Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
In 1982, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan introduced the world to the Kobayashi Maru scenario, a training exercise designed for cadets at the Starfleet Academy. In the simulation, a disabled civilian ship, the Kobayashi Maru, is stranded near the Klingon neutral zone (Klingons are the bad guys in Star Trek). The cadet has to decide whether to rescue the ship and risk a confrontation with the Klingon Empire or respect the fragile peace between the Klingons and the Federation and let the crew of the Kobayashi Maru perish in deep space. Now, for those of you who are not Star Trek fans, the only really important thing to know is that the Kobayashi Maru is explicitly designed to be a no-win scenario; it’s meant to assess a cadet’s discipline and character when facing an impossible situation. There is, however, one cadet who successfully completed the Kobayashi Maru scenario. If you know anything about Star Trek, you won’t be surprised to discover that it was James T. Kirk, the maverick captain of the starship Enterprise and protagonist of the original series. He reprogrammed the computer so it would be possible to beat the simulation. Though he technically cheated, Kirk defended himself by claiming he didn’t believe in no-win situations.
In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus also refuses to accept a no-win situation. The passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel has a deceptively straightforward quality, but there is great subtlety and depth in this interaction between Jesus and Pharisees. To begin with, the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor was far from a frivolous concern. In fact, this issue cut to the very heart of the religious and political assumptions of first-century Judaism. The religious authorities noted that paying taxes to the emperor violated at least two of the ten commandments: it not only required taxpayers to make use of a graven image, it also forced them to give homage to the emperor, who considered himself a god. Under the Law of Moses, in other words, paying taxes was tantamount to idolatry. Moreover, the Roman Empire was hated by the Jewish populace. Paying taxes was seen by some revolutionary zealots as a tacit endorsement of a brutal occupying power. At the same time, the only thing that prevented the Romans from bringing ruin down upon Jerusalem and the rest of Judea was the fact that the people paid the tribute required of them. The question that is brought to Jesus, in other words, was the Kobayashi Maru of first century Judaism: paying taxes represented a complicated ethical dilemma, one that could stymie even the sharpest intellect.
In response to this Gordian knot of religious and political nuance, Jesus does not offer a carefully worded opinion. Instead, he challenges the very premise of the question. He does this by saying that the Pharisees and their allies are hypocrites. This is not terribly surprising. Jesus calls people hypocrites a lot in Matthew’s gospel. In fact, Matthew uses the word more than any of the other New Testament writers combined. Calling someone a hypocrite is a powerful indictment, in part because it entails minimal risk. Accusing someone of hypocrisy doesn’t require us to share their moral vision or even to have a particular moral vision. All it needs is a vague belief that people ought to act in accordance with their own stated moral principles. We can remove ourselves from the equation and claim that we are blameless, even as we accuse others of failing to live up to the values they champion.
Jesus turns the definition of hypocrisy on its head. For Jesus, hypocrisy is not failing to live up to our own moral standards; true hypocrisy is allowing ourselves to be defined by human standards in the first place. The reason that Jesus does not provide a carefully worded answer to the question of the religious authorities is that he completely rejects the terms of the debate. For him, asking if paying taxes to the emperor violated the Jewish Law ascribed to the emperor authority that properly belonged to God. Indeed, Jesus could have put his position in this way: “Caesar isn’t God; why are you treating him like he is? Why are you giving him power over you that he does not have?” The instruction to give to the emperor the things that are the emperors is actually a way of dismissing the emperor’s power altogether. As far as Jesus is concerned, the emperor has mistakenly chosen to honor his own flawed humanity and earthly power. Jesus challenges us to give to God the things that are God’s: to honor the image of God in ourselves and others. For Jesus, we are hypocrites when we forget who we are; when we fail to remember that, despite our flawed humanity, we bear the image of God, something no human being or earthly power can take away from us.
Last Sunday, the actress Alyssa Milano posted the following on social media: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Millions of people took this suggestion. It felt like every woman I knew posted #MeToo. Some shared wrenching stories of abuse, while others left the two words as a concise testament to the ways they had been made to feel worthless. The more #MeToos I read, the more I began to consider the ways I had been complicit in these stories of harassment and assault. To be honest, my initial, visceral reaction was to wonder how many of these were overreactions or misunderstandings. This response, however, represents the same hypocrisy displayed by the religious authorities in their interaction with Jesus: the hypocrisy of ascribing transcendent value to human standards: standards like “everybody does it” or “that’s just so and so being so and so.” Indeed, the whole #MeToo movement exposed our hypocritical failure to honor the image of God in ourselves and others. Our faith calls us to give to God the things that are God’s: to honor those who bear the image of God by acknowledging their pain and refusing to make excuses for those who have taken advantage of them. At the same time, honoring the image of God requires us to hope for the possibility of redemption: to acknowledge that through Jesus Christ, God has wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature. Our faith invites us to recognize that even when our sin or the sin of others prevents us from remembering it, we continue to bear the image of God. The ultimate message of the gospel is this: even when confronted with abusive forces that try to convince us that we are worthless, we must not forget who we are and whose we are.