I remember, nearly a decade ago, watching a video on YouTube. In the video, the hosts of the show, consistent with their political leanings, filmed their infiltration of an environmentalist rally. There, they spoke with attendees and asked for signatures on their petition to ban a purportedly dangerous chemical. This chemical was largely unregulated, had been detected in our water supply along with countless food items, and could cause death within minutes if inhaled in sufficient quantities. The chemical in question was described with the scary-sounding name, “dihydrogen monoxide.” You might know it better by its chemical formula: H2O. Largely unregulated, in our food and water, it can cause death if inhaled in sufficient quantities, it was water.
Given the deliberately fearful and deceptive framing of the issue, many people were caught on camera signing a petition to ban water. The point of the exercise was, ostensibly, to show viewers how fear-mongering campaigns can lead us to embrace unnecessary and absurd views without even realizing it, a noble goal. But not really. That wasn’t the real goal. The real goal was to put the hosts’ political opponents in a publicly silly position, so that they could come back to their already-convinced viewers and joke about how dumb those other people looked. It was framed as meaningful political experimentation, but it was just entertainment, just an in-group shoring up their own identity by mocking an out-group.
This behavior is common in our own political landscape. The online right seems to hold “owning the libs” as its singular core value, and this approach of getting-our-opponents-to-say-dumb-things-on-film has been a hallmark of left-leaning programs past and present, like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. It’s common. And I get why. It’s funny! It’s fun! It’s fun to joke around with people you agree with about how you’re right and others are wrong. It’s fun to come up with ways to make our opponents say things that confirm our biases that they’re stupid and clearly haven’t thought things through. It’s fun to share a sense of meaningful identity with our peers, and agreeing that we get it while other people don’t is a really effective shortcut to feeling like we have meaningful identity.
I was reminded of this phenomenon by today’s Gospel reading because that’s basically what happens. Jesus offends some of the priestly class in Jerusalem, so they send to him Pharisees and Herodians to try to entrap him, asking about the propriety of paying taxes to the emperor. Now, there are a number of ways this could have unfolded. If Jesus had said not to pay taxes that would have put him in explicit rebellion against the empire, which may have led to his death. Maybe that’s what the priests of Jerusalem were hoping for, but it wasn’t very likely. He simply hadn’t been teaching revolt against the political authorities; why would he start now? Or, maybe Jesus would encourage people to pay their taxes, invoking the wrath of the crowd. Maybe, but Jesus had faced wrathful crowds before, and that hadn’t prevented him from doing his thing.
What I’m saying is that, if the priests had a calculated political strategy here, something meant to really bring about a change in the situation, it doesn’t seem all that well thought-out. So, maybe they didn’t. Maybe they acted like we see so often today. Maybe they could conjure up those reasons, those potential outcomes, as ways to justify their plan as practical and effective, but were more motivated by the sheer irresistible fun of seeing an opponent duped in public.
I think this story is really instructive in how to understand and deal with political and social division. Jesus is described as “sensing their malice” and so responds accordingly. He doesn’t entertain the idea that these are people who are being honest. He doesn’t play dumb. He doesn’t even take the question all that seriously; his answer of giving to God what is God’s and giving to the emperor what is the emperor’s, is somewhat cryptic and confusing, and can be interpreted in a number of ways. But his approach is really helpful, because I think it’s a good example for us. Jesus repeatedly finds time to interact with people who have genuine disagreements with him, or who genuinely find his teachings confusing. It’s when he senses that people are not open to the truth, that people are not open to changing in any meaningful way, that Jesus gets more testy, more dismissive, as he is here.
Jesus has a lot to say about the Pharisees, and it’s often harsh, to the point where sometimes we can begin to feel a bit bad for them. But Jesus, and his followers, are generally willing to admit and appeal to a closer sort of spiritual, social affinity with the Pharisees than with other groups that existed at the time. It is the Pharisees and the Christians who believe in the resurrection of the dead, not the Sadducees. The Pharisees and the Christians are the groups that straddle the fine line between rebellion and complicity with the empire, unlike the Sadducees or the militant rebel groups like the Sicarii. It is the Pharisees and Christians that emphasize the necessity of personal devotion as well as the ability of people in a variety of places and circumstances to offer that devotion, unlike really any other major Jewish groups at the time. And I think it’s for this reason that so many of Jesus’s early followers and sympathizers started out in the camp of the Pharisees: Gamaliel was a sympathizer, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were secret converts, Paul was a very not-secret convert, and even Mary Magdalene, based on twentieth century archaeological work in the town of Magdala, might have been a follower of the Pharisees before encountering Jesus. This is the picture of two groups who fiercely disagree, and usually have the capacity to seriously enter into that fierce disagreement without severing all ties to one another, without caricaturing the other as a farce. This doesn’t require a mushy, lukewarm centrism, an attempt to minimize real difference at the expense of the truth. That’s not any Christ I know. It requires love, desiring the good of the other.
A fractious political environment, with lots of different groups vying for power and influence, might seem rather familiar to you. It does to me. And what we have in this Gospel story is a little vignette of the complexity of that situation. Many people are wondering how bonds of family, friendship, and community can be maintained across these divides. One answer, in this story, is that sometimes they can’t. But we increase the likelihood of those bonds being severed, of relationships being dismissed, if we don’t do the inner work of making sure our intentions are honest. If we fall into the trap of primarily thinking about our opponents as people to be overcome, obstacles on our own path who we can treat with disdain and mockery as long as they’re not in earshot—and sometimes when they are—they will dismiss us outright, and in doing so, they’re right. Similarly, Jesus’s example here is that, when it’s obvious to us that someone is approaching with malice and dishonesty rather than open disagreement, we’re right to dismiss them. Don’t cast your pearls before swine; don’t feed the trolls.
Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. When people, us or them, enter into these difficult conversations with malice in their hearts, they have chosen who they belong to: the powers of this world, the things passing away, the emperor. Like a face stamped into a silver coin, malice offers worldly riches at the expense of our living, breathing humanity, cold metal in place of warm flesh and blood. Mockery and objectification lie down this path. But when people, us or them, enter into these difficult conversations with honest love, able to deeply disagree and be disagreed with without questioning the human dignity of the other, they have chosen who they belong to: love, reconciliation, God. If we are to be followers of God, we must do the hard work of giving ourselves to the God of life and love. If others approach us in this way, we must be prepared to commend them to their Father in heaven. Maybe they’re disastrously wrong. God loves them. Maybe we’re disastrously wrong. God loves us. Eternity has no room for error, and at the end of it all, the truth will burn brightly enough for all to see and no one to deny. Meanwhile, the truth of God’s love is enough.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Year A, Proper 24
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