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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

So Many Questions…

So Many Questions…
Mark 12:13-17
August 30, 2015
Jennifer Browne

Unbelievably it is August 30.  Like many of you, I’ll be squeezing in one more gasp of summer next weekend, so this is my final summer sermon.  Over this summer, we’ve been looking at some of the Questions Jesus Asked as we find them in the Gospel of Mark:

  • With what can we compare the kingdom of God?
  • Why are you afraid?
  • Who touched me?
  • How many loaves do you have?
  • Who do people say that I am?
  • Why do you call me good?
  • What is it you want me to do for you?
  • Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?

I’m sorry I won’t be here next Sunday when Pastor Galen Goodwin addresses the question that intrigues me most as a pastor.  “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus asks a blind man.

You might remember that Sunday in June when we started out and I said that, in the four Gospels, Jesus asks 307 distinct questions.  He is asked 183 questions by others.  Of those 183 questions that Jesus is asked he gives a direct answer to only 8.  Clearly Jesus prefers to be the one asking the questions!  He is 40 times more likely to ask a question than to answer one directly.

And he is 20 times more likely to give an indirect answer than a direct one.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the rich man asks.  “What is written?” Jesus asks back.  The man comes up with his own answer, to love God and neighbor.  But he persists in asking another question: “But who is my neighbor?” So Jesus tells a story, the story of the Good Samaritan, and once again the man has to answer his own question.

In the case of today’s reading, Jesus’ indirect answer helps him out of a trap.  The Pharisees and Herodians present him with a trick question.  First, they grease the wheels.  “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. [pause] Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?

Jesus answers a question with a question, “Why are you putting me to the test?” Holding a Roman coin, he asks another question, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” Finally he gives them what can only be described as an enigmatic answer, at best: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

We know the original question was a trap because of who asked it.  The Pharisees are Jesus’ most frequent questioners.  They have the most in common with Jesus: like him, they believe in the resurrection of the dead; like him they believe in the importance of the law and the prophets.  This time, however, they have brought the Herodians with them—the Greek Jews who were loyal to the Herods, puppet kings of the Roman Empire.

Politically, just about the only thing the Pharisees and the Herodians have in common is that they don’t like Jesus.  This is a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” So they hold their noses, put aside their many differences for a moment, and come together to pose Jesus a question that they hope will put him between a rock and a hard place: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

If he answers that the taxes are lawful, he could be perceived as in collusion with Rome, justifying Roman occupation and oppression of the Jews.  On the other hand, if he speaks out against the tax, it won’t take long for the Herodians, who are loyalists to Rome, to take news of such treasonous talk back to the powers that be. It is a well-laid trap. 

Jesus foils their plans with his answer-that-is-not-an-answer.  "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God." It’s a fabulous answer, don't you think? Except what, exactly, does it mean?

What do you think Jesus means?

Here are some of the ways we can interpret his statement:

  1. God and politics should be kept separate.  Things like taxes have nothing to do with one’s religious beliefs or commitments.
  2. Religion is a matter of the heart.  Jesus doesn’t care what you do with your money.
  3. The law is the law. Christians should always support their government.
  4. Or the opposite: Christians owe nothing to the false gods of government and should reserve all things for God.
  5. We owe the emperors of this world some things, like taxes, and we owe God other things.
    a. But what other things? A portion of our income, our time, our commitment? Or all of those?

Before he answers their question, Jesus asks his questioners for the coin used to pay the Roman tax. It’s a clever move on his part, because it allows the onlookers to see what Jesus already knows: that the questioners who have put him on the spot are deeply entangled with the economics of the empire.  The coin they give him is a denarius; it had an image of the head of (the) Caesar on it with the inscription “son of the divine Augustus,” that is “son of a divine being.” To possess and display such an object, on Temple grounds, was tantamount to idolatry – a violation of the first two commandments.

One more thing to consider before we ask ourselves our second question. Jesus was talking to people who knew their Scriptures, including the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis. When Jesus picked up that coin, and asked whose image was stamped on it, it would have been hard for his listeners not to have been reminded of the verses from Genesis about God’s creation of humankind: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”

Prof. Lance Pape of Brite Divinity School paints this picture of the scene:

It’s easy to picture Jesus flipping that coin in his hand a few times, and then tossing it casually aside. In my imagination I see his eyes rising to meet those of his opponents, confronting each of them with an unspoken question hanging in the air: “And you, my friend: Whose image do you bear?”

With that in mind, turn to your conversation partner and ask each other: What things are Caesar's and what are God's?

I am not one who believes that Jesus is advocating a full-scale retreat from the economics or the politics of our world.  My belief is that he wants us to see that all of these things – economics, politics, entertainment, family life, career – all of them, belong to God. Nothing is outside God’s jurisdiction. 

Which means that Jesus is inviting us – or really, demanding of us – that we think constantly and consistently about what we buy, and who we vote for, and how we spend our time.  Every part of our lives, he is saying, should be shaped by our belief that the whole world and everything in it is God’s.

I don’t think it’s only professional clergypeople who think about this kind of question.  I think anyone who takes faith seriously – and if you’re in church on August 30 you count – wrestles with this.  For some, it’s a desire to pass on their values to their children.  For others it’s a question of how much to spend on themselves or give away. 

The last question is the hardest. 

How does our faith shape our economic decisions -- our buying, saving, giving, and the rest?  Not “how should” but “how does faith shape our economic decisions?”

Perhaps you identified in your conversation the same problem that Lutheran pastor Ruth Hamilton identified: Caesar taxes us, God doesn’t. 

Most of us complain about our taxes, we don’t always agree with how the government spends our money; but most of us pay them anyway.  We know that they are for the common good and that there are limits to them. 

But God doesn’t tax us.  God doesn’t review our 1040s, calculate 10% of our pre-tax income and send us a bill. God simply says, "You are my beloved creation. I have demonstrated my faithfulness to you over and over. I have given you everything, even my beloved Son. I have called you to be my children, to live in my kingdom, and to participate in my reign over the world."

But rather than living out of this assurance, most of us (clergy and laity alike) give priority to other demands first.  We give God our last fruits rather than our first fruits. At the end of the day or the month or the year, we see what we have leftover – in money, time and talent – and give that to God.

“Why are you putting me to the test?” Jesus asks.  “Show me the coin in your pocket.  Whose image is printed here? Whose image is printed on you?”

The questions Jesus asked were designed to expand our thinking and our lives. They prod us to consider the direction and the meaning of our lives. “Why do you call me good? What do you want me to do for you? Why are you afraid? Do you want to be healed?”

A Jewish rabbi in pre-World War II Russia questioned his calling. He felt he had lost his purpose. One night he wandered into a Russian military compound, clearly off-limits to civilians.

“Who are you?” barked the military sentry.  “What are you doing here?”

“Excuse me?” asked the Rabbi.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“How much do you get paid every day?” asked the Rabbi.

“What does that have to do with you?”

“I will pay you that same sum if you will ask me those two questions every day.”

The questions Jesus asked were meant to last a lifetime, and our responses to them change over our lifetimes as we use them to discern the end and the purpose of our lives.  Answering Jesus’ questions present us with the chance to grow.  They send us on a journey in search of what is most valuable in our lives – our relationship with God.

A famous theology professor at Harvard Divinity School was giving the last lecture of his storied career.  The auditorium was packed with students, alumni and his faculty colleagues.  “Just remember,” he concluded, “Jesus is the question to all of your answers.”




David Lose. God, Caesar, and the Power of a Good Question. Posted October 09, 2011 on Working Preacher.

Lance Pape.  Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22.  Posted October 19, 2014 at Working Preacher.

Jeannine K. Brown.  Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22. Posted October 19, 2008 at Working Preacher. 19, 2008

Judith Johnson-Siebold. Balance Sheet (Mat. 22:15-22). The Christian Century, (October 16, 2005, p.19)

Marcus Borg. "What Belongs to God?" Posted at Beliefnet.

Ruth Hamilton. Whose Coin Is It? Matthew 22:15-22. Day 1 Radio program. October 19, 2014.