Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 22: 15-22)

I’m wondering this morning if you dislike “gotcha questions” as much as I do – those questions that intentionally do not have a clear-cut answer; that are asked in the hope of catching you off-guard or making you appear to be on the wrong side of a contentious issue.  You ever had one of those?

Years ago, a good friend of mine, like me, was wrapping up her last year in seminary, preparing to accept her first call.  She was standing before presbytery, as all candidates for ministry do, answering questions from the floor on matters regarding faith, life, and sense of call.  Most of these questions are asked with all good intent, but every now and then someone steps to the mic with different motivations in mind, sometimes as simple as the desire to hear the sound of their own voice.

For my friend, it came in the form of an older gentleman who had garnered a bit of a reputation for this sort of thing.  There may or may not have been audible groans from the assembly when he stepped to the mic that day. He was pleasant enough, but his long-winded question wreaked of desiring to show off how much he knew and, presumably, how much she did not.  When he finally got to the actual question – two minutes in – the query he laid before my friend on the floor of presbytery was this: is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, is communion, a somber event or an occasion for celebration?  Which is it?

And immediately my friend picked up on the “gotcha-ness” of his question.  For if she said somber, it was certain he would counter, well, what about the new life in Christ?  Is that not something to celebrate?  And if she went with celebration, he’d assuredly suggest that she was not taking the death of Jesus seriously enough.  He had given her two options, neither of which were great.

So what did she do?  Well, my friend is not only a great pastor but a wicked smart one, and she was not about to play the game by his either/or rules.  So she said that it is both – communion is both somber and a celebration; and the holding of those two things in tension defines so much about what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ.  It was a brilliant answer. The gentleman was about to counter but was blessedly kept from doing so by applause from the presbytery floor!

I’ve never forgotten that story – I remember it every time I stand at that table to serve communion myself.  I also think about it when I read our passage today, this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees, one of many such exchanges; often contentious, which is not all that surprising.  To the synagogue leaders and Pharisees, Jesus was both offensive and troubling: offensive because he challenged their treasured beliefs and troubling because they knew the power of a passionate man in the midst of a desperate people. 

But before we jump too quickly to giving the Pharisees a bad rap, as we are prone to do, we’d be wise to remember that they were, in many ways, not all that different from you and me.  Holding onto what mattered to them most, passionate about what they believed in deeply – do we not do the same?  In her Montreat keynote last weekend, the Rev. Lisle Gwynn-Garrity encouraged us to be curious, not judgmental, about the motivations of others, and to always work to see things from their perspective.  The Pharisees were only doing what they believed their faith compelled them to do, just like us.

So when the Pharisees pull out a Roman coin and ask Jesus in front of the crowds, “is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not,” maybe they truly were curious about Jesus’ thoughts on the matter.  Or maybe it was a full-on gotcha question.  We cannot say for sure.  What we can say is that it put Jesus in a tough spot because either answer would undoubtedly tick someone off.  Saying “yes” would pit Jesus against the Torah, the law of the Hebrews that those Pharisees knew so well.  That’s because every Roman coin – which taxes had to be paid with – bore the likeness of Caesar and was inscribed with the following: “Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus Pontifex Maximus” which means, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, High Priest.”  So paying homage to the coin amounted to a form of idolatry – unequivocally prohibited by Hebrew law.  Answering “yes” was not a great answer.

Nor was answering “no.”  That would’ve been seen by the Romans, who demanded complete fidelity to the emperor, as an act of treason.  And you can bet Jesus would’ve been taken straight to the governor’s office, who would’ve passed him on to the Romans, who would’ve silenced him before you could say “tax evader.”  So “No” wasn’t much of an option, either.

Is it right, Jesus, to pay taxes to Caesar, or not – which is it?

Don’t you hate it when you’re put in a situation where two seemingly opposing and uncompromisable choices are presented and you are being asked to choose one of them?

Christmas is coming.  Whose parents are we going to visit – mine or yours?

You’ve graduated from high school.  You can go to this college or that one – which will it be?

A couple you know has gone through a nasty divorce. Each expects you to choose your friendship with them over the other.  Who do you choose?

The Carolina-Duke game is this weekend, and even though you went to another school, it’s assumed you *must* have a preference so you’re being asked, some might say interrogated – who are you rooting for?

There’s a great scene in an otherwise not-so great movie, the third installment of the Star Wars saga (or sixth, depending on how you count them).  In Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan Kenobi has tracked his troubled padawan Anakin Skywalker to the volcano-infested planet of Mustafar for what would be their epic battle.

The transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader has been happening incrementally throughout the movie but is perhaps captured most poignantly in a particular exchange between the two here.  Anakin boasts that his new powers have enabled him to bring “peace” to the galaxy.  Obi-Wan responds that his allegiance is to democracy, not power; to which Anakin sneers: If you are not with me, then you’re my enemy.  And as Obi-Wan raises his light saber for battle, he declares: Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes.

Sometimes there truly are just two choices – neither of which are great; polar opposites and uncompromising.  And it’s inevitable that someone is going to be upset or disappointed no matter which you choose.  And we don’t like being put in those tough situations because, while living in a black-and-white world where the right answer is always obvious looks good on paper, in practical terms it is much more complicated than that.  Because life is full of nuance, the unseen stories, the complex narratives all woven together in the beautifully chaotic tapestry of daily life.

And so I am compelled to wonder whether this kind of either/or thinking is often an illusion, a forced dichotomy that fails to recognize the bigger picture, the nuance, the gray – and in the process undercuts the very thing it seeks to answer.

Take our scripture, for instance.  You know what I love most about Jesus’ response here?  It’s that he refuses to be pigeon-holed in the either/or world of the Pharisees, where there are only “yes” and “no” answers to “yes” and “no” questions.  I love the fact that Jesus is given two options here and chooses a third: render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render to God the things that are God’s

That makes sense to us because it’s a sensical answer.  Except back then, it was not.  The world Jesus lived in was a world that assumed you had only two options – choose loyalty to God or loyalty to Rome – and that’s it.  Jesus, however, refuses to play that game – or, more to the point, he plays the game but by his own set of rules.  One that rarely subscribes to either-or thinking or absolutes.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.

A brilliant answer.  And not just because it leaves his questioners stumped – when you live too long in the world of binary thinking, where everyone is either for your or against you, you don’t really know what to do with someone who suggests, as the apostle Paul would later put it, “a more excellent way.” 

It’s also a brilliant answer because it draws a sharp contrast between how others see the world and how Jesus sees it.   For some, everything boils down to a kind of ownership – who is worthy of our ultimate and complete allegiance.  Who owns us, if you will.  Ownership. That kind of worldview will always default to binary thinking, to dealing in absolutes, to an either-or mentality.  You’re either for us or you’re against us.

But that is not the world that Jesus lives in.  It’s not about “ownership.”  You know what it’s about for Jesus?  It is about relationship – how we relate to those around us:

those who are like us, and those we differ from;

those we love and get along with, and those we do not;

those we know, and those we’ve never met;

those we understand, and those whose motivations and actions perplex us. 

What ultimately matters, what guides every decision we make, Jesus says, cannot be solely based on ideology.  It has to be about relationship.

And see, that’s where the Pharisees’ missed it.  I mean, there was never a question that the government owned the coin the Pharisees so quickly produced – it had Caesar’s image on it, it had his name etched into it.  It was his.  And because of that, taxes were (and still are) a reality.  But did Caesar, did the Roman empire, deserve their ultimate loyalty?  Or, to ask it another way, was that the most important relationship in their lives?  Jesus says no.

It’s not about ownership, it’s about relationship. 

Beloved, I cannot help but wonder how this understanding might inform and even transform the lives we live today; how it might guide us in the topsy-turvy world we’re so desperately trying to negotiate and be faithful in. 

I wonder about the ways that “relationship over ownership” might impact, for instance, family systems that are stuck in binary thinking of who is right and who is wrong, passed from generation to generation. 

I wonder how “relationship over ownership” might transform our politics, where absolutes and an either-or mentality are the name of the game and are literally holding our government hostage right now. 

Even with something like what’s happening in Israel and Gaza, which is simultaneously saddening, devastating, and exceedingly complicated, I wonder how “relationship over ownership” might enable us to see beyond the black-and-white situation we’re so often led to think it is, so we can begin to ponder and pray about how we respond effectively and faithfully.

I even wonder – and I know this won’t come as a surprise, a week before Response Sunday – I wonder how “relationship over ownership” might inform our very understanding of stewardship.  Or, transform it. Our passage today is commonly used in church stewardship seasons, but more as a kind of math equation: give a share of what you have to Caesar (that is, all the things you need to live) and then give a share to God (the church).

And while I guess there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, I actually think Jesus is calling us to a deeper understanding of what stewardship is.  Because in the end, it’s not about determining “shares” – like a loyal and faithful giver in a former church of mine who’d drop his check off at the office every month and tell me he was “paying his dues.”  And while I was certainly grateful for his consistent giving, I tend to think that the kind stewardship Jesus calls us to is less about “dues” and more about relationship – our relationship with God, and just as importantly, our relationships with each other.

This past week I had multiple conversations with members of our church family who are going through some pretty tough times – all different struggles.  But the one common thread I heard in these conversations was that they did not know what they would do without the people of this church supporting them in their time of need.  Every one of them voiced that.  I imagine that’s why they are part of this family, and if I were guessing that’s also why they happen to be strong, consistent givers to this church.  Not because of obligation, not because of a sense of ownership.  But because of the relationships they have here, with both their siblings in Christ and with their God.

It’s these relationships that keep us invested in this thing called church, don’t you agree?  Despite the challenges and frustrations, despite the changes we’ve endured that cut deep, despite the fear and uncertainty of what lies ahead. It’s these relationships that compel us to continue supporting the work and ministry of God’s church. As it should be.

Beloved, we live in a world that so often forces us to pick a side.  Either this or that. There are only two options. You’re either for us or against us. Sometimes it truly is that way, and we have a touch choice to make.  But more often than not, may we lean into our relationship with Jesus and with each other.  To listen and learn.  To come to see that third option that has always been there.  To center relationship over ownership.  To follow the way of Jesus which is always, always a more excellent way.

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!


* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.