Render Unto God the Things That Are God’s

Sermon,  October 22, 2017 – 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 24)
Matthew 22:15-22

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

In today’s Gospel we read one of the best known maxims in the Bible relating to a Christian’s relationship with government.  In the words of the King James Version “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”  We hear these words repeated often, but do we really know what they mean?

Why did Matthew include this story in his gospel?  What is the message for us today?

In order for us to understand this passage, we need to do some homework.  We need to look at the wider context of chapter 22 and we need to understand the religious, cultural and political implications of the Roman tax and system of money.  If we take this passage out of context and assume that it was written from the perspective of 21st century American culture, we might misunderstand the message.

Let’s begin by looking at Matthew chapter 22.  The chapter begins with the parable we heard last week.  This was the parable about a king who hosted his son’s marriage.  He invited many guests, but his invitations were rudely and sometimes violently rejected.  The Jewish religious leaders correctly interpreted this parable as being aimed squarely at them.  The parable’s message was that God had called the Israelites to be part of the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus Christ, but that the Jewish religious leaders refused, leading to God choosing others to take their place.

The ordinary Jewish people liked the message they heard from Jesus.  The religious leaders were oppressive hypocrites, and Jesus was pointing out this out very effectively.  And so, the religious leaders did what we might have expected – they sought to discredit and undermine Jesus.   Now Jesus was a famous teacher and so the Pharisees and Sadducees decided to ask Jesus some trick questions designed to make him look bad.

We might liken them to the now standard “gotcha” questions that are asked of political opponents during election campaigns.  In chapter 22, the Pharisees and Sadducees try three times to trip Jesus up with trick questions.  But they fail spectacularly.  What’s more, the chapter concludes with Jesus turning the tables and successfully trapping the religious leaders with a trick question of his own.

Each of the three trick questions to Jesus was set up to undermine him, but Jesus uses each to make an important point.  The first challenge to Jesus is the passage in today’s Gospel, whether Jesus thinks the Jews should pay the Roman imperial tax.  We’ll talk about this in a few minutes.  The second challenge seeks to trick Jesus on the issue of the resurrection.  The third challenge tries to get Jesus to list his favorite commandment.  The point of these challenges is to elicit a response from Jesus that would get him into trouble with the Roman authorities or the Jewish people.

In response, Jesus went beyond the silly games of the religious leaders to communicate important truths.  And he then used a question of his own to the religious leaders that conveyed an important truth about his identity as the Messiah.  So, to summarize, the Jewish religious leaders try to undermine the message of Jesus three times with trick questions, to which Jesus responded by communicating important truths about the Kingdom of Heaven, and which he then concluded with a question of his own that spoke to his identity as the Messiah.

This is the context for our Gospel passage today.  It is the first challenge question and was put to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians.  They ask Jesus “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”  Let’s get some historical context for this question, because it is really important to understand what’s going on.  The Pharisees and Herodians were not some first century equivalent of the Tea Party movement who were checking to see if Jesus supported tax and spend liberalism.  To properly understand the passage, we need to consider a few points.

The Jews were living under Roman occupation.  They saw Rome as their conquering enemy.  But this wasn’t all.  Back in the first century, there was no separation between church and state.  The Roman emperor was revered as being a god.  Everything connected with Roman rule was tinged with Roman state religion, including Roman coinage which featured the emperor’s image and an inscription lauding him as a deity.  When the Pharisees asked Jesus whether he supported paying the tax, they were really asking whether he was okay with cooperating with the occupying enemy and participating in the idolatrous worship of Caesar.  If Jesus comes out supporting the occupying Romans and their idolatrous state religion, the Jewish people would turn on him in an instant.

Now the Herodians were also there to trip up Jesus.  The Herodians were Jewish leaders who supported King Herod, the Roman client king over Judea, and so supported the people paying the imperial tax.  They were looking to catch Jesus encouraging the people to rebel against Rome, because this would lead to his arrest for sedition.

So what does Jesus do?  How does he extricate himself from this situation?  Although his response can strike us as somewhat simplistic and glib at first glance, it is full of remarkable depth that broadens the discussion.  Listen to the passage:

Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?  Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”  “Caesar’s,” they replied.   Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus asked the Pharisees to show him the Roman coins that were used to pay the imperial tax.  The Romans required its subject peoples to pay the imperial tax using Roman coins, and the Roman coins featured Caesar’s image and an inscription lauding him as a god.  By asking to see the coin, Jesus was actually responding to both grounds on which the Pharisees hoped to entrap him.

First, the simple fact that the Pharisees had a Roman coin easily at hand indicates that they were using Roman coins as their money.  They had no problem at all in using the coins that were stamped with the emperor’s image and which proclaimed him a deity.  This neutralized the Pharisees’ attempt to portray Jesus as a participant in the Roman state religion, because they too would be equally implicated.

Second, Jesus asks them whose image is on the coin.  The answer is Caesar’s.  And so, Jesus says somewhat dismissively, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”  In responding in this way, Jesus is effectively detoxifying the imperial tax issue, because there is no problem in giving Roman money back to Rome.  He is putting it into its proper perspective.  He reframes the entire issue, and how Jesus does this contains important truths for us today.

The full sentence of what Jesus says is “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  Jesus turns the focus away from human thoughts and concerns, and points to God’s desires for us.  The focus is not on our worries and concerns but on our part in the Kingdom of Heaven.  This lesson is very important for us today because many Americans have come to see politics as a new religion.  This is true for both the left and the right.  A few years ago, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a book title Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics in which he examined Christianity’s trends over the past fifty years in America.  One of the things he looked at was the interplay between American politics and Christianity.  He noted how each side moved between the messianic and apocalyptic depending on whether their party was in power.  The world was either going to hell, or heaven depending on whether our preferred party’s president was in office.

This attitude towards life distracts us from God and what God wants of us.  We become focused on political strategies and we begin to worry and feel that the world will end unless we immerse ourselves yet further in politics.  I think that this isn’t just true for politics either.  It is true for all of life.  It can be our jobs, our financial future, our friends, our possessions, our families.  Whenever we become exclusively focused on something other than God, we lose perspective.  We can come to believe that life will only be good if our political party is in power, or if we get that promotion at work, or if our retirement plans are set, or if we just have the latest smartphone or TV.  It’s all a lie.

And so we have the words of Jesus.  “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  Jesus is not telling us not to pay the imperial tax, or engage politically, or plan for retirement, or work hard in our careers.  No.  What Jesus is telling us is to not make those issues the primary issue in our lives.  The primary thing in our lives must be our service to God.

The Anglican theologian John Stott, pointed out that just as Caesar’s image was on the coin, it belonged to Caesar.  But we are created in God’s image, and so we belong to God.  Our lives should be given back to God.  The primary focus in our lives must be on what God has done for us through Jesus Christ, and how we are called to live in response.

Next week will be Ingathering Sunday where we bring our pledges to church where they will be blessed and dedicated to the service of God.  Our financial pledges to God’s work at St. Luke’s should be part of our greater stewardship of everything that God has given to us.  This doesn’t just mean our money, but our time, our talents and our hearts.  God has given us so much, and he has given us the responsibility for how we will use these gifts.

Our Gospel lesson teaches us to keep the right perspective, to give back to God what is God’s.  As we consider our stewardship responsibilities, let us keep this foremost in our hearts and minds.

Let us pray.

Lord God, we pray that you would give us your peace which passes all understanding.  May we always remember what you have done for us through your son Jesus Christ.  Give us discernment as we fulfill your call upon us to be stewards of your creation., including the many gifts you have given to us of time, talent, and treasure.   Amen.

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