Then Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” -- Matthew 22:21
Last Sunday's lectionary gospel reading is the story in which the Pharisees (and Herodians) ask Jesus about whether or not it is lawful (and/or sinful) to pay taxes. The sermons on the text invariably made important points and asked challenging, faithful questions about how Jesus would have his followers relate to their secular government and to the money it issues.
These are not easy topics for sure, and call for serious, heartfelt reflection.
However, don’t let the dramatic tasks at hand deny your enjoyment of the text’s delightful, wacky humor!
Putting aside the heavy soul-searching for a moment or two, may I invite you to enjoy this story as we do a Road Runner cartoon?
To get you in a Road Runner frame of mine, here’s a choice example, from the mid-1950’s. I like this one especially well (despite the compromised audio), for the humor and artwork are snappy, and you get to see a really old incarnation of the WB logo:
What makes R2 cartoons so funny? Here are some suggestions:
1) Coyote, traditionally considered the quintessential trickster character, is here always the one tricked! Road Runner, a lowly and vulnerable desert bird, here always and most facilely pulls the sandy, rocky rug right under Wile E. Coyote with superior speed, wit or luck. And always with a happy and peppy “Beep Beep!”
2) Wile E. Coyote’s schemes to get Road Runner are so ridiculous! Like setting up a photo booth in the middle of the wilderness nowhere, with a canon disguised as a camera.
3) The ACME Corporation products that Wile E. purchases for his dastardly his schemes, products always guaranteed to be most effective and full-proof, never fail to fail. Like the "Sproing Boots" that only turn Coyote into a pinball endlessly banged by boulders.
4) Wile E.’s zany schemes not only never work, but he also usually manages to turn the tables on himself in most outrageous fashion. When Road Runner fails to hit the right note that will detonate dynamite (at his “free piano lesson,” again made crazily available in the middle of the desert), Wile E., who can’t stand the dissonance, plays things correctly. This not only triggers the explosives that blow up the Coyote, but we then are treated to the funny-looking aftermath: he's a smoldering mess, with a mouth full of swirling piano keys.
5) Because we know Wile E. Coyote will always show up once again, fresh as a daisy, to try some new harebrained (or is it coyotebrained) scheme after having just been exploded, crushed, smashed, buried alive etc etc etc in his last attempt to catch R2, we don’t take the excessive violence and suffering seriously. Instead, we look forward to seeing how things will outrageously fail once more.
When Jesus encounters the Wile E. Pharisees in Matthew 22:15-22 things are just as sharp, funny, outrageous and goofy! If only it all came with a zippy WB soundtrack….
Consider the following:
1) We’re told the Pharisees want to trap Jesus. By asking Jesus if it’s lawful to pay taxes they force him to either say “yes,” which will make him a sympathizer with Rome and lose his sway with the crowds; or say “no,” which makes him a traitor and fodder for arrest. Clever! However, rather than getting scared for Jesus, we readers already know from previous experience that the Wile E. Pharisees never come close to outsmarting him; so, we’re invited to put on our comic lenses and look forward to seeing how they once again fail, and outrageously.
2) To make the set-up even more bizarre, we’re told those Wile E. Pharisees (Rome detesters) bring the Herodians (Rome fawners) into their scheme. These two groups absolutely hate each other; it’s highly unlikely such collusion would have happened in real life. However, it totally works if the text intends to be more of a cartoon, heightening the comic villainy of the Wile E. antagonists….
3) When Jesus responds to the Wile E. Pharisees’ question by asking for someone to produce a Roman coin, he might as well have asked them to produce a lit bomb, hold it, and let it explode them into smoldering skeletons while he formulates his answer. Handling Roman money was about as impure as you could get in the Pharisee world. It’s the reason tax collectors were to be avoided at all costs (pun intended). For them to happily produce a Roman coin -- and in the temple, where Jesus et al presumably are -- it's so sinful and shameful as to be ludicrous. The text shows just how over-the-top the Pharisees become in their attempts to catch Jesus. It also makes us wonder why in the world those upstanding Pharisees are carrying Roman money in the first place....
4) Jesus’ response about giving to the Emperor and to God respectively what is theirs is, from the comic perspective, his “Beep Beep!” The production of the Roman coin has effectively and blithely shifted focus to the Pharisees’ gross hypocrisy and faithlessness. He's pulled the rug right from under them and has brilliantly avoided their entrapment. From the comic perspective, Jesus is giving more of a “gotcha!” to his opponents at 22:21 than a cautionary teaching to his followers. No wonder everyone witnessing this most clever encounter is "amazed."
5) This story once again lets us delight in the ways our hero Jesus, with his superior speed, wit and grace, one-up's his supposedly more powerful and intelligent Wile E. Adversaries. We can't wait to see how will Jesus will one-up them next!!!!
By experiencing this all as a comic, cartoonish scene, we are invited to see the Pharisees in a lighter light and as a function of the narrative rather than a group of people who, in reality, are to be reviled. In addition, we are invited to see ourselves in a lighter light when we, like the Wile E’s, try to cleverly-but-futilely “capture” Jesus and expunge whatever of his hard teachings don't conveniently fit into our own self-serving agendas.
Having enjoyed the comedy and now filled with the grace and gratitude that come with laughter and lightness, we can go back to grappling with the text's heavier issues: politics, money, discipleship, those always seductively easy ACME Corporation directions....