In Jesus’ day the people of Galilee had only recently come under Jerusalem’s rule. Previously they had not owed tithes & other dues to the temple. The peasants in Galilee had borne the brunt of repeated Roman conquests of Palestine, with major massacres in the areas of Nazareth, Magdala & Capernaum around the time of Jesus’ birth. After Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, the Romans had imposed his son Herod Antipas as ruler. He was the first ruler in history to live in Galilee. He pushed tax collections with rigor. He followed his father’s practice of massive building projects & constructed two new Galilean capital cities in a 20-year period. His construction efforts imposed a crushing economic drain on the peasants in Galilee precisely during the lifetime of Jesus. Radical Pharisees & other teachers spearheaded a refusal to render the Roman tribute, claiming that God was their true & only Lord & Master. These movements, along with the kingdom movement of Jesus, show that the ancient Israelite traditions of popular resistance & independence were very much alive in Judea & Galilee at the time of Jesus. (adapted from Jesus & Empire: The Kingdom of God & the New World Disorder, Richard Horsley, 2003, pp. 85-86.)
Why don’t you pull out a coin or bill? What do you see? [LIBERTY- & In God we trust] & [e pluribus unum= out of many, one] & whose images? // The inscriptions & images kind of tell our story as a nation, don’t they?
When the Pharisees got supporters of Herod’s rule to join with them in trapping Jesus, they displayed the denarius used for buying & selling, & paying taxes- steep taxes. Carrying Roman coinage in the Jerusalem temple was forbidden. Roman money was supposed to be exchanged for Jewish temple money before Jewish worshippers entered the temple. The typical denarius of Tiberius Caesar’s day had his portrait on the front side with the saying “Great High priest” above his head, & the Latin inscription “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus” on the reverse side. The coins of Rome told the story of their rule- the Emperor is God, & High Priest. That was the collision point. The people with Jesus in the temple saw something much more than a coin. They saw the symbol of their oppression, their poverty, their lack of meaningful work. They saw the collusion between the Jewish authorities & the Roman occupiers. They saw Pharisees handling money poisoned by leaders who deserted the teachings of Judaism & grew rich with their Roman overlords.
The Pharisees knew all that. Their movement called Jews back to radical observance of the laws God had given the Hebrew people. They wanted an intensified Judaism that could free the Jews from bondage under yet one more empire that diluted their radical faith in the one true God.
In traveling with Jesus, his disciples had witnessed throughout Galilee & Judea the rapid Romanizing of the kingdom of Herod Antipas. Herod had built an entirely new city on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, called Tiberius in honor of the newly installed emperor. Herod Antipas had also expanded the town of Sepphoris, near Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Galilee had never seen any towns of this size or so pretentious. The Jewish backwater area of Galilee had small farms. The peasant farmers grew a number of crops with which they supported themselves. In order to support his massive development programs, Herod seized small farms for delinquent taxes & bound them together, displacing families. The large farming co-ops produced a select few crops for export, thus filling Herod’s & Tiberius’ coffers, making the peasants even poorer & hungrier. Before their eyes the disciples witnessed unheard-of change & increasing poverty for all the Jews in the region.
So what does this mean for us? Listen again: “The Pharisees went & plotted to entrap him Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, & teach the way of God in accordance with truth, & show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” & they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, & whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, & to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; & they left him & went away.”
Do you hear the saying differently? I know I do. We don’t hear the emperor’s title said out loud- it was the 1000-pound gorilla in the exchange. The Pharisees meant to entrap Jesus against the supporters of Herod they’d brought with them.
They were running a political action to push their cause of tax withholding, because they could worship only the God of Israel. & Jesus turned the whole scene upside down. His followers didn’t have two coins to rub together, so they might have laughed when Jesus suggested they give their due to Emperor Tiberius. But more than that, he challenged the Pharisees & Herod’s supporters to examine where their true allegiance lay.
The disciples of Jesus could quote the words he taught. They had seen his miracles first-hand. They knew the sound of his voice, saw the light dance in his eyes. They had seen his face do whatever his face did when he saw human suffering. They knew his touch. If they were at all perceptive, they knew his personality, the way he processed ideas, his sense of himself as a Jew. They knew far more than we will ever be able to know. Yet they didn’t begin to know enough. They had no idea what joining with Jesus would do to them.
You & I are all too familiar with, & probably tired of, the politics of today: Cater to everyone with power, with suasion, & everyone who is undecided. The politics of Jesus means deciding to be willing servants for the whole culture, nourishing justice in all our relationships. That’s what I grew up hearing- people who undertake public office are servants, not people in league with the power-brokers. They are to serve the public good. In Godwe trust.
Former Bishop of Atlanta Bennett Sims says in his book Servanthood: “Jesus never coerces. Instead it is his concise insistence by word & deed that greatness lies in giving — superiority is embodied in serving.”
Bp. Daniel Corrigan years ago suggested adding one more to the four dismissals at the end of the Eucharist — “Get up, get out, & get lost in the world!” He suggests we serve by listening. Listen to that colleague at work or home or ballpark who’s up to her elbows in misery, trying to figure out how to make ends meet. We serve by caring. Care for the one who gropes not for answers but for working solutions. We serve by persuading. Tell your next-door neighbor that you know about a place where she can get loved until she can discover how to love herself. Let her ‘in’ to the servant community called out to be ‘church.’ We serve by pooling our resources, pledging and giving for the work of God’s kingdom in our time and place. That’s how servanthood can work for us. It’s what Jesus intends.