Matthew 22:15-22 – The 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for October 16, 2011
“Tell us then, what do you think, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor…” (Matthew 22:17)
My wife and I were on our morning walk, the dog trotting near us, when I asked, “What housecleaning should we do today?”
You know the drill. Friends were expected for a visit. It’s the bad news/good news about guests: drats we have to tidy up, but it’s an incentive to tackle neglected chores.
By asking the question, by putting the obvious on the table first, I thought myself clever. Why? Like all right-thinking and intelligent human beings, I can’t stand cleaning. Nonetheless, some work must be done and I figured—‘cuz I’m also sneaky—asking her to list possible chores “first” allowed me a chance to nab the least-worst items on our impending list of tasks. In other words, my lovely wife would suggest priorities and I’d claim the easiest ones.
I asked my question. We strolled along the sidewalk. The dog sniffed a tree as if a dogsled running the Iditarod took a break around its trunk.
“Well,” she answered, “what do you think are the most important ones?”
Gotcha. A question with a question. My wife does that. A lot. She’s a teacher—and I think a darn good one, though I’m biased—and her teaching style includes questions for her students. She wants them to think, wonder and grow. She avoids lecturing and encourages discussion. And she brings her work home!
Some religious leaders in Jesus’ day famously approached him, infamously scheming to trick him into a dangerous mistake, and wondered if it’s “…lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
Jesus answered their question with a question. He requested a coin, a denarius with Caesar’s image on it.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?”
You know the drill. You know the Biblical story.
When Jesus seemed threatened, he was adept at turning the tables. Jesus also embraced positive opportunities to reveal God’s ways. Questions were met by questions in the form of parables (What! A Samaritan is my neighbor?) and by gestures of unexpected generosity (What! A leper is healed or a hungry crowd is fed?) In other words, Jesus witnessed for God by (with apologies to my wife) inspiring others to think, wonder and grow. Instead of providing answers ending an encounter, he posed questions or told stories that caused others to be unsettled about old ways or unfair traditions while sensing a new relationship with neighbors and God.
Instead of being God’s witness, I’m frequently witless.
Too often, I try to impress people with what I know.
Too often, I tell people what they should think before they finish speaking.
Too often, when confused (or fearful or angry or spiteful), I don’t seek clarity but raise my voice.
Wit is derived from the Old English witan and the Old High German wizzan. Those two were rooted in ancient Latin and Greek words. But all shared a common meaning: to see or to know. And thus we have witness, witless, witty, dim-witted and more. Someone who sees or knows is a witness. Those who refuse to see or know are witless.
Am I a witness or witless for God?
Asking questions is a start. Not questions that trap (or questions crafted to get me out of chores!), but questions leading to the risky homework of thinking, wondering and growing.
In his journal, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” In the encounter with the two-faced Pharisees, Jesus is said to have discerned their malice. I believe he knew they only looked through selfish, self-satisfied eyes, and only schemed to ensnare him. And yet his response, then and in so many other situations, challenged people to “see” beyond the self-destructive, foolish and witless.
To see, instead, with eyes open to how all might think, wonder and grow.
My wife turned the tables on me. “What do you think?” And then, because she loves me so much—and also knows/sees me so well—added, “But don’t worry, I’ll do the dusting.
I can’t stand to dust. Give me vacuuming or cleaning toilets any day. She sees me. She knows me. She loves me.
On we walked. The dog sniffed at another exciting tree.