Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
You might think “fake news” is something new, but it has been around for a long time.
When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1976, he often told the story about a woman who became known as the “Welfare Queen.” Regan talked about a woman from Chicago who drove a Cadillac, didn’t work, didn’t pay taxes, and had 80 names, 30 addresses, and 12 Social Security cards. Under so many aliases, the welfare queen was able to get more than her fair share of food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits. Reagan talked about the welfare queen in just about every small town he visited. And the story struck a nerve.
People quickly began to believe that there wasn’t just one woman, but thousands of women like her cheating the system. The caricature of the “welfare queen” became a powerful metaphor for everything wrong with the social safety net. Pretty soon, everyone took for granted that the welfare system in America was chock full of abuse and corruption. And that belief persists today, shaping how we think about providing safety nets and social services to the least of these among us. Welfare, or any social service, became a symbol of shame.
Psychologists call stories like this narrative scripts. Narrative scripts are stories that we want to hear, stories we like to hear, because they confirm our beliefs and give us permission to keep feeling the way we already feel. Narrative scripts dwell deep within our subconscious, and over time become so comfortable and so familiar, it doesn’t matter anymore if the stories are true. If believing a story about a welfare cheat confirms your feelings about people who receive such benefits, you accept the story without thinking much about it and move on. These scripts exist everywhere, in every human being.
Even if the welfare queen story doesn’t fit your perspective, you have probably accepted another narrative script about something else like the health benefits of dark chocolate or red wine because, let’s face it, you like dark chocolate and red wine. Or maybe you think the greatest problem facing our nation is illegal immigration. Or that immunizations cause autism. Or that it cannot be true that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and there’s been a gigantic cover-up at work for more than 50 years. That’s my husband’s favorite script.
We all have scripts full of biases and prejudices and beliefs. Even when confronted with compelling evidence that says we’re wrong, we cling to our scripts with everything we’ve got. We all do it. Scripts seem to be hard-wired into the human condition.
There are at least two narrative scripts going on in our text from Matthew today. The first script comes courtesy of the Pharisees. Well, not technically from the Pharisees, but from the disciples of the Pharisees. The text doesn’t say why the students are sent to go another round with Jesus. Maybe the senior partners are just plain worn out. The Pharisees had spent the better part of a day playing cat and mouse with Jesus in the temple, and perhaps they are no longer certain who is the mouse and who is the cat. Because the Pharisees knew exactly whom Jesus was pegging as the villains when he tells them a series of parables — the story of the obedient and disobedient brothers, the story of the tenants who did not pay the persistent landowner his due, and the story of the king who threw the wedding banquet for his son, and threw out the underdressed guest.
The Pharisees heard these stories and knew Jesus was talking about them. So they send in their younger students to see if will have better luck in getting Jesus to get with the script.
In the Pharisee’s script, Jesus plays the part of the renegade rabbi, who will alienate his devoted followers by telling them to pay their taxes to the emperor, thus pledging allegiance to Caesar and violating Torah law. If Jesus will just say the words, the Pharisees will finally have Jesus just where they want him. Guilty of being a traitor to the Jewish people.
If the Pharisees are following a religious script, the Herodians are the political players. And we all know what kind of script politicians use to get what they want. Their script directs them to play smooth and cool. Just listen to the language they use: “Teacher, we know 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.” Whew. They sound exactly like Eddie Haskell in “Leave it to Beaver.” “Good morning, Mrs. Cleaver. My, don’t you look lovely today.” We know this script, right? Hypocrisy. Sincere insincerity, the language of experienced politicians.
And of course, the Herodians are using the same lines with Jesus that they have used to get along with the Romans. It’s the only script they know. “Good morning, Caesar, you are looking especially god-like today.” Jesus knows exactly what the Herodians are up to. In their script, Jesus will reveal himself as a traitor to the state by saying Jews shouldn’t pay taxes to Caesar. Guilty of supporting insurrection against the emperor.
But Jesus, of course, is playing by entirely different script. It’s the same script he’s been working from all along. Jesus is always following the same well-worn script, a script written before the beginning of time. A script in which the whole law, and the very meaning of our lives, is distilled into something so simple and straightforward that the Pharisees’ flunkies couldn’t grasp it, and Herod’s fawning followers couldn’t see it. Four words that flummoxed the religious and political leaders of Jesus’ time, and still give us fits today. Love God. Love neighbor. Nothing else matters as much, so much, to Jesus as God’s simple little script for God’s kingdom. A heavenly kingdom that hangs together on those four small words. Love God. Love neighbor.
Jesus doesn’t just play a part. Jesus doesn’t parrot stale religious dogma like the Pharisees, and Jesus never bothers to flatter powerful politicians like the Herodians. Jesus embodies God’s script in everything he does and says. Everywhere we see Jesus in the Gospels, he is acting out of a love that is deliberate, compassionate, and, I think, in this story, very perceptive. Perceptive enough to see that the Pharisees and Herodians are only interested in receiving an answer that confirms what they already believe about him, none of which has anything to do with who Jesus really is.
Jesus doesn’t answer the question about taxes for the Pharisees and the Herodians, not really. So it is left to them to decide what Jesus meant. It is also left for us to decide what Jesus means when he says, “Give therefore to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and to God what is God’s.” We have to make a decision on how that statement fits with our script. What kind of God, which Spirit, what world view, what script do you choose to inhabit? Whose script do you want to follow? Caesar? Jesus? Or maybe a better question is whose script do we think we are following?
We have a choice in scripts, you know. They are all around us. Everybody has one. But in our time, as in Jesus’ time, there are some meta-scripts, some dominant narratives that tend to have far more influence on us than something as simple as “Love God. Love Neighbor.”
I would argue that for us, in this country, at this time, the meta script is the economic system we inhabit, whether we are working or retired or somewhere in between. And everyone has a role to play. Let me set the scene. The market itself is god. And our role, my friends, is to serve this god. Our most sacred spiritual practice is consumption. Questioning the wisdom of markets with their “invisible hand” is heresy. Evangelism is a core component of market spirituality, but it’s not the kind of evangelism we talk about in church. The evangelism in this script is the endless barrage of advertising we endure each day, the subtle and not-so-subtle messages that promise salvation by the grace of profit. I think, for us in our time, the market has become the modern equivalent of Caesar – the meta-script of the god who requires everything of us, but, like Caesar, cares nothing for us beyond the denarius we generate and spend and render when he reaches out his big, greedy, not-so-invisible hand. The message is unmistakable. Pay up, or you will be crushed.
But our Christian theology tells us that the market was meant to serve humanity and all of creation, not the other way around. And when that order gets flipped, when human beings are serving the market, and creation has no value other than as a resource for the market, you can be pretty certain that Caesar is calling the shots. And you realize that you are no longer following God’s script, but serving as a bit player in someone else’s show.
So what does it takes for a person to change his mind and maybe, just maybe, try out a new script?
I heard a story a couple years ago told by Tom Long, a great Presbyterian preacher and teacher. It’s a story that’s been haunting me for years. And now I’m going to tell it because I want it to haunt you.
Tom was teaching a class on preaching one day, and they had reached a section of the course called, “Preaching Difficult Bible Texts.” Now anybody can preach, “Faith, hope, and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” But there are some more difficult texts in the Bible. And on one particular afternoon, Tom decided the preaching class would look at an Old Testament law. Not the Ten Commandments. That’s too easy. Tom decided they would look at one of the little laws from the 22nd chapter of Exodus, verse 25:
“If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall the person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”
How do you preach against pawn brokering?
Tom and the class looked and looked at this little law. And they suddenly realized that the little law is really a dialogue. A script! The scene begins with the voice of God saying, “If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn…”
Notice what that opening phrase does. It sets the scene and puts you in the middle of ordinary economic discourse. You have taken something of value from your neighbor. You are standing in the lobby of the Chase Manhattan bank and you have taken your neighbor’s coat, you have taken the deed to your neighbor’s home as collateral, you have taken your neighbor’s Visa card.
And the voice of God says, “If you have taken your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down.”
To which you may very well say, “Are you kidding me? That’s not the way collateral works. You don’t give it back until the loan is repaid.”
To which the voice of God replies, “It may be your neighbor’s only clothing.”
And you say, “Exactly! That’s why it works as collateral.”
God replies, “In what else shall your neighbor sleep?”
To which you ought to say, “Not my problem!”
And the voice of God replies, “Then I’m gonna make it my problem. For if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen. For I am a compassionate God.” In several deft strokes, this script from Exodus transports us from the lobby of the Chase Manhattan Bank to the presence of a compassionate, justice-seeking God. And there we stand before our Creator. Clutching our neighbor’s only coat. Firmly standing on the side of Caesar. Ouch.
When Tom Long got home from his preaching class that afternoon, there was a letter from J.C.Penny Credit Corporation sitting on the mail table. This was back when Congress was considering tightening up credit card restrictions, and the credit companies were scrambling to get ahead of the legislation. So he thought that he better read the letter from J.C. Penny. He opened it and sure enough, it was two pages of tightly condensed legal language, but the bottom line was that because he was such a good customer, J.C. Penney was raising the interest rate on his credit card to 34%.
At first he was going to throw the letter away. He didn’t buy much from J.C. Penney, and if he did put something on the credit card, he paid the bill in full every month. He was about to throw it away, and then he thought to himself, “If there ever was a case of taking your neighbor’s coat in pawn, this is it. I can’t do much about it, but I don’t have to be complicit in it.”
So Tom Long called J.C. Penney credit and said, “I’d like to cancel my credit card.” The lady who took his call said, “We’re sorry to lose you as a customer, sir, but I can help you with that.” She took down the information, and then she said, “In order that we may provide better customer service to others, would you be willing to share why you are cancelling your credit card?” And he said, “Certainly. I believe you are in violation of the Book of Exodus.”
To which the customer service representative replied, “Say what?”
And this is what he said to her, “Look, I’m not trying to be coy. But I believe that the Bible shows us a God who has compassion for people who are trapped in economic circumstances. And I’m not thinking about myself. You can take a look at my account; I pay my bill in full every month. I’m thinking about the single mom who goes into one of your stores because her kids need school clothes. And she can’t afford it so she puts the school clothes on her Penney’s card and you’re charging her 34%. 34%. She’ll never get out from under that. You’re making her an economic slave.” And the customer service representative said, “Sir, you have to understand the high cost of doing business in an economic climate like this.” And Long said, “I understand all that. But let me ask you something. What do you think God thinks about charging that single mom 34% interest?”
The voice of the woman on the other end of the phone got quiet. And soft. She said, “Ohhhh. Yeah.” And then it got hard again, “Sir, if you ever would like to reapply for a Penney’s card, please feel free to call us.”
But in that small moment, Tom Long and the Penney’s lady had seen it. They had both seen it. They saw the injustice of a script that makes prisoners out of single moms, just as certainly as Caesar’s taxes turned 1st century Palestinian farmers into slaves of the Roman Empire. They had seen it.
And Jesus saw it when the guy pulled out a coin bearing the image of the man who said he was god.
When Jesus took that coin bearing the image of Caesar and held it in his hand, he held it out to you and to me. And Jesus holds out a powerful possibility. The possibility of a different script.
A script where God’s justice rolls down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream, and single moms don’t have to become slaves to take care of their children.
Once you’ve caught a glimpse of that script, you don’t rest easy. You can’t. You can’t.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Story adapted from Tom Long, Festival of Homiletics lecture, Minneapolis. May 2011