument! :) Don’t you love it, though? How he never gets caught up in an escalating debate about some issue? I think because he knows that—as our understanding of Emotional Intelligence gains traction—humans think that they are thinking when really they are mostly feeling. And feelings are powerful motivators—whether we see it or not! We create narratives based on what we feel strongly about and make up our minds sometimes without a lot of information. And the thing is, usually it’s more complicated than we think. This is certainly a part of our escalating divisiveness today. As one writer suggests, it would be really helpful for us to practice at least part of the time, just ‘turning our emotional alarms off.’ This is something Jesus does well: It’s not that he lacks feeling. He has compassion frequently, he understands that all these questions and really, accusations, are coming from fear and anger and other things, too; and so addresses what’s under the presenting issue. Jesus is trustworthy in that he doesn’t give an easy answer where there isn’t one. Today, two powerful groups are trying to break his equanimity—maybe get him in trouble or get fodder for their own argument. His comeback is a wise one-liner about this highly political and emotional issue of paying taxes:
People in Israel were generally not happy about having to support the Roman government because—while there were some benefits with infrastructure—a disproportionate amount went into making the elite—the Roman citizens comfy—and keeping the military robust to protect this system. Many of the indigenous people were hungry and impoverished. No wonder there were plots and revolts by Jewish factions—and many crucifixions by the Romans. In fact, many are disappointed that Jesus isn’t going to stage a rebellion. But he IS going to draw all anger and pride and oppression to himself, lay bare the suffering, and be crucified.
How ironic it must have seemed so close to his death to be answering this question about taxes: But it gives Jesus a chance to address where put our hearts and our trust. Money is a symbol surrounded for most of us by many feelings. We give it power to determine if we can feel at peace and safe or not. This translates into very real things, too: Like who makes the “rules”; and whether people have food to eat. It plays into all those pieces that Fr. Keating talks about as emotional programs for happiness—that we play out over and over again in our lives—but that can actually never work: The ways we pursue esteem and affection; power and control; and that safety and security. And then we are pitted against one another: Determined, fearful, envious, angry about having enough—or not having enough.
Jesus would free us—not that there aren’t practicalities of life in an imperfect world: “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s”—by letting it go: “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s.” I mean think about it: All this angst over a piece of metal with a picture of a guy on it. Today, this looks more like numbers on a screen. And then zoom out: As Jesus knew and as we know today: The Emperor isn’t going to last. ROME isn’t going to last. But there is something worth giving your trust to; something that will last and that can actually give you peace in the midst of turmoil: “Give to God the things that are God’s” and—as they say— drops the mic. Boom. Which leads us to wonder, okay, what IS God’s? :)
I love that this is paired with the reading from Isaiah: Where God uses this foreign king, Cyrus, as—literally—the Messiah for the people Israel to get them out of Babylon and back to the land of Israel. Apparently Cyrus is—at least in this—God’s as well. In fact, as we hear, too: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.” Which throws us if we are trying to make sense of God’s place with good and evil in the world. And now we have to abandon our dualistic thinking and think like the mystics; who believe that darkness is also a part of the spiritual journey: For when our sight is dimmed and things don’t look like we remember or think they should, we have opportunity to loosen our attachment to what we think we know: That is, we get to turn the alarms down and allow ourselves to experience the experience AS IT IS. This isn’t apathy: It is a relearning of what our sense tell us without all the additional stories that we make up based on our fear and sense of scarcity. It is being able to experience God as being in all, with all, FOR all. Which is much more likely—as the saints knew—to change us from within.
Jesus’ answer is definitely not the “easy out” because our whole selves and everything we own and do just got called up. “Give to God the things that are God’s.” This is both frightening and liberating. And, honestly, it’s the only way we can be in the world without inviting more suffering—for ourselves and for the whole world. Our default is to try to figure things out and make them work for us, but Jesus is calling for a radical free fall. But we have help. The witness of the new testament letters reminds us of what this looks like: (1 Thess.) “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. As Fr. Keating says, “God never takes anything from us except to give you something better. You cannot overdo trust in this God.” Thanks be to God. Amen.