~ Matthew 22:15-22 ~
When President Obama dramatically dropped the mic at the 2016 White House Correspondents’ Dinner everyone knew what it meant. There was nothing left to be said. Today, we know that dropping the mic means a triumphant conclusion to one’s performance or speech. It signals complete confidence that your opponent has no worthy comeback. Obama was feeling good about what he’d said. Mic drop! To be fair the gesture had been around for a while. Judy Garland did it on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1965. Rappers and comedians have been doing it for years. It should be noted, however, that microphone manufacturers do not recommend dropping their mics on the floor.
In today’s gospel account Jesus dropped the mic. The serious religious types had plotted to trap Jesus, coming to him with what, on the surface, seemed to be a sincere compliment. But by the end their efforts were laid bare, devastatingly so. As Matthew tells it, “when they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” There was nothing left to be said. Jesus, indeed, had dropped the mic.
What was the “dropped mic” moment? Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And that was it. There was nothing left to be said. And for 2000 years we have been trying to figure out what Jesus actually meant. Many have thought that Jesus’ statement establishes two separate realms, Caesar’s and God’s, and that people need to render to each respective realm what they ask for. However, if Jesus were to comment on these efforts he would say “that’s not what I meant.” It really isn’t about the separation of church and state. Let me explain.
Since Jesus has come to Jerusalem his stock has risen considerably. The people are impressed with his teaching and actions. And the religious leaders are getting desperate to get the upper hand. They have to find a way to trap him into saying something stupid, something they can turn into charges of sedition or blasphemy. After much consideration, they have come up with a simple but clever question for Jesus. They approach him with a bit of insincere flattery and then pop the question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Now Jews in the first century paid several taxes: tithes to the temple (averaging about 21% a year), customs taxes, and taxes on land. Jesus’ opponents were not questioning taxes in general. Their question was more specific: Should taxes be paid to Caesar? Tiberius, the emperor of Rome, was the head of an imperial domination system. Ever since 63 B.C.E. the Romans had ruled the Jewish homeland through client kings such as Herod and governors. The tax in question was the annual tribute tax to Rome. Jews were divided about this tax. The temple authorities and their retainers, the scribes, collaborated with Roman rule and endorsed the tax. But Jews sympathetic to resistance to Roman authority rejected it. Such a refusal was the equivalent of sedition.
The question seeks to put Jesus in a trap. Either a yes or no answer gets him in trouble. “Yes” would discredit him with those who find the imperial domination system reprehensible and unacceptable. “No” would make him subject to arrest for sedition. This is why the Herodians, no friends to the Pharisees, are in on the ploy. The trap is set.
But Jesus easily sees through their ploy. It’s just too obvious. And he calls them on it: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” Why are you trying to entrap me? He asks them for a coin and they give him a denarius. He asks them whose image is on the coin. Of course, the coin has the image of the Emperor Tiberius. They admit as much.
Then Jesus gives them one of the great non-answers of all time: If it’s Caesar’s coin go ahead and give it back to him. I can imagine Jesus saying this with a dismissive shrug. Then he adds, “Give what is God’s to God.” It is a completely ambiguous answer. The text provides no clue as to what he means. Jesus’ answer is deliberately enigmatic simply to avoid the trap they are trying to set for him. His response was never meant to be figured out. It was a skillful parry to the enemies’ thrust, designed to deny the authorities any solid ground for proceeding against him. In other words, this is a masterful piece of waffling. It is not a treatise on the sacred versus the secular. It is not a formula for the separation of church and state. It provides no guidance for doing your taxes. It neither claims taxation is legitimate nor gives aid to anti-tax activists. It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse. In other words, what Jesus tells those conniving plotter’s is merely a trick answer to their trick question in order to get out of the trap. Mic drop!
Given all that, however, there was nothing that Jesus said or did that did not have implications for the political culture in which he lived. In the sense that Jesus’ actions had an impact on the culture, so his actions had an impact on the politics of his time.
You see, whereas a legal separation between church and state is a viable and laudable political philosophy, there really is no separation between sacred and secular. Everything we do, every religious act, every cultural act, every political act, is acted out in the same realm. Paul Tillich, the reformed theologian of a generation ago, put it this way (please excuse the hierarchical language): “Every workday is a day of the Lord, every supper a Lord’s supper, every work the fulfillment of a divine task, every joy a joy of God. In all preliminary concerns, the ‘Ultimate Concern’ is present, consecrating them. Essentially the religious and the secular are not separated realms. Rather they are within each other.”
And so Jesus’ words and actions acted within the culture and thus had political implications. In some ultimate sense, everything belongs to God. And so our religious and spiritual acts work within the culture and politics of our time just as they did for Jesus.
But so also does culture work on us and our religious acts. Again Tillich says: “Every religious act, not only in organized religion, but also in the most intimate movement of the soul, is culturally formed.” This is what is called a “mimetic” approach to culture. We don’t define ourselves individually but are, in fact, a reflection of our culture. And the effects of the culture do their job on us. We are hardly aware of the pervasive ways the culture shapes our minds and spirits. Tillich says: “Man is supposed to be the master of his world and himself. But actually he has become a part of the reality he has created, an object among objects, a thing among things, a cog within a universal machine to which he must adapt himself in order not to be smashed by it.”
Tillich’s diagnosis is at the heart of the challenge of dismantling structural racism, the focus of our Matthew 25 initiative. We, collectively, have come to believe, what the iconic Black writer, James Baldwin, called “the big lie.” The lie was established from the earliest days of our country’s founding, a critical fault that we, collectively, let become a part of the reality that we created. The lie is that white people matter more. This lie, that white people matter more, is our history, integrally intertwined with who we, collectively and individually. We are all mere cogs in a universal machine that keeps white supremacy unchallenged. We’ve adapted ourselves to the machine because, as has happened so much in the past, if we do not, we’ll be smashed by it, to use Tillich’s metaphor.
Yet resisting that machine is what we are called to do if we truly want to be about dismantling structural racism. Resisting the machine calls for us, collectively and individually, to acknowledge the ‘big lie’ and work to dismantle it, because lives are at stake. James Baldwin, in his book, No Name in the Street said this: “One may see that the history, which is now indivisible from oneself, has been full of errors and excesses; but this is not the same thing as seeing that, for millions of people, this history . . . has been nothing but an intolerable yoke, a stinking prison, a shrieking grave.”
An important New Yorker article just published is The History that James Baldwin Wanted America to See by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr, Distinguished University Professor at Princeton University. He writes about Baldwin’s concern. “If white people in America choose to accept the lie…others would never be free to reject it. And rejecting the lie was, for him, the precondition to progress.”
This is not an easy conclusion to accept. Part and parcel of our collective history is this notion that we are the good guys, we are the redeemer of the world. And, as Glaude puts it, “one of the unique features of American nationalism is how closely interwoven the idea of America is with the identity of the white people who live in it.” Therefore, admitting the lie would make our idea of America irredeemable. So, we have, historically, found comfort and safety in the lie.
Baldwin’s hope was that we, the collective America, would have an honest encounter with our past so that we could aspire to become the people we really want to be. As Glaude puts it, “Baldwin wanted to free us from the shackles of a particular national story, so that we might create ourselves anew. For this to happen, white America needed to shatter the myths that secured its innocence.” Glaude concludes his essay, “true freedom, for all Americans, requires that we tell a better story, a true story, about how we arrived here.” Maybe, just maybe, we can “finally begin again.”
I return to what I said earlier. Just as there was nothing that Jesus said or did that did not have implications for the political culture in which he lived, so we live out our faith in our political culture. I said this a couple of weeks ago: “When we talk about ‘dismantling structural racism’ we need to realize that we have a lot of hard work ahead of us. It is a daunting task we are taking on. But it is probably the most important task we could be doing right now.” So we continue the discussion. Next week we are privileged to have as our invited speaker, Mary Jane Gordon, from Ingleside Presbyterian Church. She will, undoubtedly, help us continue moving forward.
But in the meantime, in our worship today, we continue this work. As we’ve discussed before, structural racism in America is seriously tied to our economic system. So, may we participate together, as Keenan and Mark lead us, in a Litany for Economic Justice. And then a hymn that encourages us be there for each other and for those who are trying to survive in a hurting world.
Can I drop the mic now? Amen.