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Power vs. Identity

A sermon on Matthew 22:15-22.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here].

As I have already mentioned a few times in the last month and a half, accompanying my son in the adventure of virtual learning is offering me a number of surprisingly relevant lessons for the task of interpreting scripture! This week’s episode of “you actually WILL use this is real life” deals with the difference between point of view and perspective.

Point of view is about who is telling the story. Is it first person? Third person? An omniscient narrator? And does the point of view shift over the course of the story, by giving different characters the chance to shape the narrative?

In contrast, perspective is about the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of the various characters. What is their primary concern? What ultimately matters to them?

This distinction between point of view and perspective matters for us because it draws our attention to the way that the value message of a story shifts based on the character beside whom we stand … the one whose point of view we take. This means that if our values are to be shaped by listening to God’s Word (and I hope and trust that they are), then we need to be conscious of where we are standing.

Today’s gospel story offers us two options for our point-of view, options that drastically shift the perspective about what is important in this story.[1] To help explore these two positions I am going to borrow again from the 5th grade toolbox and use a graphic organizer. (See photo at beginning of post for complete graphic organizer.)

As you can see on my paper here, I have two columns that we are going to be filling in: Each column represents a different point of view, and each point of view has a different controlling perspective. This perspective can be discerned by examining the actions and values that are highlighted when we position ourselves beside the relevant characters.

The first point of view presented in today’s gospel is that of the religious leaders who were plotting against Jesus. (write LEADERS). Just by using that word: plotting the gospel writer has given us a clue about the leaders’ perspective – the value for which they are expressing the most concern.

But we are going to leave their perspective blank for the moment and examine their actions, and the priorities these actions reveal.

The first thing we learn is that they are plotting to entrap Jesus in what he says (write ENTRAP). There is clearly antagonism here – that’s not a surprise. Jesus has tangled with these men before. But the strategy the leaders embrace is revelatory. They are setting a trap. A way to hold Jesus, against his will, so that he can be bent to theirs.

And the way that they go about baiting this trap is important too. They form an alliance (write ALLIANCE). Pharisees and Herodians are not natural allies. The Pharisees were concerned about the purity of their faith and people, and thus resisted the corrupting influence of Rome. Herodians, on the other hand, pragmatically lined up with Rome, seeing such service as the road to wealth and security.

But Matthew tells us that the religious leaders sent their disciples with the Herodians. Apparently, they ascribed to the maxim that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

By making this alliance, the leaders are able to leverage another powerful tool: they are able to craft an opening message of flattery to try to manipulate Jesus. (write MANIPULATE) The words about Jesus’s sincerity sound sincere in the mouths of Herodians – or at least, they are in character. Herodians traffic in flattery. And they do so because it usually works! Their complimentary words set Jesus up to live up to their praise… to be a man who shows no deference or partiality, and is loyal only to the truth.

But then the trap snaps with the vice grip of an impossible choice. “Where is your allegiance, Jesus?” (write ALLEGIANCE) Allegiance is the subtext of their question about whether it is “lawful” to pay the tribute tax demanded by Rome. This wording holds within it the crucial question: which law? The law of Rome (the occupying the empire) provides peace on the condition of obedience. Pay the taxes we require, acknowledge our authority, and you will be safe. But what about the law of God? God’s law certainly requires contributions to the collective good, but it forbids graven images… like that on the Roman coin. So, "Oh teacher of truth..." does obedience to Rome mean disobedience to God?

It’s in the trap of their question that the leaders reveal what most scares them: risk (write RISK)

They see this question as a trap, because they would not be able to answer it. To reject the tax, means to risk the wrath of Rome. To affirm the tax, means to risk losing the support of the people. Either option is untenable because it means the loss of the thing they value, the driving force of their perspective: power (write POWER).

When we stand in the place of the leaders, this story is a drama about a power-play… and we can feel the compelling pull of the lure of power. It promises the ability to trap our opponents in their own words. It justifies alliances we would normally abhor. It leverages manipulation, and asks questions of allegiance, and teaches us to fear risk. This is the perspective we hold when our centering value is power.

But this story offers us another point of view, another place to stand and consider what really matters to us. That place, of course, is the point of view of Jesus. (write JESUS)

From where he stands, the interchange in this gospel story plays out much differently. His questioners approach him with a description that he can easily claim: “we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth.” (write TRUTH). It’s intended to back Jesus into a corner, but Jesus cannot be manipulated by the truth of who he is. He has no need to live up to the flattery.

And so, when his flatterers subtly introduce their scheming definition of what sincerity means… he is not manipulated. He doesn’t need to prove their words correct. And this ends up catching them… because their definition has a hidden goal obscured by our translation. Our modern English Bibles say “you do not regard people with partiality,” but the original phrase is a colloquial idiom that translates to “you do not glance into people’s faces.”[2] It means you are not influenced by the way people present, but it subconsciously discourages a searching glance… a glance that might reveal to Jesus that his questioners are NOT who they, in their Herodian disguise, pretend to be.

But Jesus, who is not afraid to look, sees them for who they are. (write SEEING). He sees the attempted manipulation. He sees the intended trap. He sees the pretense in their approach.

And this allows him to spring a different trap, one they have unintentionally set for themselves. In attempting to catch him between competing laws, they catch themselves. Because Herodians would carry Roman coins, but Pharisees would not. So, when Jesus asks them to produce the coin, his would-be trappers are revealed (write REVEALING). If they do not have the coin, they reveal the deception of the part they are playing. But if they DO have the coin, they reveal that they do not hold to the law to which they seek to hold Jesus accountable.

When a coin is produced, Jesus pushes further. He draws attention to the very point of contention: the presence of an image (write IMAGE). "Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus asks. “What’s really at the heart of this challenge?” There is only one answer: it’s an image of the emperor.

“Exactly!” we can almost hear Jesus exclaim. “so give the emperor the things that belong to him, but give God the things that belong to God.” (write BELONGING).

Jesus’s perspective is not driven by the pursuit of power. Jesus’s perspective, the place he knows value belongs is in identity (write IDENTITY). When we stand beside Jesus, we see that this story is not about him winning an ill-designed power play. It’s about recognizing who he is and who we are. He does speak truth, and he looks into our hearts unflinchingly. Whatever masks we hide behind, he will reveal us – not in order to defeat us, but in order to remind us whose image we are made in. We do NOT belong to any human leader because we are made in the image of God… and it is to God that we belong.

The story gives us two points of view, two different perspectives on what to value. But it doesn’t tell us what to do with this contrast.

The easy answer would be to approach this story as a binary choice: you can be about power, or you can find your identity in Jesus.But the problem is that Jesus did not follow the binary path. He did engage with power – both in this story and elsewhere in his ministry. He just did it on his own terms. He modelled for us how to be “in but not of” the world. He called us to be the salt of the earth, and the city on a hill. He continued the message from the first story of creation that humanity is called by God to be stewards of all the God has made. We cannot abdicate our responsibility to the world … but we must engage the problems and the power-systems of the world without getting confused about our identity.

The reality is that in our lives, as in Jesus’ life, we WILL be confronted by questions of power, and we will have to engage them. We have civic responsibilities. To pay taxes, and also to do our best to influence the world through whatever power or witness or influence we have. We do need to cast our votes in elections, and make decisions about how to use our money, and decide what kind of “truth” we will listen to and proclaim.

But we must do so without letting any of these tools of power define us.

We are made in the image of God, not in the image of our political parties, or of our country, or of our economic or racial groups, or even of our denomination.

And that means that while we can faithfully pay the tax – as Jesus taught - we can engage with the world of power and civic decisions, that engagement is to be done from an understanding of our core identity.

We are made in the image of God, and we belong to God, and it is ultimately with Jesus that our allegiance lies.

Thanks be to God.

[1] The insights of Richard Swanson in his discussion of this lectionary text in his book Provoking the Gospel of Matthew were formative in shaping my analysis of these points of view and the related perspectives. [2] Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2007, p.246.


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