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October 26, 2014 - Matthew 22.15-22

“Give to God What is God’s”

Matthew 22.15-22

October 26, 2014

 

 15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 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.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

 

What is this encounter really about?   The Pharisees, who are always looking for a way to upset the apple cart of Jesus’ ministry, are up to their old tricks.  They are trying to trick Jesus.  They have asked him a “yes or no” question to which either is a wrong answer capable of putting him in jail.  He answers with a zinger that literally sends his opponents scampering away with their tails between their legs.  “Give to the emperor that which is the emperor’s and give to God what’s God’s.”  (Render unto Caesar…) We hear it quoted a lot.  We hear it used to justify many different viewpoints.  But what is really going on here?

 

Jesus is the great debater here, the master of the moment. The debate begins with flattery of Jesus: "We know that you are sincere." (22:16). The argument is insincere. His opponents are mere "hypocrites" (22:18) who do not really want to know the faithful thing to do in regard to tax but only hope to entrap Jesus in his arguments.[1]

 

They think they are being clever and all, trying to create a controversy about Jesus’ views of power.  They are the ones concerned with earthly power, not Jesus.  They are consumed with their own myopic concerns about power here on earth that they have become blind to the real power right in front of them.

 

The taxes here are the payments on personal property and crop yield that the Roman overlords required. The Gospel of Luke begins (Luke 2:1-5) with a registration for this tax. Jews were in constant conflict with the demands of the Roman occupation forces, this tax being only one instance of the difficulty of living under the occupation.[2]

 

It is important to know for this scripture that the Romans provided a special coin for Jews that did not have a picture of Caesar on it, since the Jews were forbidden to have a “graven image.”  Jesus asks for a coin (22:19), and only his critics have a coin, providing a sense of irony to the encounter for only his opponents have any of Caesar's money on them! It is a drachma with the image of Tiberius stamped upon it. Jesus proves that they are Hypocrites.  Breaking of the graven image law.  He throws back into their faces the question.  They must decide where to draw the line between where the Emperor’s jurisdiction ends and where God’s begins.

 

 “Whose image is this?”  Caesar’s eikon, or image.  The coin is in Caesar’s image, but humans are made in the eikon of God.  Governments rule over things like money, or taxes, or buildings, or uniforms.  But humans, wherever realm they operate in; social, economic, political, or religious, they belong to God.

 

When it comes to the relationship between Christians and the omnipotent modern state, it is not easy to devise clear lines of accountability, simple rules to follow, and straightforward principles. Following Jesus sometimes means that our loyalties conflict. The demands of the government and the call of Jesus may sometimes be at odds with one another. Perhaps the best we can hope, in matters between Christians and the state, is to be permanently uneasy, always willing to be surprised by the range of Christ's lordship, always willing to obey God rather than human authority.  

 

This is an election year, and it seems that the role of Church and State always plays a part in that.  Currently, there is a big ruckus going on in Houston over the issue of religious liberty.  The city council has passed a measure to protect equal rights among all people, specifically, LGBT folks.  But that is not the controversy.  Well, some Houston area pastors preached out against the new resolution from their pulpits.  But that is not the controversy, either.  The controversy is that the Mayor of Houston has now subpoenaed the sermon notes from four area pastors.  THAT has gotten ministers everywhere up in arms because that has never been done before, and frankly, it is a clear violation to free, protected speech.  I would never give my sermon notes over to a subpoena.   It’s the principle of the thing.  (However, I do not know of any church, anywhere that doesn’t publish the weekly sermon on their website either in video, audio or text format.  Every sermon I have ever preached here is available on our website.)  So really, the subpoenas sound stupid.

 

As part of the political process, God often becomes a “political issue”.  But when people look to the political process first and foremost to change the world, does it not show a lack of faith in the gospel to transform?  We opt for a political movement rather than a movement of God’s Spirit.  We try to do in the voting booth what we have not accomplished in our prayer closet.  It is a continuous struggle, and often we will be alone in our answers, just like Jesus.  It’s worth noting that in the end, church and state conspired to kill Jesus.

 

I remember coming to Vacation Bible School when I was a child.  Back then, we did things a little differently than we do them now.  We used to process into the church, behind the American Flag, the Christian Flag and the Bible.  Some of you might remember doing this.  Then we would say that pledges to all three - the American Flag, the Christian Flag and the Bible, and in that order.  What exactly did we learn from that?  I wonder if that was driven by our worship of God, or was it driven by our love of country?  It does seem to me – as I read the scriptures – that our allegiance to God must be first among all our allegiances.  Period.  Does that mean that our allegiance to God is in competition with my allegiance to my country? 

 

When, after the horrid events of September 11, 2001, the people of the United States were cast down into great grief, when we needed help and hope, to whom did we turn? Americans reached, from what I observed, not for the cross but rather for the flag. After all, if right is to be done in our world, if we are to be secure, if we are to have confidence in the future, where will that be given to us if not from the hands of the all powerful state? It is up to the government to work peace, security, and justice, or peace, security, and justice won't be done. I heard about lots of people returning to church – but that didn’t last.

 

After President Bush gave his famous speech to congress, shortly after September 11, 2001, a commentator said, "The American people desperately need to believe that the President has the character, the power, the intelligence, and the wisdom to bring us through this crisis safely." We tend to imbue our governmental leaders with divine attributes because we need a god to save us, even if we have to make up our gods for ourselves.[3]

 

Hear me clearly today.  I am not asking or inferring that anyone should love this country less.  In fact, I will ask you to love it more.  Be a patriot.  But what I am saying to you, clearly, without hesitation or ambiguity, is this:  God deserves our highest and utmost allegiance.  In fact, I am not saying it to you, Jesus is.

 

Jesus is acknowledging that we owe the state one type of allegiance, and that we owe God a different, greater and more serious type of allegiance.  Government provides with practical things like…roads, schools, national defense, police, and things like that….things which are important, but have little to no eternal value.  So, in order to pay back what you owe, you give to Caesar that which is of no eternal value – taxes.

 

What are the things that are Caesar’s?  The things of a temporary, perishable nature.  What are the things that are God’s? The things we cannot earn, make, or hold:  Our heart, our lives, our love, our minds, our conduct, etc.  These are the things that Jesus is talking about.

 

What God gives us and what we should give God ought to be much more important to us than the mere material things of our lives.  Human allegiances MUST take a back seat to God – whether they be national allegiance, or personal interests or whatever.  What is the First Commandment?  “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other Gods before me.”  The second is “you shall make no idols for yourselves.”  We are vividly reminded of that these perilous days.  We are all shaken by the wobbly economy – and it reminds me of how easy it is to have an idol in our lives.  Are you worried about the stock market?  Or are you reminding yourself of the greater allegiance in your life?  A great market on Wall Street is called a “Bull Market.”  In fact, there is a giant golden bull there on wall street. It is scary to think that the “Bull Market” has become our modern day golden calf. 

 

Max Lucado, a pastor in San Antonio, told a story about a worship service he attended the week after Hurricane Katrina hit:

A friend and I attended a worship service at Antioch Bap­tist Church last Sunday night. Several African American Church leaders had organized an assembly to pray for the evacuees that have ended up in San Antonio. Many of them sat on the front rows, dressed in all the clothing they owned: t-shirts, jeans. Their faces were weary from the week. But when the music started and the worship began, they came to their feet and sang with tears in their eyes. They were rich. Are you that rich? Were all your possessions washed away, could you still worship? Would you still worship? If not, you are holding things too tightly…[4]

 

You’ll never see a U-Haul following a hearse.  We have to start thinking and living like people that will live for an eternity.  Our greatest goal cannot be anything having to do with this place and time if we really believe that God has an eternity for us. We are citizens of God’s Kingdom, which is far greater, further reaching, and beyond everlasting compared to this country, which, as great as she is, is finite and fallible.

 

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but give to God the things that are God’s.”  I am not worried at all today about what you have given to Caesar.  Caesar can take care of that. In fact, many of you have given so much to our country that it does me proud just to know you.  But that is not the question to day.  What you have given or will give to Caesar is not the question.  The question is: “What have you given to God?”  Have you given to God that which you truly owe Him?  If not, what are you waiting for?

 

[1] Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, October 16, 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, October 16, 2005.

[4] Max Lucado, “What Katrina Can Teach Us”, Fall 2005.