Thoughts on the Gospel reading for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost:
In this strange story, we find Jesus being approached by Jewish representatives of two opposing ideological camps who are working together to trip him up: the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. The pairing of these two groups is rather odd; while the Pharisees were a religious sect who opposed Roman imperialism (they were a religious class "for the people," truly the religious Tea Party of their day), the Herodians were a political movement of Jews who were supportive of Herod Antipas and the legacy of his father, Herod the Great, and were very likely supporters of the Roman occupation.
Faced by these opposing views, the question is asked of Jesus: "Do we pay taxes to the Empire, or don't we?"
If he says, "Yes, pay those taxes," he is supporting the Herodians and their enthusiasm for the political power of the Empire, suggesting that Jesus himself is more Roman than Jew; if he says "No, don't pay the taxes," he is liable to be arrested, or worse, executed as an insurrectionist and all-around rabble rouser.
The writer of Matthew is very interested in the relationship between the power of the Kingdom of Heaven and the power of earthly authority, especially when it comes to money.
Just a few chapters earlier, Jesus and his disciples are approached by the collectors of the Temple didrachma tax, asking if the Teacher "pays his dues" to the established religious order. Jesus suggests to Peter that children of the Heavenly Father should be exempt from paying such a tax, but—so as not to offend—he sends Peter to catch a fish, and in the fish's mouth is a stater coin (a tetradrachm, or four-drachma), which serves to pay the Temple tax for both Jesus and Peter. Strangely enough, the demands of the human institution are satisfied by nature's provision.
The miracle of the fish exposes the triviality of the entire Temple tax system.
In both stories, Jesus is actually somewhat flippant, in a way that recalls his answer to Peter's question about "the disciple whom Jesus loved" at the end of the Gospel of John:
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’—John 21:20-22
In a dualistic world, Jesus is a perpetual proponent of the "third way." Jesus almost always answers with a non-answer to show that the issues which seem most pressing to us, in an eternal sense, are really non-issues. We betray our own humanity by consistently asking precisely the wrong questions.
"What about him?" we ask. "What about him?" Jesus answers.
So what is it that serves to "tax" you?
Jesus, do we pay taxes or not?
Jesus, do we support gay marriage or not?
Jesus, do we vote Democrat or Republican?
Jesus, do we support our five wars or not?
Jesus, do we shop at Wal Mart or not?
Jesus's response reminds us that the answer is both strikingly simple yet intimately complex:
"Don't bother me with trivialities. As for you, you follow me."
The Kingdom has bigger fish to fry.