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Oct 22, 2017

It's a Trap!

It's a Trap!

Passage: Matthew 22:15-22

Speaker: Father Will Lowry

Series: All

Category: All

Most everyone outside of his family and friends knew Erik Bauersfeld not as a Brooklyn-born voice actor who led what was surely a full and vibrant life, but rather as a panicked catfish in an all-white space garment.

In April of 2016 Bauersfeld died at the age of 93, and with him the voice—but not the face—behind one of the most memorable lines in Star Wars history.

Admiral Ackbar doesn't get a lot of screen time in Return of the Jedi, the only original-trilogy film in which he appeared. And frankly, he looks weird. He's basically a catfish, but a catfish in a position of power, which makes his presence even funnier. Ackbar's enduring legacy, and the reason he has lived on in the hearts of Star Wars fans for decades, is one three-word exclamation: “It’s a trap!”

And I’m sure had Bauersfeld or Admiral Ackbar been present at the scene between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians he would have belted out that same three-word line.

If you haven’t got the picture yet, this is a showdown between the Pharisees and the Herodians and Jesus. And the Pharisees and Herodians have plainly colluded to entrap Jesus. They are trying to get Him to say something that result in Jesus incriminating himself to either the religious authorities or the Roman Government. And their strategy is a good one.

The Pharisees and Herodians use a coin to try and draw Jesus out - to make him been seen as a political partisan where they can peg him as either a collaborator or seditionist. But, Jesus subtly transfigures the challenge to a theological question that reveals something about them - and if we are honest about us, too.

“What does a coin tell us about who we are?”

If any of you have a bill in your pocket pull it out. Share with your neighbors, too. Look at the front, notice whose picture is on the front. Now, flip it over. What stands out to you?

In the center of the bill - in a place of prominence it says, “In God We Trust”. Curious, isn’t it?

Now, look at the pyramid on the left. Above the pyramid is the Latin phrase “Annuit Coeptis” and below the pyramid is the Latin phrase “Novus Ordo Seclorum”. 

We’re going to focus on the first phrase. The Latin word “annuit" literally means to nod or approve. And the word Coeptis is a from the verb “coepi" which means “began." Taken together, the phrase “annuit coeptis" may be appropriately translated as “He approves [of our] undertakings." The “He" in the translation refers to God and implies that God Himself has approved of the deeds and actions of the United States in forming a new union.

All of this said, in these United States, the coins in our own pockets make a more moderate theological statement than the coin handed to Jesus. “In God We Trust” is certainly a way of claiming our highest aspirations - for our selves and the country, cities, and towns in which we live. And also for ourselves - the best side of our human nature. But it also draws us to regard our feelings about our own civic creeds and to regard the same ideas and beliefs about freedom of religion.

(Okay, we're done with your money, but don’t put it away; you’re all going to put all of those dollars into the collection plate, right?)

Perhaps these words on our “coins” are as Richard E. Spalding says, “sober and timely reminders of the fallibility of even gigantic institutions that lie with ‘full faith and credit’ behind our currency.”

The inscription on the denarius Jesus’ opponents handed him was not nearly as ambiguous and was much more openly offensive than “In God We Trust” or “Annuit Coeptis”. The inscription on that coin read: “Tiberius Caesar, August and divine son of Augustus, high priest”. Words that to Jesus and any Hebrew would have bled with oppression and blasphemy.

With this coin, those confronting Jesus knew that they had spectacularly cornered him. They had given him a political question that could not be side stepped. They had Him.

We all know that if Jesus said it was lawful to pay the tax, he would then be siding with the Roman occupying authorities while maligning/scandalizing himself with the religious establishment - whose support was his protection against being arrested.

In contrast if he ruled the opposite, that it was sacrilegious to even carry such a coin - one bearing an image or icon of a false god - he would bolster his standing in a sector of the religious community but indeed be seen as a seditionist.

What could Jesus do?

Jesus skillfully opens the question up so that it has little to do with politics - and closes the door on any chance of an arrest.

“Everyone must decide”, he says. Though he never has to verbalize the question, he asks it still. “What bears God’s image?” “What belongs to whom?”

I’m betting this is not the answer the Pharisees, the Herodians, or we want to hear. Rather we would like Jesus to wrap it up and put a bow around it - to place the two sides as parallel duties that can be accomplished simultaneously - so that we can preserve our good standing as citizens of both earthly and heavenly kingdoms. Surely there is a place for everything and everything has its place, right?

But, Jesus is not about tidying things up like that. He doesn't give us the parallels we hope for. Caesar can stamp his image and pedigree far and wide, but he cannot come close to He who gives us life - the One in whom “we move and live and have our being”.

So, Caesar can have the the majority of the coins, and be flattered by what a great picture it is of himself - he can have that cold hard cash. But Jesus - God wants what is made in God’s own image - what God has given life to and given life for.

What is rendered to God is whatever bears God’s divine image. Each of our lives is marked with that image at our conception and at our Baptisms again. We come from source and return to it just as we came.

We all have a fine line to walk in navigating the various kinds of commerce that fill our days. And, at best, most of us are collaborators some of the time and subversives some of the time. Perhaps there is comfort that Jesus does not make this conundrum into a simple choice. It is only simple if we regard Caesar as God or the devil. Instead, we bear God’s image - as the palm of God’s hand bears ours.

It is true that sometimes that image is hard to recognize, when we look at each other and in the mirror. Because we tend to see the inscriptions that our business with the world has placed on us - valued us with. But we are not what we look like on the outside, what we wear, what we have, what we do, or the company we keep.

What we are is found in the mark of the watery cross on our foreheads, the life given us, and that kiss of light gleaming from our eyes. Each of us connected by the same Creator - so that when we look at all of those faces around us - we see part of our own faces - we see the face of God - and we see the way that God sees us.  

For where your treasure is, your heart will be also.

So, render unto Caesar what is his. And render unto God all that is God’s. Don’t fall into the trap.

Amen.