Matthew 22: 15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Stuck with God: Matthew 22:15-22
I was tempted to preach in a Star Wars t-shirt today. Tasha got it for me. It has a character named Admiral Akbar on it. He looks like a catfish with a human body. He is primarily known for saying one phrase, "It's a trap!" during the movie, Return of the Jedi. He was trying to warn the fleet under his command that the bad guys have outsmarted them and are waiting to ambush them. He has to work with the other rebel leaders to figure out how to either win the battle or escape the bad guys and fight another day. Admiral Akbar knows that when realize that someone is trying to trap you, you often have to think or act quickly in order to not get caught. Somebody tried to trap Jesus once. I don't know if he had a fish-faced guy there to warn him. I do know that he managed not to get caught.
The Pharisees and the Herodians started the whole thing. In case you have forgotten in the three years since I last preached on this text, it is completely weird that these two groups of people would work together for anything, even trying to outsmart Jesus. The Pharisees worked hard to uphold what they saw as a very pure vision of their religion in order maintain a sense of nationhood and religious identity. The Herodians, it seems, were a bit more opportunistic. They were connected and indebted to Rome for any power and Privilege they had. In fact, as long as it made them more powerful, they were happy to have the power and cultural influence that came with Roman support, even at the expense of religious purity. When we read that they are conspiring together, we should realize that, at best, this is an odd pairing. How threatening must Jesus' ministry have been if it got these two groups to work together?
They send their disciples to ask Jesus a very loaded question, one that could get him in trouble with both Rome and their own religious community. They asked “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” This is more than simply a question about money. This is really a question about authority, specifically the Empire's authority over the Jewish people. Jesus is being asked whether he thinks a religiously faithful person should respect the authority of the Roman Empire. We should remember that when a nation was conquered by Rome, Rome required those people to pay taxes. While it is true that the taxes paid for all manner of amazing public works, most of the people resented paying them. And, the people whom Rome subjugated weren't mad about aqueducts. They were frustrated because the taxes were a constant reminder of their subjugation. Taxes were a symbol that Rome was in charge and that you were not. In my study for this sermon, I was reminded that the refusal to pay taxes was tantamount to revolution. Some of the coins that the empire used even bore an inscription asserting the divinity of the Caesar, an idea that would have been counter to all that the Jewish people believed. I learned that some people may have even believed that to use these coins was to go against the first and second commandments, that is putting another god before God, as well as creating an idol.
They asked Jesus if paying taxes was in accordance with Torah (that was "lawful" means in this situation). The Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, was understood to be the primary authority for guiding all of one's decisions, including one's decision on how to engage with politics. If paying taxes was recognizing Caesar's divinity, how could the people do it and also remain faithful? This is a hard question, a tricky question. It's a trap, obviously, to make Jesus look like either a bad Jew or a danger to Rome. How in the world was Jesus going to respond to this question? This was a question designed to paint Jesus into a theological and political corner. But, Jesus didn't play their game. He rarely does. Here's what he does instead.
He told them outright that this question revealed their hypocrisy (he's said something like this before). He then took a coin and asked whose picture and title were on it. They, of course, answer “the emperor's.” I'm sure his next statement surprised them. He said, “give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's." That's right. He told them to pay their taxes. But, he didn't stop there. He continued with “and give God the things that are God's.” In this case, the second part of his answer is actually the more important part. Remember, Jesus' primary point of contention with this group of leaders was that they cared more about religious platitudes than what he understood as the heart of the law (love of God and love of neighbor). In this statement, he's telling them how to do more of the loving God and loving neighbor.
I read a fascinating interpretation of the phrase "give to God what is God's." I know I've shared it before but I think it's worth repeating. A scholar named David Owen-Ball thinks we need to pay attention to the fact that Jesus asked about the inscription on the coin. He notes that the story specifically says that Jesus asked the crowd about the “likeness,” or “image” on the coin. Where else have we heard the terms “likeness” and “image” in reference to God? Owen-Ball reminds us of the words of Genesis 1:36: “The God said, 'Let us make the human in our image, after our likeness.” Owen-Ball also notes Jesus asked about the title on the coin. This word “title” can also be translated as “inscription.” Is there somewhere in scripture where can we find something about God's inscription? Owen-Ball points to Exodus 13:9: “And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth...”
It is very possible that Jesus is reminding the people listening that humanity is created in the very image of God and that God's law, an invitation to love God and love our neighbors, is written on our very bones. That silly little coin is nothing compared to humanity's legacy through creation. God is written all over your face and on your heart, in your mind, and on your hands. Jesus tells us that that is where our primary concern should lie. Sure, we have to worry about money, and we wonder if the taxes we pay to prioritize care of neighbor, just like Jesus did. But just because we need to think about money, that doesn't mean our primary identity is in our money. Our first concern should be giving God the things that are God's... that is our very selves. Taxes are easy. Giving yourself to God... Now, that could take a little more work.
How are you going to give yourself to God? We are welcoming new members into our church today. This is not the first day they have been with us. All of them have long been part of our community and we are simply making our covenant official. However, in committing themselves to covenant with us and in our welcoming them and committing ourselves to covenant with them, we are giving a little more of ourselves to God. Some of you undoubtedly went to Peter Labbe's funeral yesterday, offering care and comfort to his family. That's giving more of yourself to God. Some of you have fed strangers, welcomed new immigrants, and called on the sick this week, offering one more piece of yourself and your time back to God.
In each of the acts, and a thousand more that I didn't name, you reflect that divine blessing that is writ large in us from creation. You give something back to the God who created everything. You've even managed to be a little like Jesus, avoiding the trap of forgetting your true allegiance to God, not to the empire. Money is a tool through which we can do the Gospel, but it is not God, even if it's too important to completely ignore. Maybe we have the best relationship with money by remember that it's not out priority. Our priority is loving God and loving our neighbor. That's what guides how we use our money. Let's not get trapped by thinking money is more than what it is. And, let's remember whose likeness truly matters.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Lance Pape: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2201
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3361
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2014/10/pentecost-19a-money-politics-and-religion/
David Lose: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1589
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.