"Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?"
October 17, 2014, Words By: Scott Dewey, Image By: A coin with the image of Tiberius Caesar from Essam's photos (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
At Street Psalms we’ve grown to love “beautiful questions.” They provide doorways to freedom and life.
Unfortunately un-beautiful questions abound as well. These questions prove to be traps – luring us to small, confining spaces with doors that snap shut.
How very crucial to discern the difference!
Beautiful questions spring from the pages of scripture and from the life experiences of people in our communities. By some counts, there are over 3,000 questions in the Bible. Beautiful questions may be hard and haunting, or gentle and inviting – but they are capable of opening our spirits to wider and richer realities. Questions such as…
– Where are you?
– How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
– Who do you say that I am?
– What do you want me to do for you?
– How many times should I forgive?
Beautiful questions prompt us to deeper life with God and each other, especially as we explore them together.
Other questions are NOT beautiful. We come to know them by their fruit. Scripture records plenty of this variety too.
Un-beautiful questions can be posed sincerely, but start from false premises that run us off the rails every time. A classic example opens John chapter 9: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Who sinned questions virtually never become beautiful questions for our communities. Who’s to blame? Who can we scapegoat? We would do well to pay careful attention to how Jesus avoids such a trap in this important story, and prompts his hearers toward freedom.
Other un-beautiful questions come from flat-out ugly motives from the start – which brings us to this week’s lectionary reading in Matthew 22. Here Herodians and Pharisees are unlikely collaborators in a plot they hope will prove deadly. Usually on opposite sides of the political fence (loyal vs. resistant to Rome respectively), they now unite to scapegoat Jesus. No matter that they happen to have completely different views of Roman taxation. Fear and loathing bring them together. Their question represents not honest inquiry but a rhetorical trap, which Jesus calls out immediately as “hypocrisy” (Matthew 22:18). It’s not the first time for this chronic trap-question: “Is it lawful?” (v. 17).
Jesus asks for a coin used for the imperial tax imposed on every man and woman in Palestine. His questioners hand him a silver coin stamped with the image of Tiberius Caesar, and inscribed with the words “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.” The reverse bears a goddess image with the words “High Priest” – i.e. of the cult of emperor worship. The coin was literally the property of the divine “son of god” who demanded unquestioning allegiance and subjugation. For Jews the graven god-image and inscription represented blasphemy of course, and indeed sparked a Boston Tea-Party style revolt in the year 6 A.D. that was brutally crushed.*
Jesus answers the “lawful?” trap-question with a beautiful question. “Whose image?” (v. 20). Echoes from the Hebrew creation story are unmistakable:
“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
“Whose image?” What vistas this opens! What imagination it sparks! What freedom it invites! What a vibrant, life-giving contrast to petty wrangling about “what’s lawful,” and what if anything might be owed to a distant despot who maintains grudging allegiance by swords and stooges. Fine, return his little coin, if that’s the extent of his claim. But the beautiful question is: Who are the true image-bearers? What might it mean to render the image of the divine giver of life?
May we cultivate discernment among questions, and eagerness for questions that open us to good news.
*For background see Craig Keener, here.