A Malicious Question, A Healing Answer
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?’”
October 20, 2023, Words By: Scott Dewey, Image By: Thanasis Papazacharias
I’ve heard it said that the Bible is “God’s Answer Book.” Some people must find that to be true, but it’s hard to see how. Among the Bibles I own, a few have sections in the back that serve as FAQs (frequently asked questions) plus answers. That’s handy, but they’re modern add-ons.
In the ancient texts, what we get is a lot of human drama. Those stories are mixed with social commentary, poetry, and wide-ranging musings—infused with attentiveness to the divine. But answers?
Well guess what, this week’s scripture passage actually does contain questions and answers. Let’s see what confusion gets cleared up. The Q&A is set within a story, approaching the climax of drama. Jesus has become a wildly popular figure and arrives in the capital city to fanfare. Cue the sinister music; in the shadows lurk enemies. These enemies form unlikely partnerships across their internal factions. With malice, they collude.
Jesus’s questioners must know by now that he virtually never answers questions within the same frame as they are asked. Seldom does he provide clarity in the ways questioners seek. As we’ve explored in a previous reflection on this passage, not all questions open gateways to life. The Pharisees and Herodians devise a trapdoor to death. The hinge is binary: either answer—yes or no to paying the Roman imperial tax—will put Jesus in further danger.
This is a murder plot. No need for knives in their cloaks; they know how to pull levers of power connected to public-approved, religion-supported, state-sanctioned violence. Context is crucial, and the context is life at the edge of death. This is not a professor stroking his beard in an afternoon seminar class about tax revenue policy, with students raising hands. Jesus’s very life is at stake, and the spiritual lives of his hearers.
“Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus says. After they produce one, he asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” The emperor’s, of course. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
It’s not simply a clever evasion. Jesus will be dead soon enough at his enemies’ hands, and he seems to know it. He doesn’t avoid the questioners’ topic; he speaks of money in 11 of his 39 parables and doesn’t hesitate to speak of money here.
If this is drama and plot, what’s Jesus’s role in this scene? For this meditation, I invite us to reflect on his various roles. Some might suggest that Jesus’s role above all roles was to die for our sins. Without debating that, I would like to remind us of others: prophet, sage, teacher, healer, gatherer, sender, family, intimate friend. Feel free to muse about these and other roles Jesus brings to this passage’s drama.
This time, I’m focusing on Jesus as healer.
My friend Alin* tells me, sometimes through tears, that the central wound of his life is money. This becomes clear now later in life, as he explores his ethnic and cultural roots in earnest. He’s digging into his own story and the story of his ancestors. His grandparents survived a mass episode of racist oppression in the United States, leaving them destitute and shamed. Further back in another part of the world, there are fragmented ancestor stories of financial success and financial ruin. Instilled deep within Alin is fear of such ruin, and a daily urgency to ensure it won’t happen. The money wounds are generational and ever-present.
Alin experienced a personal business failure decades ago. He responded to that shame with conscientious hard work and relentless attention to financial strategy—to the point he’s a skilled advisor for others. From both his ancestral cultural-religious honor/shame heritage and his family’s adopted Christianity, he has sought outward respectability. He inherits the struggle to be on the right side of the United States’ social, legal, political, religious, and social systems. He wonders if it will ever be enough.
The great good news: Alin’s wounds are healing. Healing! Plenty of scars and tender soft tissue. But he can lift his eyes to the sky and dance. Alin speaks often of “the ways of Jesus” he gleans from gospel stories, and Jesus’s healing ways. Alin’s money wounds are healing from demands of the empire, from respectability pressures of his family, from shame and fear of failure. He can unclench his grasping fists.
Increasingly Alin’s role is a “wounded healer,” as Jesus was. In what is now Alin’s life work, he asks others, “What is your money story?” Invariably, a soul story tumbles out.
What is the money story—as soul story—that plays out in this passage? What story is told in this stamped disk of metal? In the hearts of the gathered hearers? What wounds, carried generationally, relentlessly afflict these residents of a militarily occupied land? They carry their oppressor’s image in their pockets and pouches as a means of transaction.
“Give,” Jesus says. Release your grasp, open your hands. Rest from this imposed struggle. Breathe. Heal. A new story is unfolding as gift, which cannot be taken by violence.
Dwelling Among Us
What is your money story?
What wounds, what gifts, what healing?
How might you release at this juncture of your story?