When my Uncle Glen was a child, he had gotten his sister, Aunt Frances, a Christmas present and had been very careful to keep it a secret from her. One day shortly before the holiday, his father asked him, “So what did you get Frances for Christmas?” Before he thought what he was doing, Glen blurted out, “A little lamp.” And then he burst into tears.
“The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.”
Plotted to entrap Jesus.
The Pharisees’ question didn’t really have to do with what belongs to Caesar and what doesn’t. It’s what we call the superficial issue, the issue we argue about when we’re avoiding a deeper conversation about a more substantial matter. The Pharisees’ interaction with Jesus had to do with tripping him up, reaffirming their power in the religious and political structure of the time, their dominance over Jesus and his followers. It came from a dark and insecure place.
Musician Daryl Davis, who is African American, spoke in a recent interview about an event that happened to him when he was 10 years old. He participated in a parade in the Boston area as a Boy Scout. People on the side of the road began to throw debris from the street at him. At first, he thought it was coming from people who didn’t like Scouts, but then realized he was the only one having trash thrown at him. The Scout leaders and others rushed to him and hovered over him to protect him. When he got home, his parents asked how he had gotten scraped up – they thought he had fallen. When he explained what had happened, they explained to him for the first time in his life about racism and what it means. Another dark and insecure place.
What is remarkable in Matthew’s passage is not so much the conversation about what belongs to Caesar but how Jesus responded to those attempting to trap him. Following his own admonition to us to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” he knew what they were up to, and he did not allow them to trap him into saying anything that they could use against him. But at the same time, he responded with kindness, clarity, gentleness, mercy, tolerance. And this is what belongs to God. This is what is God’s. Kindness, mercy, tolerance.
Davis has for 30 years befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan, trying to persuade them to give up their racist beliefs and activities. According to “All Things Considered” on NPR, some 200 Klansmen have given up their robes after getting to know Davis as a person. “When that happens,” NPR reports, “Davis collects the robes and keeps them in his home as a reminder of the dent he has made in racism by simply sitting down and having dinner with people.” And a little lamp shines.
When we experience situations like Jesus encountered with the Pharisees and Davis with the people throwing debris at him as a child, as we struggle with how to respond, we can be assured that that little lamp shines still. And that little lamp will cast light on our path, your path and mine, showing us the way forward.