In childhood we loved tricky questions or riddles. “What is black and white and read all over?” (a newspaper). Or, more recently, “I am a wealthy doctor, I have a wealthy son. But if you’re looking for his father, I am not the one. Who am I?”
(his mother). Or, a riddle allegedly solved by 80% of kindergarten children but only 17% of University Students in California. What is …….more powerful than God, more evil than the devil, Poor people have it, Rich people don’t need it….
The answer? “NOTHING!”.
In the gospel text this morning the Jewish leaders came to Jesus with a question that was sort of a riddle, a question they hoped would get Jesus in a lot of trouble. They began politely seeking to gain his trust: “Teacher, we know that you always tell the truth about things….. especially when it comes to God. So teacher is it against our Jewish religion to pay taxes?
In a sense it was a brilliant question. If Jesus said yes, that it was wrong to pay taxes to Caesar, he would be in big trouble with the Roman government. Big Mistake! But if Jesus said “Pay the taxes” it implied support for the Romans, a people despised by the faithful Jews. They were clearly trying to trap Jesus.
But Jesus was one step ahead of his questioners that day. “Show me one of your coins”, Jesus said. “Whose name and face appear on it?”…..”Well that’s Caesar’s name and face of course.” …. “All right then”, Jesus answered. “You pay to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and you pay to God that which belongs to God.”
When Jesus offered his brilliant response to the Pharisees, they were amazed; amazed not because Jesus answered brilliantly, but because he avoided their trap. They didn’t care about Caesar and taxes. They wanted to embarrass Jesus because he was teaching about love and forgiveness and grace, and people were responding positively to his teaching. He was stirring the pot and causing people to question some of the strict Pharisaic teachings.
So they kept asking him trick questions. “Master, we caught this woman in the very act of adultery. Our law says she should be stoned to death; what do you say?” (Which of you has never sinned?) “Master, our law says no work should be done on the sabbath, so why do you allow your disciples to pick grain on the sabbath?” (“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”)
The Pharisees threw tricky questions at Jesus to try to force him to provide a bunch of religious rules. They were afraid that Jesus’ message might get through to them, the message of compassion and tenderness, so they kept Jesus at a distance with their legalistic questions. They hoped that their tricky questions would throw Jesus off the track so he wouldn’t be able to tell people that faith was about a relationship with a loving God. They would compose tricky questions requiring a response from the mind. Jesus specialized in questions of the heart. “Do you want to be forgiven?”…. one of his favourite questions that helped to frame discussions of faith and discipleship.
Now let us turn to the way we hear the questions of faith, and whether or not we find them easy or difficult to answer.
With all the terrible events in Israel and Gaza and the Ukraine, where is God?
What can our country do to help? What can we as individuals do? When we pray during these troubling days, does God seem close or far away? What can we do? When someone close to us has bolted or drifted away, what can we do?
(Here is a true story😊
A young woman who was raised in a devout, conservative church family abandoned her faith …. and her family…. and took off for a big exciting city. She later said that she lived a very provocative life, getting into drugs, a variety of sexual experiences and even dabbled in the occult. But then she got very sick; a dirty needle caused infection in her bloodstream, and she was in danger of losing her leg. All her newfound friends had left her and she was desperate. Seeing no other option she called her parents, and when her mother answered, she said “Mom. Can I come home? I think I’m dying.”
When she flew home she didn’t know what to expect. Criticism? Condemnation? Interrogation? But when she got off the plane she was met by the two people who loved her the most. On the way home they drove to the parking lot of a church. This was the church the young woman had attended for Sunday School 15 ears earlier. “What are we doing here?”
Her father began “Sally, when you were 3 months old, you were baptized in this church. Two years ago, when you left us, we began coming to this parking lot every Sunday evening and we prayed for you. We prayed that God would keep you safe, and that one day you would find your way back. Today, God has answered our prayers. Welcome home.
Perhaps you, or someone you know and love, are going through difficult days or months of darkness. The Good News of the Gospel invites us to respond not with rules and laws and judgement, but with compassion and generous love. May God help us all to pray for the people and the causes that we love and support. And may we live out our days not resenting the taxes we pay, but giving thanks for the healthy partnership of church and state in our democratic life.