Text: 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.
This morning we find that the Pharisees were at it again, but this time with the Herodians and their disciples as well. How many times have we run across these encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders and the teachers of the law? We shouldn’t be surprised, then when we discover their latest plot to try and put Jesus into a precarious position. I’m sure that they waited for Jesus to be in a crowded place before swooping in to pose this question to him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” Saying “no” would be an act of treason… It would be an act of treason against Caesar and the Roman empire. Saying “yes” would imply that the people were to submit themselves solely to the global powers and principalities that be, which would be a grave sin… But Jesus didn’t fall into their trap. Instead, Jesus turned and answered them in a way that challenged those in the crowd and us today to think about what it means to be people who claim to be the hands and feet of God in the world.
Before Jesus answered the question crafted by the Pharisees and the Herodians, I bet they were feeling pretty good about themselves… Jesus may have evaded them before, but this time, they had him in their sights, there was no way that Jesus was going to come out unscathed. So I imagine it must have been all the more disappointing then when Jesus turned the tables on them. Having been given a coin that is used to pay taxes, Jesus showed it to them and asked whose image was on the currency. When they replied that it was a picture of the emperor, Jesus then gave one of the most recognizable quotes from the New Testament, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” What makes this so remarkable is that Jesus gave a subversive answer without actually being subversive… Jesus essentially says, “Give to earthly rulers the things that are theirs, because in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter since everything belongs to God and to God alone. Give, therefore, to God the things that are God’s because we all belong to God, who created each and every one of us.”
And this is where things become a little challenging… It was certainly challenging for the Pharisees and the Herodians as they eventually dispersed in disbelief, and it continues to be challenging for us as modern-day readers of this passage. Because if we are honest with ourselves, we would see that there is an underlying struggle for us as citizens of an earthly power, and as Christians who profess a faith God and membership in the Kingdom of God. But what’s important for us to realize is that this conflict isn’t always apparent to us, it isn’t still obvious. And so therefore it is also essential for us to understand is that this clash of two realities also has real moments, that are observable, that sometimes have a negative impact on those whom we live in community with, such when we act like Cain who out of selfishness and malice asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) We know the truth, the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ… But when it comes to doing the things we are supposed to do, we sometimes, like the Pharisees and the Herodians, try to place God in a situation that would meet our own needs.
We see this tension between the mortal and cosmic realms in our everyday lives. I remember that there was a time when I was taking a train from New York City back to Princeton. While I was reading a book, someone who appeared to be in need help, someone who appeared to be homeless, came into our passenger car asking for some money. I had some change in my pocket and offered it to them as well as a few other passengers, but soon after this person left someone said, “That person is always asking for money. They’re just a bum who can’t be bothered to get a real job.” Look… I don’t profess to know everything about the homeless person’s life. They might have well been looking for a few quick bucks, but if anything, I walked away knowing more about the character of the person who spoke out against those who had offered what change they had than the homeless person who was looking for some help. We’ve been raised to look out for ourselves… We’ve been so immersed in the way of thinking that focuses on protecting our own prosperity we have forgotten what it is like to look out for others. We have forgotten about the very people Jesus called and still calls us to care for and love.
This might be hard to hear, but there’s a little bit of Pharisee in each and every one of us… This isn’t a bad thing, let’s be clear about that. The Pharisee’s were people who were trying their best to live out the teachings of the religious law, but often they fell on the wrong side of the Gospel message. We, too, have tried our best to live by the moral and ethical codes that have been passed onto us. But where did these teachings come from? While I’m sure that some of them came from Sunday school lessons and sermons, I would imagine that the majority of what we learned came from our parents, our teachers, and our communities, primarily the society and culture in which we were raised. There is nothing wrong with following the rules or trying to stick to the teachings that we had given from those who had come before us. But the problem is when these principles become a barricade that prevents us from offering all that we have to the mission that God has given us. We know what it means to give to Caesar and to the empire, but do we really understand what it means to provide what we have to God, a God who is not limited by human powers or borders?
We know what it is like to live in a world where the tensions of our civic life clash with the realities of our religious life. From the moment that we wake up, there is a whirlwind of things that vie for our attention… There are the numerous texts from work or friends that we didn’t answer, a significant sale at either a department store or online, multiple sporting events, the latest Netflix or TV series catch up on, and by the end of the day we realize that we have dedicated very little time to the thing that we proclaim to be most important in our lives… By the end of the day, we recognize that what we have given to God is very little compared with what we have given to the demanding voices and pressures that seem to have control over our lives. It’s difficult when there are so many things that pull us away and distract us from what it means to live into the identities that God has envisioned for us. But knowing the pains and joys of human life, God does not condemn us for withholding what we have or giving what we have to Caesar, but instead abundantly counter-intuitively offers grace that allows us to grow in faith and love.
And herein lies the good news of the Gospel. Because when we stop and think for a moment we remember that Jesus has already modeled what it means to live a selfless life that is dedicated to God. Having been raised and trained as a carpenter, I’m sure that Jesus kept some of the trade skills that he had learned from Joseph all those years ago. And while the Bible doesn’t record any stories of Jesus using his craft, I would imagine that there were times when Jesus would use what he had to help those around him. Jesus’ life and work were meant to inspire us to look past our obligations to the Roman Empire, our own modern-day allegiances, and to look towards our ultimate responsibility of taking care of God’s created world… Giving what is due to Caesar may be a part of God’s plan, but it certainly isn’t what God is primarily focused on. Because there is so much more at stake than whether or not we are citizens who carry out our civic responsibilities… Not because these civic responsibilities don’t matter, but because they are a given. What Jesus is more concerned about is whether or not we will one day be able to view them in the larger picture that God has painted, that includes the community of saints in the Kingdom of God who come from North, South, East, and West… All that is required of us is that we give to God the things that are God’s.
And let me say that giving to God the things that are God’s isn’t an easy task. Sure, we can give up things like chocolate when the season of Lent rolls around, but that’s not really something that God cares a whole lot about… I’m sorry if that’s a surprise to you, because while may be a healthy practice it doesn’t do a whole lot for spiritual growth. So what’s next? What is our response after hearing and witnessing the good news? We know that we can find reassurance in the fact that in God, there is an abundance of grace, but how can we live lives that respond to Jesus’ call to, ‘Give to God what is God’s”? I’m not sure that I can give an answer that encompasses the many complexities of life and faith, but I’ll leave you with two closing thoughts:
1) Giving to God the things that are God’s goes way beyond the surface belief that God only cares about what goes into the offering place on Sunday morning… It’s about not only finding ways to give our treasures but also finding ways to give our time and our talents as well so that we can bear witness to God and in humility serve the church and our surrounding communities. So how do we hear God’s voice calling us to serve?
2) Giving to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s means that our relationship to Caesar is pretty one-sided, meaning that we offer what we have and it is only by Caesar’s will and charity that we receive anything in return. But God doesn’t work that way… God calls us into a deep relationship that is not founded on indebtedness but founded on salvation and hope that is found in Jesus Christ. So looking at our relationships, how do we make people indebted to us, and how do we then create relationships and communities that model our connection to a God who gives freely?
May we turn from Caesar’s grasp to serve our living God, who calls us into a relationship that empowers us, so that we may remember that we belong to a God who created all things, who sustains all things, and rules over the heavens and the earth. Amen.