Rev. Carla Christopher
Oh, how often do we feel the sharp sting of sarcasm when a sly tongue lashes out at us? Whether it is a family member with a backhanded compliment or a co-worker with a sarcastic aside, there are many names to describe this type of gilded assault. “Microaggression” or “passive aggression” are good examples but they both contain a very telling word; aggression. Even when we coat it with padding to make it more intellectual, more palatable, less uncomfortably confrontational, to be deliberately unkind or flat out mean is an attack. To say something meant to entrap or intended to highlight another’s area of struggle or challenge is an attack. In our reading we see that attacking another is not the way of Jesus, even while holding each other lovingly accountable and maintaining self-care based protective boundaries is.
In today’s passage Jesus is verbally attacked in a charged conversation that was likely harmless in appearance to an uninformed passerby. Pharisees, ("in a sense, 'blue collar' Jews, specializing in the application of priestly laws to non-priests and opposed incorporating Hellenism into Jewish lives") are joined by Herodians (“a party that favored the dynasty of Herod and stood for the Roman connection who cared little or nothing for religion and normally were bitterly opposed by the Pharisees,” according to Bible-Studys.org) to put Jesus in a bit of a trap. Jesus is asked about the payment of taxes knowing that if he decrees that money should be given to God over government he will be called treasonous and if he calls for resources to go to government over the needs of the people he will be denounced by the priests. The dialogue is rife with sarcasm and meant to set up an impossible situation that will make Jesus look a fool. Ironically, when we hear about microaggressions today it is usually the most marginalized among us who are targeted; sly remarks aimed at those speaking English as a second language, or a poor woman holding up a grocery line to pay for necessities with a food stamp card. If you break the new golden rule of reading the comments below virtually any marginalized-person centering article posted on social media, you see contemporary examples. Couched as "devil's advocate" or "intellectual" responses, there is only the thinnest veil disguising these deliberately provocative and hostility inspired remarks for what they are - traps.
Instead of playing into the aggression or repaying injury with insult, Jesus cleverly avoids this trap by saying that both God and the emperor should be given what belongs to them. I like to think it’s because Jesus has the same high school counselor as I did, or at least a mentor who gave similar sage advice. Ms. Fran took me aside when I was tempted to react with anger, respond with insult, or rise up in aggression, and she told me about ‘results oriented thinking’. “You are here for a reason child, don’t let anyone distract you. You have bigger fish to fry.”
As I type this, we are heading into certainly the most controversial election season of most of our lifetimes. We are struggling as a country with the most faithful response to a pandemic. I get it. As a pastor and a justice advocate, I’m in the thick of it too. The temptation may be to give in to anger or frustration. It may be to react with disengaging and shutting down. As hard as it is my siblings in Christ, I am asking you to remain focused in this season. We have important work to do my friends. Alongside Jesus, we are called to talk to those willing to listen, to sidestep those who are not, and above all to remain focused on finding creative and dynamic ways to teach and serve the most vulnerable among us. When we refuse the distractions of those trying to get us off our game, as the Pharisees were trying to do to Jesus here, they often ‘leave us and go away.’ God is infinite. We are not. Pick your battles. Fight them well.
We would like to note that, as Christians and as preachers, we must always be careful to not fall into anti-Semitism when speaking about the Pharisees. In fact, we must work to counter the generations of messaging we have received that the Pharisees were evil. They were, really, a lot like us: faith leaders trying to get people to follow God, as they understood God wanted them to, in a time that was quite dangerous for them. This reading is one of many that can land in the territory of, "Pharisees are terrible and also Jews are terrible." At this time of rising anti-Semitism, it is imperative we unlearn a lot of what we have learned about Pharisees and teach our people new ways of thinking about them, the people of Israel, and Jewish people in general. To learn more, head to this fantastic resource from Showing Up for Racial Justice.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.