The Teaching: Risking Challenge, Matthew 22:15-22
Plymouth First United Methodist, March 15, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
Enter the story.
Enter the place you belong.
Not just looking on
For this is your story.
Enter the story.
I am so often unable to come up with just the right response at just the right time, particularly if I know I’m being set up. There will be all that activity swirling around in my head of the various possibilities of what I might say as well as the how the other person could respond, and later that afternoon, or as I’m driving home—there it is. Yes, that’s it! Got it! But it’s too late now. Not so helpful an hour or so after the fact.
But Jesus knows exactly what to say. He has the perfect response to a question that is intended to set him up. His answer doesn’t offend anyone, it doesn’t create additional controversy, it is consistent with his role of being a teacher, of guiding a student’s thinking—or in this case, a conspirator’s questioning—from the broad and general to the internal and specific: particularly in this situation to the questioner’s own understanding or relationship with God.
The Herodians and the Pharisees who approach Jesus are two very different groups of people with very different goals who have come together in their mutual desire to remove Jesus from the scene. The Herodians are allied with Herod Antipas, who has been named King of the Jews by Rome. They support paying tax to Caesar. The Pharisees on the other hand, are committed to every detail of Jewish law and are opposed to paying taxes to Caesar for religious reasons. Their opposition to paying taxes has less to do with the Roman occupation of their homeland, than it does with the particular coin used to pay that tax. The coin, that we talked a bit about last week, carried the image of “the divine Caesar.” Their carrying around and using the coin was perceived as a violation of the first and second commandments to have no other god before the God of Israel, and not to make for oneself an idol of any form or to worship them.
So, the Pharisees come up with a plan, enlist several of their group, as well as several Herodians to join them on an expedition to entrap Jesus. They construct a question with political implications that will evoke a political response, which will throw Jesus under the wheels of either Rome or the Temple. He’ll be seen as a traitor to Rome or as a traitor to his faith. Whichever way he responds, he’s in trouble.
They approach Jesus with words of flattery that are actually true, though insincere. In the Common English Bible they say to him, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
Here’s the tax they’re talking about: Rome levied an annual tax on harvests and personal property, regulated through the census or registration (remember how Joseph traveled with his family to the place of his birth in Luke 2 when Jesus was born). According to the historian Josephus, the religious leaders even helped in collecting the tax, even though many Jews objected to paying it. Resentment of this taxation had sparked pockets of revolt throughout Judea and Galilee in recent years and remained a heated topic. Jesus’ answer could easily cause the crowds to turn on him or cause Roman officials to take note of his revolutionary ideas. His questioners had every expectation that Jesus would indeed speak the truth, and would not be swayed by the opinions of those questioning him. His honesty and integrity would condemn him.
Jesus immediately understands their intentions and knows how to respond. He calls them out for what they are: he calls them hypocrites. And then he turns the tables again (like he did last week though more subtly!) by asking them to show him the coin used to pay taxes. Jesus and his followers don’t have the coin, they don’t use the Roman coin. For daily use, Jews used copper coins that didn’t bare the image of the emperor. But these religious leaders have no problem producing the coin with its “graven image,” which reveals their role in assisting Rome in collecting the tax.
He asks them to tell him, in case there is any doubt: “whose image and inscription is this?”
“Caesar’s,” they reply.
“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God,” he tells them.
Jesus has already made himself clear. As we’ve read how Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness before he began his public ministry, we’ve been reminded that Jesus isn’t seeking power or glory. He is focused, passionate and fearless in his task of proclaiming the
Word of God. He won’t be intimidated.
We know this isn’t the first time Jesus re-routes the Pharisees and the direction they think they’re headed. It’s not the first time he makes them think about their actions, about who they are and about their relationship with God. He frequently answers questions indirectly, not for the purpose of creating confusion, but to point people to God, to challenge the “truth” they thought they knew so clearly. Remember his words to those accusing the woman caught in adultery. They’re ready to stone her for her sin, until Jesus says to them, “Let the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone.” One by one, they end up walking away. They’ve been reminded that not a one of them is sinless. (John 8).
Whether Jesus is talking about adultery, healing on the Sabbath, spending time with sinners or discussing coins and the payment of taxes, Jesus has this way of causing the people of his day—and challenging us today—to think about what we’re doing, to not just respond automatically, but to consider if the decisions we’re making about the way we live our lives honor God…whether our actions are consistent with our faith.
He leaves his listeners with a dilemma that’s even greater than the trap in which they attempted to catch him. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.
Jesus’ words may very well have accompanied his handing back the coin bearing the image of an earthly god who required it in return for the benefits that his empire provided—for security and an excellent system of roads and waterways.
But from the larger perspective, didn’t it/doesn’t it all belong to God? “For the world and all that is in it is mine” God says through the Psalmist (50:12, 24:1). It’s God who has ultimate authority, over all creation, and though we may carry the inscription of our trust in God on our money even in this day, isn’t it the bearing of his image—of that inscription—in our hearts that truly makes the difference? We carry his image in our flesh, in the way we live, in the way we give, in the way we serve, in the way we care, in the way we love. That’s how we give to God what belongs to God. We do it out of love. Because God first loved us…and continues to hold onto us… Hear the Word of God through the prophet Isaiah, saying, “I will not forget you… See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (49:16).
We bear God’s image—as the palm of God bears ours.
The Herodian stands back and listens…he wants to hear more. What Jesus has said is amazing, really. Wise. He wonders what more Jesus might have to say. What more might he learn from him?
What belongs to Caesar in your life?
What belongs to God?
Am I giving to God what belongs to God?
In what ways do you bear God’s image in your life?