By The Rev. Sherry Deets

October 16, 2011

Matthew 22: 15-22

What we are witnessing in this confrontation between Jesus and some Pharisees is precisely that: a confrontation. The “Pharisees” represented here do not represent all of the Pharisees. There were some who saw Jesus as a worthy debating partner, perhaps even as a friend.

The Pharisees we see in this passage, though, despite their flattering descriptions of his integrity, are not remotely interested in honest debate. These represent the sect’s more rabid faction. They have already decided that they, like Herod, want to kill him. So they set out with some “Herodians” – those who believe in collaborating with the Roman government – to try to trap Jesus with seemingly contradictory aspects of his own teaching. “What do you think?” they ask Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

The question raises a dilemma – big time. Paying taxes to the emperor of Rome, paying the taxes levied and collected by the Roman government, was one of the hot-button issues – perhaps the hot-button issue – of the day. The Roman Empire was, as you know, the reigning world power of the day. Rome had invaded Israel, divided the country up into sectors in accordance with Rome’s needs, and set up a puppet government to rule as Rome saw fit. Rome employed proxies who were natives of Israel to levy and collect taxes. These tax collectors were the most hated people in occupied Israel; they were seen as traitors. Many of them were dishonest – collecting much more in “taxes” than Rome required, paying Rome and keeping the overcharge for themselves. In this way, many of them became wealthy at the expense of their struggling compatriots.

So, “should we pay taxes to this – emperor, the representative of a pagan occupying force that sets up its idolatrous statues and standards all over the place, that refuses to respect our religion and traditions, that doesn’t even respect the temple itself? Should we pay taxes to this foreign power?” these Pharisees and Herodians ask Jesus.

Some devout Jews said no! Absolutely not! There were revolutionaries among the Jewish people who believed in complete non-cooperation with the Roman government and who advocated, as a civic and religious duty, paying nothing in taxes. Other devout Jews – the “Herodians,” so named because they supported the Roman puppet Herod – believed in following the path of least resistance and collaborating with the Roman occupier, even to the point of paying taxes.

So here, representatives of both factions confront Jesus, hoping to cause him to embarrass himself and diminish his stature before this crowd that seems to regard him so highly. “What do you think, Rabbi? You are so passionate for God’s truth; tell us: What is God’s truth with regard to the emperor’s taxes? Should we pay them, or not?”

What does Jesus do? He gives the only realistic answer he could have given under the circumstances. He asks for a coin – a specimen of the Roman currency used to pay the Roman tax. And Jesus asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title? The coin, of course, bears Caesar’s image and belongs to Caesar. The Pharisees’ answer, “Caesar’s,” indicating Caesar’s ownership — a point Jesus will press. Their reply half answers their question: they possess in this coin the possession of another. Is it wrong to return property to its owner?” The coin is an instrumentality of Caesar’s government — under Caesar’s control — its value established by Caesar. It is available for their use only because Caesar has ordered the mint to strike it and the treasury to disburse it. It is an integral part of Caesar’s realm.

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s” — but “give back” draws attention to the fact that the coin comes from Caesar.

But Jesus adds, “and (give back) to God the things that are God’s”. We are made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). We bear God’s image, and so it is appropriate to give ourselves back to God — all that we have and all that we are — because God created us and we are an integral part of God’s realm.

Jesus does not divide the world into two equal realms, clearly defining the boundaries between our obligations to Caesar and our obligations to God. Rather, his answer acknowledges our obligation to the state, but affirms our larger obligation to God. Coins bearing Caesar’s image may belong to Caesar, but all things (coins, Caesar, Rome, the planet earth, the universe) come from the mind of God and are under God’s dominion. Caesar’s realm is but a speck within God’s realm. The days of Caesar’s realm are numbered, but God’s realm is eternal.

It is as vital today to resolve the conflict between loyalty to the “emperor” and loyalty to God as it was during Jesus’ time. If we ask Jesus for specifics on how we should manage our loyalties, we find that his answer is similar to the one he gave Pharisees and Herodians.

So, what do you think Jesus means? What things are Caesar’s and what are God’s? How does our faith shape our economic decisions — our buying, saving, giving, and the rest?”

Henri Nouwen shares a story based in the tradition of desert spirituality about John and Sandy…. We all have Johns and Sandys among us. One day John said to Sandy, “We’ve never had an argument. Let’s have an argument like other people have.” Sandy asked, “But how can we start an argument?” John answered, “It’s very simple. I take a brick and say, ‘It’s mine,’ and then you say, ‘No, it’s mine,’ and then we have an argument.” So they sat down and John took a brick and said, “This brick is mine.” Sandy looked gently at him and said, “Well, if it’s yours, take it.” And so, they could not have an argument.

As long as we keep bricks in our hands and speak about mine and thine, our little power games gradually will escalate into big power games and our big power games will lead to hatred, violence and war. When we look at life from below, our fears and insecurities lead us to grab bricks wherever we can.

But when we dare to let go of our bricks, empty our hands, and raise them up to the One who is our true refuge and our true stronghold, our poverty opens us to receive power from above, power that heals, power that will be a true blessing for ourselves and for our world. Source: Power, Powerlessness and Power.

All we are and all we have comes from God. May we live our lives understanding and seeing that great gift. Amen.

Copyright 2008-2012 Episcopal Church of the Trinity.

The text of this sermon is the property of the author and may not be duplicated or used without permission.