The Rev. Joseph Farnes
All Saints, Boise
October 22, 2023
One of the wittiest people to have ever lived (and thus one of my favorite people) is the Victorian era playwright and writer, Oscar Wilde. Some of the most snappy one-liners emerged from him, and his wit is so infamous that many things he didn’t say are still attributed to him. Some favorites: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Or the quote from “The Importance of Being Earnest” that endeared me to Wilde in the first place: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
But such a standard is impossible to maintain. Sure, if we write all the time, maybe we can pen such witty thoughts and remarks, but to speak so wittily off-the-cuff is a dream that is so rarely realized. To have a command of words that commands brevity and insight and even a little sass … I envy such a skill.
Jesus shows such brevity, insight, and sass today in the Gospel reading. Pushed into an impossible corner, he breaks out these short responses that cut through the trap his opponents have set. These two groups of opponents are on opposite sides of things, but both agree that they are not in favor of this Jesus person. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all! The Herodians derive their power from Rome – King Herod is a puppet king, and the Herodians know that Roman taxes pay for the butter for their bread. The Pharisees, for their part, are not fans of Rome, that idolatrous and oppressive power that has subjugated them and treated them as uptight, backwards bumpkins. But both the Herodians and the Pharisees unite on this one point: Jesus is a thorn in everyone’s side.
So these two camps unite to set a trap: Roman taxes, and a coin that bears the emperor’s face and proclaims him divine. If Jesus says not to pay Roman taxes with the sacrilegious coin, then Jesus is a rebel, a revolutionary, and should be executed as such. If Jesus says to pay the Roman taxes with the sacrilegious coin, then he is no Messiah, no liberator of Israel, no holy man. So they ask, “Is it lawful to pay these taxes or not?” The trap is set.
And Jesus retorts, “Show me the coin.” Oh, snap. He doesn’t have one of these sacrilegious coins, but he’s forcing them to show they have those coins jingling in their pocket. “Whose image, and whose title?” Jesus is playing coy, playing dumb. And then Jesus trips their trap and escapes unscathed: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
His opponents have to answer the question themselves. They have to answer the question, “What belongs to the emperor, and what belongs to God?” He turned it right around on them!
Such wittiness, such a clever response!
At first blush, Jesus would do great on social media these days. No one has time or attention to read long-form analysis, let along good long-form analysis that does not automatically conform to what they already believe. So a witty response would get all the likes, applause, re-shares. Everyone loves a wit.
But the wit is not about just being funny – a good wit is about making a point, inviting someone to think more deeply. Like a Zen saying, it cuts past the layers of words to get to the heart of something. And with all the rhetorical traps laid around us, and all the interpretations and misinterpretations and everything around us, how do we cut through?
Politics is reduced to sound bites that say little except what excites a base and infuriates the opposition. Everything that can be twisted will be, and everything that can be projected will be projected. Who can construct something witty that won’t be woefully and willfully warped?
When the Idaho Statesman was still publishing columns from faith leaders, I would pore over every word and sentence I wrote. How would it sound out of context? How would it be interpreted? Would my message get through? Have I avoided loaded buzzwords that would immediately switch-off some readers? Have I too directly questioned something? Am I likely to be run out of town? And just as I get nervous each time I get up to preach, I would be nervous to send off my articles. I sometimes wonder if I worried for naught – I only got a smidgen of hate mail, and honestly it was mostly when I talked about love.
All that energy to try to speak the truth clearly, succinctly, and without misunderstanding. And what becomes of truth in those transactions anyway? Even if truth is spoken, is truth actually heard? Or is the world already bound up with what everyone already wants to believe? Are my ears open to hear the wit that cuts through my own layers and brings me to new wisdom? Or have I already plotted how I will get back at the one who spoke those words?
Because, let’s remember, the Herodians and Pharisees ultimately get their way. The rhetorical trap may not have worked on Jesus, but the cross will. The political powers that be, whose livelihood and power is backed by the emperor whose face is on that coin, those political powers will get their way and they will claim what they say is theirs. The emperor claims power not just over the coins, but over lives and land, and he has plenty of people backing him up with swords and spears and all-important, powerful titles. Jesus may have used some masterful theological rhetoric to point out the hypocrisy of the Herodians and the Pharisees, but the powers that be also know that crucifixion is a good way to silence those who speak against them. And that same threat has echoed through the centuries. Truth is dangerous, both to those whose lies will be exposed, and to the one who dares to speak the truth.
To speak truth, witty or not, in the face of that kind of power… now that is truly something to envy. We may want to be witty and sassy like Oscar Wilde, but ultimately, deep down, the hope is that we would be courageous enough to speak truth, even if it’s with a shaky voice, and humble enough to hear truth, even if it’s badly said. And to be hopeful and trusting in God, that even if we were taken to a cross, we would trust in the power of God’s love and the triumph of the Resurrection.
Because the coin may bear the emperor’s image, but each human person bears the image of God. We are thus God’s own, and all of creation belongs to God. That is the truth. A coin may bear the image of a human, but each person bears the image of God. Amen.