Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 29
October 22, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Jesus was given a stark choice - do we pay the hated tax to the emperor or not? Flip a coin. Both answers are losers. But Jesus answered, "None of the above." And that's one takeaway from this passage. Jesus transcended the trap of people who use clobber verses to "defeat" their foes. We are not to let the world - or the Bible trolls - control the conversation. Jesus is changing the world through the Sermon on the Mount, his parables and the victory from the cross to the empty tomb, and so are we - God's way.

Does anyone flip a coin anymore?

I mean, on a personal basis, for their own edification. As in, should I wear a blue shirt or a gray shirt today? Flip a coin. What do you think? Burgers or subs for lunch? Flip a coin. Whose turn is it to pay for lunch, anyway? I don't remember. Let's flip for it.

Part of the problem is a lot of folks don't carry change and a lot of stores don't want to deal with it. Storekeepers might round the price down to save themselves the trouble of making change. At best they'll leave out a cup filled with pennies, so things come out even.

Sayings like "See a penny, pick it up, and all the day you'll have good luck," don't make much sense anymore because you can't buy anything for a penny. But there was a time, back when coins were made out of precious metals, that criminals shaved slivers off the metal and then spent the underweight coins as if they were worth full value. Or they would cut out a circle of metal in the middle, and replace it with a plug of metal of lesser value. The phrase, "Not worth a plugged nickel" comes from this practice.

Just about the only time a coin is flipped nowadays for something of real value is at a football game - and there it matters! The question of who gets the ball first in overtime at the Super Bowl could change the outcome and even lives.

But one coin that has changed more lives than any football game is featured in today's scripture, and it was held not by Jesus, but by someone who came to test him.

Coins in Jesus' ministry

Coins play an interesting role during the ministry of Jesus. He told a parable about a woman who lost a coin, and when, after turning her house upside down she found it, she invited over all her friends to celebrate with her.1

Another time Jesus reevaluated some coins, basing their true worth not on how heavy, and therefore how valuable they were, but on the motivation of the one who donated them. While some threw large coins in the trumpet-shaped collection plates at the temple so that others would be impressed by the thunderous noise they made as they clanged their way down into the collection plate, Jesus pointed to a woman whose two lepton, the lightest of coins imaginable that barely whispered when they were thrown in, and said her coins were worth far more.2

And once, when Peter stressed over the disciples' inability to pay a required tax, Jesus sent him on a fishing expedition whereupon a coin was found in the fish's gut.3

Today's scripture passage also involves a coin, but the question is not about how much it weighs, or where it got lost to, and we don't have to fish for the answer because it's staring us in the face - because it's the face on the coin that matters.

Some of us never look at coins, but the faces honored on our coins say a lot about us. And some may want to remove that face. During the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-135 A.D., when the Judeans once again rebelled against Roman authority - with the same disastrous results as the revolt of 66-70 A.D. - silver and copper coins were issued that were actually Roman coins. The face of the emperor, however, was overstruck with palm branches, representations of the temple or various crops grown by the Judeans. The words "Year One of the Redemption of Israel," or "Year Two" were also stamped over the existing coin.

The presence of the emperor's face on the coinage was offensive even when the people were not in active rebellion against the empire, and it wasn't just because of the commandment against graven images. In today's scripture, the first rebellion is still a generation in the future. Though the passage is not about a coin flip, the religious authorities who come to trap Jesus intend to do so with a classic "Heads I win, tails you lose" kind of bet.

Beware of "clobber verses"

And Jesus flipped the situation as easily as we could flip a coin, by answering a question with a question, which is important: It's not that Jesus didn't have an answer for the questioners, but that he didn't allow those who sought to clobber him with a verse to limit his options to one of only two bad choices.

Thank you, Jesus, for setting us an example! The people with the "clobber verses" don't get to control the dialog.

Matthew tells us that "... the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said." Most Pharisees probably didn't feel threatened by Jesus. But this group in Jerusalem allied themselves, according to Matthew, with a group called the Herodians. These were the people who sought to preserve the political power of the descendants of Herod the Great. Pharisees and Herodians made odd bedfellows, but evidently both felt threatened by the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the acclaim accorded to him by the people and the attention he drew in Jerusalem at the start of the week before Passover, a time when the population of Jerusalem quadrupled with all the pilgrims who came for the event.

However, the ones who thought of the clobber question didn't come themselves. They sent their disciples to ask a trick question that combined faith, politics and daily practice. No matter how Jesus would answer their "Heads I win, tails you lose" question, they felt certain he would suffer for it.

Note how they began with obvious flattery, which seems to have put Jesus on his guard. He wasn't fooled by their words, when they said to him, "you ... teach the way of God in accordance with truth..." before springing their trap: "Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?"

This is a dangerous question. The poll tax was very unpopular. It was used to pay for the occupation of the oppressive Roman legionnaires. Their presence was a constant reminder that God's promise that there would always be a descendant of King David on the throne, seemed unfulfilled. In Jesus' day, there was no Jewish throne and no Davidic descendant to sit on it.

On the other hand, there were those who had hazy ideas about an Anointed One, a Messiah, who would somehow drive the invaders into the sea and institute a perpetual kingdom fulfilling God's promise and the nation's glorious destiny.

Which is why the question asked after this bit of flattery was brilliant. You have to wonder which think tank thought it up, because either answer would discredit Jesus, perhaps permanently: If he advocated paying the tax the people might turn on him for good. And if he spoke out against the tax he could end up dead.

Jesus, however, gives neither answer without looking like he was ducking the question. Refusing to play by the rules of the hypocrites' zero-sum game, he answers the question with a question: "You got a coin on you?"

Of course they do. Money is power, and these are powerful people.

Jesus first turned the tables by forcing the Pharisees to show that they did not use temple coins, which did not feature the Emperor's face and were used by pilgrims to buy unblemished animals to sacrifice in the temple. Temple coins were supposedly "pure money" - exchanged for a high markup. That was one of the reasons Jesus expressed his outrage earlier that Passover week by upsetting the tables of the money changers who were profiting from pilgrims who came to the Holy City for the big holiday.

Surely, you'd think, "holy" people like these hypocrites would have holy money.

But no. Their coins featured the face of the emperor. It was perfectly obvious that these devoutly religious people preferred to participate in the economic life of the empire.

I wonder if anyone even heard Jesus amid all the whooping and hollering from the crowd when Jesus turned the tables on his opponents, saying, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." Well, someone must have heard the sound bite, since the words of Jesus have come down to us.

The takeaway

This is the important message we should take away from this passage. We don't need to let the world, or the Bible trolls, control the conversation. Sometimes the answer isn't A or B. Sometimes the answer is C, D or even Z. Talking about a scriptural passage without taking into account the social context of the times or the real meaning of the words, isn't biblical. Neither is taking a verse out of context when it makes much better sense in the context of a larger passage. And neither is stringing a series of verses together like popcorn on a string to make scripture say something it doesn't.

It's lazy.

Jesus is changing the world through the Sermon on the Mount, his parables and the victory from the cross to the empty tomb, and we are called to be a part of it.

It's not a "Heads I win, tails you lose" deal. It's more a matter of feeding and clothing "the least of these" and living by the ethic of God's kingdom.