On Bulls, Bullfrogs, and Images on Coins

Proper 24, Year A

Matthew 22:15-22

October 21, 2017

 

On Bulls, Bullfrogs, and Images on Coins

Image result for image of aesop bull and bullfrog

 

First, a short fable by Aesop, which, amazingly, Cynthia actually has depicted in this antique French print:

A young bullfrog was exploring the far end of the pond, when a bull walked up for a drink of water.  The bullfrog was amazed by the bull’s size.  He had never seen anything so large before.  Excited, he swam home to tell his father what he had seen.

“Father, I saw the most gigantic animal in the world,” said the young bullfrog. “He was at the other end of the pond.”

“Now son,” the father replied, “everyone knows that I’m the biggest animal in this pond.  Just watch me.”

The old bullfrog took in a big gulp of air and puffed himself up.

“Was that animal bigger than this?” his father asked.
“Much bigger than that,” said his son.

“How about now,” asked the father, puffing himself even bigger.

“I’m afraid he was much bigger still,” said the son.

“Well,” said the father bullfrog, as he sucked in as much air as he could, “he couldn’t have been much bigger than this.”

“But he really was much bigger than that,” replied the young bullfrog.

“Okay, son, watch me now.  He couldn’t have been bigger than this.”

The old bullfrog began to puff himself up even more when suddenly—BANG! He burst into tiny pieces.[1]

 

“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus asked the Pharisees and Herodians who came to trap him.

Whose image is this?

Every time I have read or studied this text, the “point” has boiled down to basically this: at first sight some may think that one category holds the things of the world and another category the things of God.  And, Jesus wants us to question that dichotomy and see that all is really God’s.  So, we need to shift our perspective and see the integrated, holistic vision of God.  Ultimately, the idea that there are things that are “the emperor’s” is an illusion.  And, when we realize this—when we are shown this illusion—we realize how warped our sense of reality is.  Like those gathered to trap Jesus: “when they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”

It’s a matter of consciousness, really: we enter the scene with one level of consciousness and we leave at another level, one that realizes the essential nature of things—how all we have is dependent on God’s grace.

This time, as I meditated with this text, I heard it in perhaps a deeper way.  During the ten minutes of silence we shared on Wednesday at the noon Mass, I realized another level in this story, if you will.

 

You may or may not know that, in the ancient world, it was the custom that when a new emperor rose to the throne, the clock was reset.  Time was marked by the number of years in the reign of the current emperor.  We see this in Luke 3 as it describes the cry of John the Baptist in the desert happening “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius.”  A new king meant a new measure of time, and it also meant new coins minted with that king’s image on them to be dispersed throughout the empire.

 

It was a sign of utter control: the economy hinged on their image, and even time itself was framed by their existence.  They set themselves up to be the center of the universe.  They were the bullfrog, of course, telling those around them: “Everyone knows that I’m the biggest animal in this pond.”

There is something hardwired in the human condition to assert this prideful stance.  I thought back to my first Sunday with you, when, of all things, I moved the chair to sit where I wanted to.  That was an awful thing to do, and I apologize for it!  I, too, felt the need to assert myself over and against something else, someone else…to claim my own position.  It’s embarrassing.

 

Such a posture feeds off a certain theological perspective that sees reality as compartmentalized with God in one of many compartments.  There is a certain school of thought that has God “here” and humanity, creation, “here.”  There is a separation between us.

So, we feel the need to position ourselves, to claim our independence, our rights.  “I can do what I want to do, because I have the right to do it.”  I have the power.  I have the control.

“Everyone knows that I’m the biggest animal in this pond.”

And, in this line of thought, God has given me this power, so God must approve this.  It is God’s will that I have this power, so you must recognize that—and recognize your place in the scheme of things.

Start the clock over with me.  Put my image on the coins.  No one has done this better than me.  I am the best that has ever been.

And, in this particular school, we compete, even, with God—who is removed over here, separate from us, remember—in terms of who has what claim on our lives.  We claim not to be dependent on anyone or anything—God included (until we have a crisis in our lives and we suddenly cry out and ask where God was, why God didn’t do anything to stop this).  And, when we perceive a threat, we will inflate ourselves to reclaim the position we (perceived) we had as the biggest animal in the pond.  It is a dualistic perspective that always leads to a zero-sum mentality in life: I have to compete against “the other,” always, in order to get the upper hand.

 

This, my friends, is what Jesus was facing when the Pharisees and others came to entrap him, because if Jesus claimed that his authority somehow contradicted the established authority of the land, well…that would be problematic.  Because things were ordained to be this way: the emperor was placed at the top of the pyramid, and everyone else grasped at what relative power and authority they could reach.

 

“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus asks those who try to trick him on taxes.  We must pay what is due to those to whom it is due.  So, whose image is this?  Who has stamped themselves on this?

“The emperor’s”

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

 

And there is the consciousness shift:  because that particular school of thought that has “God” over here with the things of the world, economy, taxes, etc., over here is not the only school of thought.  Dualism is an illusion, as the heart of our Christian faith tells us.

Because God is not utterly removed from us.  Life is not divided into these categories that pit people against each other.  We do not have to puff ourselves up to be the biggest animal in the pond out of fear that there is a limited amount of ‘worthiness’ or power to go around.  Transcendence is tempered by—grounded by—immanence.  God has entered into creation in the person of Jesus Christ, and that, my friends, has changed everything.

When Jesus tells those gathered “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he is not saying “don’t pay taxes” or anything silly like that.  That’s childishness rooted in our ego lashing out.

Rather, he is, as we say, calling the question.  He is posing a question that must be answered within each of our hearts every minute of our lives: “what are the things of God?”

 

We are saturated in an environment where folks feel they must assert themselves—always.  I am the best that has ever been.  I, I, I… always asserting that we are the subject of reality, looking out and trying to control or influence the objects around us.

In this consciousness-shifting moment that Jesus ushers in.  It knocks us back and leaves us vulnerable, and we don’t like that!

But it is a shift that we are called to take.  It is a shift we must take if we are to grow into the fullness of Christ.  It is our purpose, as sharers in the Body of Christ.  I think the renowned scholar Raimon Panikkar describes this shift best:

“Then, the mortal jump occurs.  God is not the thou, my thou, my possession—as in so many forms of exaggerated, barely sane spirituality.  I am not I, “my” I.  God is the I.  I discover myself as “thou,” God’s thou.  God is the I, and I am God’s thou.  It is the I who speaks and to whom we listen—not as slaves, not as creatures but as children in the Spirit.  This is the Trinitarian life. . .[2]

And that’s a sermon for another day, I think…

[1] The Classic Treasury of Aesop’s Fables, Illustrated by Don Daily (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Courage Books, 1999), 35.

[2] Raimon Panikkar, Christophany: The Fullness of Man (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2010), 35.

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