If we are to have a hope of proclaiming not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit, we shall begin by activating our receptivity to the spirit of worship. Remember that when Moses wanted God to add support to his leadership and make his people distinct from all others, God responded, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” We each have within our minds, the presence of God, the kingdom within, helping us to hear these verses from Psalm 96.
O sing to the Lord a new song. . . . Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength . . . . Worship the Lord in holy splendor. . . . He will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord . . . . He will judge the world with righteousness; and the peoples with his truth. (NRSV)
Today I’m going to talk about righteousness and equity, so let’s start with some definitions. Righteousness means saying YES to God with our entire being, having the supreme desire to do the will of God—to be like God. And equity is wise judgment that applies principles of justice in the light of a seasoned sense of proportion, in the light of all relevant facts.
Now we are ready for the story of how Jesus handles the dilemma about paying taxes to Caesar.
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “So give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. [NRSV, substituting “Caesar” for “the emperor.”]
Now this dialogue takes place during the last week of Jesus life. It is time for the Good Shepherd to confront his enemies, to protect his followers and give still more opportunities for others to see the truth, as he takes on all the intellectual and physical challenges his enemies can muster, and to respond in ways that show the superiority of the truth that he is.
Jesus has been effective in his temple teaching, so the Pharisees send some of their disciples out to trap Jesus with the trick question about paying taxes to Caesar. The dilemma for Jesus is this. If he says yes, the people who have been supportive of him will not like it, because they intensely resent paying taxes to the emperor. If he says no, the religious leaders will be able to go to Pilate claiming that Jesus is inciting rebellion, which would jeopardize the flow of grain to Rome, which in turn could starve the slaves and make them revolt, too.
Jesus’ response to the dilemma is a masterpiece of equity, a quality of righteousness in its beautiful wholeness. First of all, righteous judgment has insight into deceit, and is fully capable of calling hypocrisy by its name. The spokesperson for Jesus’ questioners gives judicious praise, but not fully sincere praise, for Jesus’ truthfulness and fairness. As this story is told in Mark and Luke, Jesus does not call them hypocrites, but proceeds directly to ask for the coin. But if he did challenge them as we read in Matthew, it would not have been but not in an attitude of self-righteous anger. He reaches out to them with brotherly love and fatherly love in a way that can wake them up to what they are doing, so that they can see the truth, and turn, and live.
The next stage of Jesus’ interaction with his questioners is to secure their cooperation. He asks for the coin used to pay taxes to Caesar, and they produce a denarius, worth about $2.50-3.00.
Then Jesus gives a reply that is not evasive but shows the equity of the peacemaker, shows the possibility of that transforms the either/or dilemma into a both-and answer. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
Now in Jerusalem at this time were Jews from all over the Mediterranean world and beyond. They were very familiar with the problem of living under rulers who taxed the people, and they had no reputation as tax resisters. They knew that paying taxes was a survival tactic. They cannot fault Jesus on this part of his answer.
Now what belongs to God is worship. Beginning with Julius Caesar, the emperors demanded that their subjects should worship them. Jesus empowers their resistance to any such demand. If the demand to worship Caesar were to be pressed upon the Jews, they should refuse, worship God alone, and face whatever the consequences might be.
Jesus’ mind, illuminated by worship, was liberated from mere anger. So he could treat these questioners with the beautiful wholeness of righteousness, graciously, intelligently, and in a way that has them walk away not angry but silent and amazed.
Jesus had warned about anger in the Sermon on the Mount. In that context he spoke of the man who looks at another woman for the purpose of pleasuring (as the Greek word may be literally translated). But this kind of lustful looking is the inner equivalent of the deed itself, adultery. Similarly, Jesus went beyond the commandment prohibiting murder. By implication, he unmasked anger as the seed of murder.
Now psychology today has become divided about anger. Many people feel good when they get angry and get their way more easily. Social psychologist Aaron Sell of Griffiths University in Australia and his colleagues at the University of California Santa Barbara Center for Evolutionary Psychology have published research designed to explain why anger evolved, and what purposes it serves that have proved beneficial. It mobilizes a person’s energies to get involved, rather than withdrawing from an unpleasant situation. It can cause others to treat us more carefully and move us toward our goals. [https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201403/go-forth-in-anger March 11, 2014 by Joann Ellison Rodgers] Anger is a way of getting what we want, and some academics defend it for its evolutionary benefits.
Jesus demonstrated the alternative. It is possible to get the benefits of anger without allowing anger to develop in ourselves. In every unbeautiful emotion there are energies of spirit, mind, and body. These energies are seeking expression, and we can redirect those energies. Anger tends toward violence. Righteous indignation abides in justice and stays in relationship. And positive emotion opens the person to a broad range of alternatives that can come into play.
Psychologists have said that anger, if it is wielded responsibly, thwarts aggression. [https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201403/go-forth-in-anger March 11, 2014 by Joann Ellison Rodgers] This raises the question of whether what the psychologists are sometimes studying is not simply anger but a greater or lesser degree of genuinely righteous indignation. Psychology is not generally prepared even to consider the question of a possible mixture of spiritual motivation along with material emotion, but we can ask that question, and we can seek to grow in a way that increasing replaces anger by spiritual righteousness.
Another angle of research on anger is illustrated by the work of Dmitry Smagin and his colleagues in Russia and the United States. They did an experiment on mice that is briefly summarized in these words. “Researchers studied changes in brains of mice with aggressive behaviour. After winning a fight, mice became angrier and new neurons appeared. Activity in these new nerve cells was seen with the continuation of aggressive behaviour in an experiment involving male mice, which became increasingly angry. This suggests that the act of getting angry makes us angrier and the cycle continues.” [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3433491/How-anger-changes-BRAIN-Aggression-causes-new-nerve-cells-grow-trigger-rage-future.html Feb 5, 2016 by Sarah Griffiths]
This latter research is not only supportive of Jesus’ warning on anger. It is also sheds light on the divisive antagonism that is such a problem in our society today.
In conclusion, a few more not quite random thoughts binding psalm and gospel, evolution and destiny.
First, evolution makes certain behaviors necessary for animals and also necessary for stages in the evolution of human society. But there comes a time when those behaviors become counterproductive. Today, if civilization is to survive, we need a major influx of worship and wisdom. We need to rebuild civilization on the teachings of Jesus. We need to discover the beautiful wholeness of righteousness.
Second, the roaring of the sea is celebrated in Psalm 96 as a magnificent expression of the Creator’s power manifest in the creation. But the roaring of neurons in the brain is not only a natural phenomenon with its evolutionary functions. It can also be a failure of self-mastery.
Third, God promised to give Moses rest. And we can also turn to Jesus for rest. As he said, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” When we are rested, we are less likely to get angry, more likely to be able to love the Creator and our fellow siblings during this time of trial on our planet.
Fourth, consider the image of the trees of the forest singing for joy. Modern analysis considers this to be an imaginative projection of human feelings onto nature that has no such feelings. But look again. Is there not an expressiveness in nature? And is it not possible that the Creator expresses himself through the moods of nature?
And last, may it not be that Jesus, the Son one with the Father, intimately knows the feelings of the Creator, so that Jesus can understand the roaring of human emotion and how the brain supports joyful singing in those who worship in spirit and in truth? And may it not be that Jesus knows the end from the beginning, the process of cosmic and planetary evolution from its origin to its destiny, and that he is leading us even now to follow him through every trial toward the time when our prayer will be fully answered? Your kingdom come—your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.