Cultural Reference Points

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | October 18, 2020

Matthew 22: 15-22

Because of my work, I’ve lived in different places with different cultures. America is a big country with regional differences. I grew up in Portland, Oregon. At the time I thought that was just normal, but now it seems to me like a foreign land.

I’ve lived in Minnesota off and on since 1976 and there’s a difference between Duluth and the Twin Cities or Tamarack and Duluth. When I lived in Iowa the cultural reference points were related to farming and livestock. Of course, Scotland was a whole different country and Glasgow was a world unto itself.

One reference point over there that always fascinated me was that Glasgow has the highest percentage of women in Europe who live within a mile of their mothers. Multi-generational families under the same roof are common. In my church there were some three and four generation families living together. The parish housed around 12,000 people in less than two square miles. So, if you whispered something on the street at 10:00 AM, by teatime it was common knowledge everywhere.

Some cultural reference points grow and evolve and move around over time. There’s a strong link between hymn singing in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and the call and response of African American gospel. And many of the words and turns of phrase that I grew up with in Oregon came from Scotland via the southern United States.

One of the nice things about living in Duluth, Minnesota is that no there asks me, “Where are you from?” They might want to know where in Duluth I live, as in am I east-side or west-side, but I’ve spent enough years off and on in Minnesota so as to know how to act like I belong here.

When we read stories in the bible from within their cultural context, we can see a depth of meaning that otherwise goes unnoticed. The story of Jesus known as the Gospel of Matthew was written probably around the year 80 AD. It focuses on his teachings as a way of saying, “This is what it means to be his follower.”

The main cultural reference point underlying this story of Jesus happened in the year 70 AD when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. Jews and Christians were scattered to other parts of the Roman Empire. Writing down the story of Jesus was a way of persevering and spreading his message.

The ministry of Jesus lasted around three years. A major portion of Matthew is taken up with the last week of his life. Two important events happened in that week. One: Jesus challenged the Temple authorities and Two: they killed him.

Jesus was popular with the crowds, though crowds can be fickle. Especially when there is social tension. Crowds can riot. Jesus went into the Temple and caused a mini riot by turning over the tables of the money changers.

It was a bold political act on his part. What would he do next?

Not long after that he was back in the Temple. He was approached by a delegation. Amongst them were “Herodians” representing political power and Pharisees representing religious power. Let’s not have any more scenes of violence, let us have a civilized conversation; a dialogue. And so they asked him a question. It went like this:

‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’

On the surface it seems fairly simple – a yes or no question. But if we identify the cultural reference points, we see how it was a trap. That and the fact the narrator points out they wanted to trap him.

Teacher – it sounds like a respectful way to address someone. But in Matthew’s story Jesus is only called teacher by those who disagree with him. They are being ironic, saying, “Teacher, as if.”

Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.

It sounds like a compliment, but it was a veiled insult. In the Greek text what is being conveyed here is the idea while Jesus is sincere, he is naïve about the way things really work. They are implying that he doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into. He’s really just a country bumpkin, too ignorant to understand the shades of grey in human affairs.

“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

The taxes they were referring to were not taxes in general, but one particular tax. It was likely what’s known as a poll tax.

In March of 1990 190,000 people gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square to protest against the what was known as the “Poll Tax.”

The Poll Tax was a flagship policy of the Thatcher government. It was simplicity itself. Every person would pay the same tax. A “head tax” so to speak. You could know that tax-wise you and your neighbours were on equal footing. What’s not to like about that?

The problem was, if you were a large family struggling to get by – say with five children and part-time work, you would pay more than the single millionaire living down the road in a paid off mansion. Same price per head, but more per household.

The tax was introduced in Scotland a year before England and by the time it was introduced in England millions of people simply refused to pay it. The organizers of the rally in Trafalgar square had wanted to meet in the more expansive Hyde Park but were denied permission. A riot kicked off when a few thousand people decided to get violent and clearing out those 190,000 was not a pretty sight. The iconic image from that day was of the mounted police trampling a woman in the street. By the time the Poll Tax was rescinded councils around the country were billions of pounds in arears.

What did Jesus think about his poll tax?

If he said, “Yes, I believe it’s lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” then his enemies could say, “You see there, he is in favour of the Roman occupation. He’s not really for the people. Put him to the test and he withers.”

If he said, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar because God’s law comes before Roman law,” then his enemies could say, “You see there, he advocates rebellion. He’ll get us all into trouble. Perhaps the authorities should know about this.”

Jesus was wise to their ways. Instead of giving them the answer they required he asked for a coin. Not just any coin, but the one used for paying taxes. He showed whoever was there that he did not possess the coin for paying taxes and the Pharisees who gave him the coin showed that they did; they were inside the Temple where no pagan imagery was allowed, but they made an exception for money – thus they are technically in support of Roman rule.

He asked whose image and inscription were on the coin. “Caesar,” someone answered. Tiberius in fact. The coin bore his image and an inscription according him divine status. The trap his enemies tried to set was the very trap they fell into. The rabbis had a saying that went, “Wherever a king’s money is current, that king is Lord.”

When Jesus held up the coin for all to see he said, “Give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar and give to God the things that belong to God.” Silence ensued. They themselves had said, “We know you speak the truth,” so what could they say now?

Not long before this conversation Jesus had overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple. In order to give to the Temple, the proper currency had to be used. The money changers would take coins from the realm and pay half their face value. Then they would pay the Temple authorities a percentage of the take. It was a tax on a tax.

There was no mistaking what Jesus meant. Obviously, they were under Roman rule. No one could pretend otherwise. Obviously, they were required to pay taxes. What Jesus meant was clear: this coin is all that Caesar requires of you and therefore that’s all he should get from you.

In “give to God what belongs to God” the underlying question is, whose image do you bear? Whose inscription is written upon your heart and soul? Who is Lord of your life? If you are created in God’s image, then your very soul is the currency God requires. Give God what belongs to God, not mere coinage, but you; your very self. No wonder they were astounded.

You pay to Caesar, pretty much whatever Caesars requires you to pay. You give to God. Where that gift comes from, how it is made, when it begins and where it reaches its limit is all to be found somewhere in you, from within your own heart and soul.

A few days after this conversation in the Temple, Jesus gave to God what belonged to God. His questioners had gone away amazed – they had no answer, so they nailed him to the cross. Politics and religion tried to destroy him by taking his life. He had the last word on the subject though when gave all that was his to give, saying, “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” His prayer for dying is our prayer for living. Amen.

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