This is the message I preached on Sunday, Oct. 22 at St.Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The text is Matthew 22:15-22.
I had to laugh when I first read today’s gospel reading. You see, this year we got sticker shock when we received our tax return back from the accountant. Previously we owed a little, but this year it was a LOT. On top of that, because we had to file for an extension while I was in the hospital and rehab, we found this out just about a week ago.
Now the taxes spoken of in this lesson are nothing like any of our taxes. Instead it was a flat-rate personal tax on all men from age 14 and up and women from ages 12-65. It was levied at around at least a day’s annual wage. Later it was combined with a percentage tax on property as well (The Oxford Companion).
The tax was a painful reminder that the land of the Jewish people was occupied by foreign powers who worshipped false gods. There was only one way to pay the tax; with Roman coins which served not only as legal tender, but pieces of propaganda. On one side of each coin was an image of Caesar with inscriptions concerning his divinity or status as son of a god. During Jesus’ time, a common phrase found on coins was, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” Such images and words flew in the face of the beliefs of both Jews and followers of Jesus. So, both political and religious issues were raised with the use of such money.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” This is what we see here as the Pharisees and Herodians together come to see Jesus. The Pharisees were popular with the people, while the Herodians aligned themselves with the Romans. Faithful observance of God’s law was what motivated the Pharisees, while power and money motivated the Herodians. The two groups were opposed to each other on nearly all issues, except one—their desire to get rid of Jesus. Another way to understand their unlikely alliance is, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Matthew tells us from the beginning that the Pharisees and Herodians had plotted to entrap Jesus. They not only hoped to get him in trouble with the Roman authorities, but also with the people.
Initially, their question seems simple enough; one which required a mere yes or no answer. But it was a loaded question and Jesus knew this group’s intentions. They were more concerned with their own power than they were with honoring God.
If Jesus answered no to paying taxes, he would be guilty of treason. If Jesus said yes, he would be guilty of heresy in the eyes of the religious leaders. The adoration of the crowds too, would not only evaporate, but would turn plain ugly. We are at a point in Matthew’s story where things are getting tense. Earlier in that week, we have Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem amid adoring crowds. He later overturns the tables of the money changers in the temple. Then Jesus tells several provocative parables calling into question the religious leaders’ authority and standing before God. Jesus was becoming a problem.
Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus replying with non-answers. Here again, he throws the question back to those who asked it, but not before Jesus nails them as hypocrites who were trying to tempt him.
Now Jesus asks for one of the Roman coins to illustrate his answer. What’s interesting is that it didn’t take long for the Pharisees and Herodians to produce a coin. One must have reached into his purse and brought forth the coin with its idolatrous image and inscription, acknowledging that they are Caesar’s; and this in the court of the temple. No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites.
Once they had given Jesus a coin, Jesus asks the Pharisees and Herodians, “Whose head is this, and whose title? (V. 20). Their answer rightly is, “The emperor’s” (v. 21). But it’s not so simple because not only is there an engraved image, but you also have the confession that Caesar is a god. Any Jew holding the coin is breaking the first two of the Ten Commandments—to have no other gods before the Lord God and to not misuse the Name of the Lord.
Jesus’ simple, ingenious response is to give the emperor what is his and give God what’s God’s. There’s Jesus’ punch line. Jesus doesn’t just evade the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ trap or confound their plans, but issues a challenge to his hearers that reverberates through the ages into our sanctuaries (David Lose)—namely who and whose are you?
In Matthew’s world, Caesar was still Caesar, tax was still due and Christians were still struggling with the place of Caesar if Jesus is Lord. This struggle continued into the early church as Christians interpreted how to relate to political structures as we’re told in various New Testament letters. (Rom 13:1-7 etc.).
Despite the fact that Jesus’ opponents carry a coin with a graven image and confession of Caesar’s divinity, Jesus does not accuse them of blasphemy or disloyalty. Instead, he calls them hypocrites, those who wear another and false likeness. So, perhaps the charge against those trying to entrap Jesus, is best understood as amnesia. They have forgotten who they are and in whose likeness they were made.
Whose likeness is stamped on our lives? We too, are made in the image of God. What’s more, in Holy Baptism, God makes us his very own. We “have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever” (ELW, Baptism). So, if we are God’s, what belongs to God? We do. All of us and all we have, all we do, who we are.
What might God’s good news and justice look like in our world today? Where things get tricky is just because God is calling you to do something, it doesn’t mean that’s what all of God’s people are supposed to do. Remember Paul’s analogy of different parts of the body? We are hands and feet and eyes etc. We will not function very well if we all do the same thing. Each of us has different gifts of service to God and others as well as different passions for service.
Someone heard the call to work in Honduras. Another heard the call to make mats for the homeless, while another is compelled to work to alleviate opiate addiction in our county. While we listen to God’s call for us, we must understand that others may hear God’s call differently than we do. Can we trust that the loving God who leads and guides us, leads and guides others as well?
There’s a very short hymn in the ELW that beautifully expresses what should be the cry of our hearts. The title is On My Heart Imprint Your Image.
On My Heart Imprint Your Image ELW 811
On my heart imprint your image,
blessed Jesus, king of grace,
that life's troubles nor its pleasures
ever may your work erase.
Let the clear inscription be:
Jesus, crucified for me,
is my life, my hope's foundation,
all my glory and salvation!
Text: Thomas H. Kingo, 1634-1703; tr. Peer O. Strömme, 1856-1921, alt.
M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, Matthew
Fred B. Craddock, Preaching Through the Christian Year A
David Lose, …in the Meantime, davidlosenet
Erick J. Thompson,