They said to Jesus: “Rabbi, we are impressed. You seem to teach the truth, without concern for what people might think, regardless of their status. [So]”Tell us, in your interpretation, is it against Jewish law to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Compliments and then a loaded question.
Perhaps, as people standing on the threshold of the twenty-first century, what we most immediately recognize is the familiar sound of irony; that is that the agenda is not on the surface. But do we dare respond deeper that the question’s surface? Irony is that stable which feeds modern cynicism. Irony is to assume that truth is irrelevant. The irony of our times suggests that reality is that which enables us to survive—to avoid anything that will confirm the suspicions of others about us. It is to understand that the validation of assumptions is really what others want and, therefore, we must quickly decide which assumptions work in our favor and what is the penalty disappointing such expectations.
Many of us would find this to be true in our professional, social and religious lives. There is a kind of “you understood” politeness that keeps us from sharing our deepest convictions, fears and sincere beliefs, especially if they are not politically correct. Because they may reveal us as unacceptable in circles we very much wish to belong. Conservative, moderate or liberal we are so conditioned to sending the messages that establish us in our preferred camp. Sometimes we have played the game so long that we have forgotten the true self that lies beneath the irony and cynicism. The only answers we remember are those that satisfy the world around us. We don’t know what is God’s and what is Caesar’s.
Many live like this because believing that what is most important in life is appearance. A friend is fond of saying, “Sometimes it is better to seem than to be.” Think about it, if anyone said to you, “Now tell me, what do your really think?” wouldn’t you immediately look upon them and their question with suspicion. I often do. I think this is because most of us feel vulnerable to appearing naivete, i.e., appearing to fail the test of social and political sophistication.
Jesus’ inquirers, Pharisees and Herodians, were really not villains; they were God-fearing people with an agenda and a great sense of political vulnerability. Pharisees understood themselves as the watchdogs for Jewish religious and cultural survival. Judaism could not survive if everyone assimilated, if by religious negligence lost their heritage and identity. So they resisted anything that impinged upon their strict interpretation of the law and its codes. Strict doctrinal discipline was essential for the good of the people and the religion’s survival.
So, Pharisees stressed behavior and adherence to holiness (or perfection) codes as the distinction of godliness, espousing certain strict interpretations of the law including appropriate social deportment, religious observance and holy days, sacrifice. They also resented paying taxes to Rome. Since they had no police their main tool for disciplining those who did not share their commitment to religious purity was social ostracism (not associating with tax collectors, harlots, lepers, gentile and non-observant Jews).
Public exposure, such as their many challenges to Jesus, was based upon the assumption that if the people knew the real motives of Jesus in breaking the holiness code then he would cease to be a danger to them. Efforts to embarrass or expose others, or make great effort to show we are not a part of a given group is sadly still staple of religious and political life for many fearful or ambitious people.
The Herodians were realist. We can’t beat the Romans but we can join them in a way preserves our royalty (the Herod Dynasty). So they tried to keep the Romans happy by mainly paying taxes and insuring no overt resistance to authority. Their goal was to avoid anything which appeared to be treasonist to Caesar and report it. Both Pharisees and Herodians were trying to help their people survive.
The problem was that both had given an overemphasis to appearances. What was in your heart was often less important than how you behaved. For how you behaved enabled or threatened what both groups desperately wanted: the survival of Judaism. Jesus was a threat to both. He seemed not have a regard for the fears of either of them. That lack of rigid religious discipline would destroy Judaism; or that too much visible popular appeal might suggest a potential revolutionary and cause greater local Roman scrutiny. What they really wanted to know, Was Jesus a religious charlatan, a political subversive or, worst yet, just naive?
Those who speak boldly of hope and faith in morally and politically cynical times (whether in society or the church) are often dismissed as naive. As Lucy said to Charlie Brown: “Charlie Brown, If you can hold your head while others are losing their heads, then maybe you don’t understand the situation.”
Jedediah Purdy is a twenty-four-year-old Yale law student and has written one of the most interesting books critique modern culture entitled, For Common Things. I have been nursing his book for the past week and am impressed by his observation on irony.
“[We have a fear of] betrayal, disappointment, humiliation and a suspicion that believing, hoping, or caring too much will open us … [to vulnerability and appearing naive].” He goes on to suggest that true values, our deepest convictions, are seen as not as important to us as what others think. The real currency of our society is appearances. He suggest our resolution is: “If surfaces are all we have to work with, we had better make our surfaces as compelling as possible.”
But Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s!” Jesus was posing a question to his sincere but fear obsessed counterparts; a question that would remind them of their own commitments. I believe that the answers to the deeper questions of life are not static. Rather, they are continually answered along the journey guided by faith-inspired questions. Jesus is saying that it was less important what he thought but that they continue to sort out what in their lives (and ours) belongs to God’s.
The Christian faith teaches that we are made in the image of God! The imago Dei. Our souls are made to believe, to hope and care, even care too much. Our souls have a hunger to believe, to grow, to change, to live and love. There is a wonderful prayer at the end of the baptismal service on page 308 of the Book of Common Prayer. We often use it when praying for children but it pertains to all the baptized. It goes, “Sustain them, O Lord in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and perseve, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” On the other hand, too often image of world is success, social acceptance, economic security coupled with suspicion and cynicism. True religion challenges these things, puts them into perspective. We are made God’s possessions. As Ambrosius the monk in Tennyson says in Idylls of the King addressing the Knights of the roundtable regarding their first loyalty to King Arthur:
“For good ye are good and bad,
and like to coins,
some true, some light.
But every one of you
is stamped with the image of the King!”
St Augustine said it best: “Thou has made us for thy self, O God; and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” We are God’s creation—we belong to God. True faith not only helps us to understand this but nurtures and gives us courage to live it.
This week a prominent governor is reported as saying, organized religion is for the “weak-minded” (U.S. News & World Report, 10/11/99). Well, he is partially correct. For we are all weak minded at sometime or point in our lives: drunk with power, diluted with arrogance, dull with cynicism, crippled by fear, controlled by our prejudices, overwhelmed with personal sadness, grief, disappointment. I am sure that at sometime you could sing the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.” Only those who embrace the shallow irony of appearances refuse to admit there are times and ways when only the strength of religious faith can sustain the weakness of our body, mind or spirit.
Faith in God is not an illusion for the weak but the reality that makes us strong. True religious faith makes us strong from the inside out. Irony of a materialistic culture teaches us that we are made strong from the outside in. But as Our Lord teaches: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Or in another place Jesus ask: “What does it profit one to gain the whole world and lose one’s very self?” We live amid the things of Caesar and they have their place. But ultimate we are saved, our full humanity realized, our families and communities are made whole in the things of God.
So People of God, let us pray, for “inquiring hearts, the courage to will and persevere, a spirit to know and love God, and for the gift of joy and wonder.”
But in these cynical and ironic times let us also pray for discomfort with easy answers, half truths and superficial commitments; so that we may never disown the mark of the divine with in us.
Let us pray that we may feel our anger at injustice, hate, religious arrogance, bigotry and exploitation of others, and share with God in the work of justice, love and reconciliation in the world.
Finally let us pray in these times for a faith so inspired that we will be naive for Christ. Holding on to hope and faith, and doing those things that the world claims can not be done.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.</P