Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey continues her reflections on God, money, politics and good faith.
The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said. They sent their disciples to Jesus, together with some Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you. Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ (Matthew 22:15-16).
Today we’ll continue our lectio reflection on Matthew 22:15-22. If you weren’t here yesterday, I recommend that you scroll back and see what we were thinking about. Today, I’d like us to use our imagination, and try to picture the group Jesus is talking to. These disciples of the Pharisees: what are they like? We need first to acknowledge that they are not the finished product, they are still in training, still students of the Pharisees; they will probably be young men, therefore. This suggests that some of them will still be impressionable, idealistic, and sincerely seeking the truth. As is the case in any group of people, they will not all be made of the same stuff and won’t all have identical mind-sets. Many – even most – will have been completely prejudiced against Jesus by the Pharisees. But some, surely, would be young men with more independence of mind and character. Despite the Pharisees’ attempts to brain-wash them, the young men of this stamp will have retained some willingness to listen to Jesus, and to test not Jesus so much as the Pharisees’ idea of Jesus. They will want to find out for themselves if Jesus really is the strange villain he has been made out to be. You might say that this sub-group within the larger group is ‘on the fence.’
Now, imagine yourself a member of this sub-group. You do not know Jesus first-hand. You don’t quite know what you think of him yet. This is the first time you have even seen Jesus and dealt with him, but you are a little ashamed of the way some of your peers are behaving toward Jesus.
So you try to study Jesus, physically, to see what story his body may tell. Jesus is broad-shouldered and lean. You know he had been a carpenter before. His muscular body shows that he’s no stranger to hard physical labour. Jesus’ face is arresting in the energy it seems to radiate. His colour is high, but his deep-set dark eyes look tired – although they are clear, and they seem to take everything in. He scans the little group of young men now. Is there even one pair of eyes willing to make sympathetic eye-contact with Jesus, you wonder? The Herodians are a lost cause: not one of them will meet Jesus’ gaze. Some of your peers meet his eye with a hard, belligerent stare, particularly the speaker. You’ve seen that look on the face of your fifteen year old cousin when his father tells him something he doesn’t want to hear. Others fold their arms over their chest and, after a brief glance at Jesus, pretend that there is something interesting on the ground to look at.
What do you do? You are struck by Jesus’ posture. It is open. It is vulnerable, yet strong. There is no evasiveness in him – nor any aggression. He is fully present. You can’t help it: you are impressed by Jesus. You sense his goodness, intelligence and integrity. This is no charlatan. But there is something in him you can’t quite understand. A sort of longing. And an indescribable sadness. You meet his gaze. You want to know what he will do next and you find that you are on his side.
Jesus seems to understand you – or you deeply hope he does. You feel a connection with him. He has been silent for several long moments. He is not rushing this. And, surprisingly, no one interrupts this silence. This is unusual; the cut and thrust of debate is what this little group of men loves. Usually, silence in their opponent is interpreted as a win for their side. But no one regards this silence as a win. This Jesus has an uncanny ability to hold a group’s attention. At last he says something odd to the speaker: ‘Show me the money you pay the tax with.’ Now it’s the speaker’s turn to try to hold the crowd’s attention. He decides he’ll take his time, too. He doesn’t react at first. Then he wags his head slightly in mockery, narrows his eyes, smirks, glances to the side, but otherwise doesn’t move. The crowd, though, isn’t with him, and he suddenly realises this. Someone makes an impatient noise from the back, and pushes forward to show Jesus a denarius. That someone is you.
You hold out the coin in your open palm. You feel strangely emotional. Jesus is looking around at all of them again, but he is soon looking straight at you, and says: ‘Whose portrait is this? Whose title?’ Of course, it is Caesar’s. You don’t answer aloud but you continue to look at Jesus, who is now looking at the crowd again. Someone shouts out the obvious answer. Jesus slowly shrugs a bit and says in an off-hand way, ‘Then give to Caesar what belongs to him.’ And here he pauses and looks you fully in the face once more. Your eyes are streaming now. You feel as though he knows you, your past, your present, your hurt, your deep desire for meaning and love. The group is completely silent behind you. No one even moves. Jesus speaks quietly: ‘…and give God what belongs to God.’ He takes your hand that is still stretched out with the coin in it, gently rolls the fingers around the coin, and gives it a firm clasp with both his hands. Then he disengages.
The stunned crowd quietly leaves Jesus. You stay behind. What has just happened to you?