Jesus’ encounter with Pharisees who want to trap Him with a question about taxes (in Matthew 22:15-22, this week’s Gospel reading in the lectionary) seems to divide the world into two neat categories: that which is of Caesar, and that which is of God. But drawing a neat line between these two may not be the story’s only point.
For instance, might Jesus be trying to turn the question about taxes back on those who raise it, so that they ask themselves whether they can successfully keep some things out of God’s hands? (Wendell Berry does something akin to this during an interview with Bill Moyers, when Berry says, “There are no sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.”)
Because this appears to be one of the struggles these religious professionals face. They come to Jesus all hot and bothered with questions or accusations designed to stump Him, but in the process reveal more about their particular struggles than they might realize. Is there marriage in heaven? Should one heal on the Sabbath? Are we right to pay taxes? Each time it sounds like they’ve figured a way to drive Jesus into a rhetorical corner from which there is no escape. Each time, He exposes some trouble they have in keeping to the way of God.
One of the ironies on this encounter–the one where taxes is the topic du jour–is that the Pharisees begin their remarks with declarations that say more than they realize:
we know that you are a man of integrity,
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
To know this, and not be moved? To affirm this without accepting it? Little wonder that Jesus calls them hypocrites. Impolitic, perhaps, and even bordering on confrontational–but accurate. And if said without a sneer or malice? Jesus’ words contain a challenge to go back and reconsider:
How much is God’s? And, if you reach the conclusion that God is over all (or most, or more than you might have previously thought), can you live with that?