Have you ever felt trapped?
For Christmas last year, my 8-year-old daughter received what she has declared to be the very best gift ever: a rabbit named Barley Hops Fuerst. So, our family has been learning a lot about taking care of a rabbit this year. Turns out, rabbits are pretty fun, and fairly easy to care for. With a regular regimen of feeding, providing water and some leafy snacks, and cleaning the cage, Barley hasn't been too much trouble. One of the best parts is when we let Barley run free in the living room, where he hops around on the floor and explores the underside of all the furniture, catching dust bunnies and cleaning himself, doing all those cute things that rabbits do. But as fun time ends, we meet the biggest challenge of rabbit care: catching him. It has gotten easier, but early on, getting Barley back to his cage required an elaborate strategy, with several of us backing Barley into a corner and keeping him there while one person lunged to grab him and return him to his cage. I often wondered what this scene looked like through Barley's rabbit eyes: three or four humans with arms outstretched, strategically cutting off all of his escape routes and closing in on him.
The scene is pretty similar in our Gospel lesson today, as the religious and political elite back Jesus into a corner.
Jesus has been teaching and healing throughout the countryside. He has developed a following among those who are earnestly seeking God's salvation. This is time of great upheaval and unrest around the Holy Land. The people of God are barely scraping by under the thumb of Rome. The emperor had arrived years before as a conqueror with promises of peace and protection from outsiders, but all the while the people have wondered, "Who will protect us from Rome, from the emperor himself?" Enter Jesus. With his presence, his words, and his healing touch, Jesus has opened a trap door in their prison; he is the one who will save them, who is already saving them; in him, the prophecies are fulfilled and the hierarchies are upended. In him, they believe, our time has come.
The Pharisees don't like it. While Roman rule is not everything they would hope for, Roman rule is at least keeping them in power, ensuring that they still have some authority and someone is still beneath them. They want nothing of this upside-down world that Jesus has come to proclaim. So, the Pharisees have been trying and trying to catch Jesus, laying traps in their questions and quizzes, devising a downfall in their demands for a sign or an explanation. He is a fraud; they're sure of it. But he's a wily fraud, and so far, he has wriggled out of their grasp every time.
So, this time they invite the Herodians along to close the gaps of escape. The plan is flawless. They will ask Jesus to declare his loyalty either to God or to the emperor. "Is it lawful," they ask, "to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" Now, in order to understand the brilliance of the trap, we have to understand the nature of the tax. The people of Israel paid taxes for a number of things, but this tax was especially bad. You see, it cost money for Rome to occupy these lands, to keep rebellions at bay and to ensure the peace that the emperor had promised, the kind of peace that comes from living with the tip of a sword in your back, reminding you that you don't want to upset the guy in charge. This is the essence of Pax Romana, and somebody had to pay for it, so the Romans figured who better to pay than the Israelites themselves. So, God's people were forced to fund their own oppression. And to really drive the point home, they paid that tax with a coin bearing the image of the emperor and a declaration of his divine status. Paying the tax required a violation of God's law, a violation of their own faith.
That's the brilliance of the trap. Both routes of escape are blocked. If Jesus says it is lawful to pay the tax, he sides with the emperor and his loyalists, the Herodians. He would be a sellout, a fraud, caving in to fear and letting down the hopes of all his faithful followers who believed he truly was God's son. On the other hand, if he publicly declares that it is against God's law to pay the Imperial Tax, then he might as well declare war against the whole empire right then and there. Either answer will land Jesus in a world of trouble. They've got him cornered.
What they do not know is that Jesus specializes in unlikely escapes. They do not yet know what will happen in that storied tomb just a few chapters later. Jesus does not take either option - instead, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Jesus reveals a trap door, a third option. He asks for the coin, and the Pharisees, in spite of their commitment to holiness and keeping God's law, are able to produce one. It seems that they are prepared to pay the tax. But anyway, Jesus asks them to identify the face imprinted on the coin. It is the emperor's face. "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."
Jesus performs a rhetorical sleight of hand. He has given no one cause for anger, but in that stroke, he has devalued the emperor's currency and declared the immeasurable value of all those people whom the emperor has deemed worthless. The coin bears the emperor's image; it only has value because it has value to him. But those who bear the image of God - even those who have been beat down and robbed of their dignity - possess value that is inherent and can never be diminished. They may be residents of an occupied land, but Jesus has just declared them free. They don't owe any person anything. And one day, when all the kingdoms and empires of this Earth fall, and every currency has dropped to zero, they will retain that image, that value. God will still be God, and they will still be God's children.
Here's what gets me about this story. In the end, the Pharisees went away amazed. I wonder if they were simply amazed that he got away - that he escaped their trap - or if they realized that his declaration of freedom was for them, too. They were so busy cornering Jesus that they failed to notice that they, too, were being pushed into the corner, trapped by their own complicity. They had become nothing more than a cog in Caesar's empire, valuable only as long as they helped Caesar get what Caesar wanted. They had given what was God's to Caesar. Perhaps they needed Jesus' words more than anybody did. They needed to see, and to hear, and to know that they are more than a powerful man's pawns, more than a middleman in the world's masterful systems of oppression. They, too, belong to God, and Jesus has come for their redemption, too.
It is election season in the United States - an election season like none we've ever experienced. And how inconvenient it is to follow this Jesus, who escapes all our plots to make him choose one side or another; this Jesus who is decidedly for all the people, even those we love to vilify, and especially those who live under the thumb of our own empires. Lord knows, the stakes are high this fall; the work of good governance is crucial as we seek a just and peaceful future for our society, one in which all lives can flourish as God intends. But the temptation is to make an idol of our politics and our political leaders. The temptation is to assign worth to one another based on the image stamped on our buttons and bumper stickers and profile pictures - the image of a donkey or an elephant. The temptation is to believe that all of this is what will save us. It's a trap.
Jesus declares that we belong to the one whose image we bear, whether we are Pharisees, Herodians, or the forgotten masses. We are imprinted with the image of the Almighty God, and to that One, and that One only, we owe our allegiance, our energy, and our very selves. It is this table-turning, paradigm-breaking God who has brought, is bringing, and will finally bring salvation to all our broken ways, and our broken systems, and our broken hearts - not through some magic trick or wily escape, but through the immeasurable power of undying love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Let us pray.
God above all nations, you created us in your image, and you have claimed us for yourself. When the empires of this world seek to claim our lives and our greatest allegiances, remind us that we are yours alone, and give us the grace-filled courage to give our lives to you, for the sake of the world you love so much. Amen.