Sermon; 20 Pentecost/Proper 24A; Matthew 22:15-22
If you've looked at your calendar recently you will have noticed that we are rapidly approaching the end of the church year. Deacon Sue pointed out to me recently that we only have three green Sundays left, since All Saints' and Christ the King are white. And if you've been paying attention to the gospel lessons, you will have noticed that we are coming to the end of the story there as well.
Over the past few Sundays we've heard Jesus tell parables about a man having two sons and telling his listeners that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of heaven ahead of the religious people; about a landowner kicking out the tenants in favor of those who would do his will; and about a king throwing a wedding banquet but needing to invite people off the street because the original invitees would not come.
The overall context of these stories is that they all take place during what has come to be known as Holy Week. Jesus is in Jerusalem having rode in on a donkey and being welcomed by the people as “The one who comes in the name of the Lord.” And things are beginning to heat up between Jesus and his adversaries.
While in Jerusalem, Jesus has overturned tables in the temple and, as I said, told politically pointed parables to the religious leaders about who and what God is looking for. Those leaders have had enough of being the focus of Jesus' stories and have now begun looking for ways to take him down. As part of their plan, those leaders, the Pharisees, team up with a group we know only as the Herodians.
We don't know much about this group – this is the only time in Matthew they are mentioned, and they are only mentioned twice in Mark. What we do know comes from their name: Herodians. That name implies they were a politically religious party who supported King Herod, the puppet totalitarian propped up by Rome.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, were decidedly not pro-Roman, but they were pro-Jew (obviously) and they were willing to look the other way, or even collaborate with Rome, when the situation dictated as long as they were left alone to practice their religion.
So we now have a situation where the pro-Roman Herodians are teaming up with the Roman-compromising Pharisees in order to put a stop to the rabble-rousing, trouble-making Jesus. Both groups see Jesus as a troublemaker because he has at times, and most recently during this Passover season, called the religious leaders to task for not caring about God's people or twisting God's law to suit themselves. He's a troublemaker because he has challenged the religious and political systems of the day. He's a troublemaker because he has preached about raising up the lowly. He's a troublemaker because he has worked to level the playing field. And for those in positions of power and authority, those were troublesome actions.
And so the question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Embedded in that question are these religious questions: Are you pro-government or pro-people? Are you pro-Rome or pro-Jew?
The answer? “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors, and to God the things that are Gods.”
In one respect this is an easy answer to a “gotcha” question. Who owns the coins? The emperor. Who owns everything else? God. Then give to each based on that.
But when we examine his answer more deeply, we are not given the leisure to compartmentalize things so easily.
“Show me a coin,” says Jesus. A coin is produced, but we don't know from where. Commentators tend to think that one of the Pharisees or Herodians pulled it out of their pocket or purse. And therein lies the clue that this isn't just about taxes, this is a question with very deep religious undertones.
If the Pharisees and Herodians were so concerned about the legality (religious allowance) of paying taxes to the emperor, then why were they carrying idols to other gods in their pockets? A Roman coin was stamped with the image of the emperor and the slogan, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of Divine Augustus.” In effect, the Pharisees and Herodians were carrying coins in clear defiance of the first two Commandments: You shall have no other gods but me; You shall not make any idols.
The fact that these people were carrying around idols to false gods only proved that they were willing to be deceptive and hypocritical when faced with an outside threat. It also proved that they were willing to play partisan politics in an effort to remain in power and eliminate anyone who opposed them.
In other words, they would rather bow to false gods, compromise their faith in the name of power, and work to eliminate a man who threatened them, all in exchange for retaining power and control.
Jesus was a threat because he proclaimed God's justice (What does the Lord require? To do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with the Lord.) Jesus was a threat because he advocated for welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked (I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was hungry and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me.). Jesus was a threat because he forgave people their sins and welcomed tax collectors and prostitutes into the kingdom of heaven as full and equal partners.
Jesus gives a complicated answer to a complicated question. We cannot simply compartmentalize our lives into the secular and religious, or the holy and profane. We live in both realms. We pay taxes to the government. And even though we may personally proclaim to be pacifists, some of those taxes go toward the military machine. We ourselves have been made in the image of God and we carry the mark of divinity within us. Everything of ours is Gods. But we must still make our way in this world. We must, therefore, give to Caesar that which is Caesars and to God that which is Gods. But this is no easy division.
What Jesus is reminding the Pharisees and Herodians of, and what Jesus is challenging us to consider, is this: The issue isn't about paying taxes, the issue is about whom we shall serve.
As Jesus said earlier, you can't serve two masters. The Pharisees and Herodians had made their choice. We have yet to make ours. We are approaching the end and the choice is before us: Will we surrender ourselves to Caesar in the name of power and control, or will we surrender ourselves to God in the name of service and self-giving love?