GOSPEL: Matthew 22:15-22
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.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
I don’t know about you, but this fall season has felt a bit like we living on the precipice of something big. As our quiet and homebound pandemic summer turns towards things we didn’t think we had to worry about. Schools starting, work places ramping up activity, dramatic elections to the south, and all of a sudden there realization that a change in seasonal weather will bring us closer to danger, the danger of being out and about with others, or spending too much time alone at home. All of it combines together to make us feel like whatever comes next will have important consequences. Maybe that moment arrived in Manitoba this week with soaring COVID cases… and maybe the big thing is still to come.
Along the way, our journey through the Gospel of Matthew this fall has been in a smiler place. In the days between triumphal entry and the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. In the last few weeks Jesus has been telling parables to plotting Pharisees in the temple. The parable of the landowner who servants and son are killed when the go to collect the rent. And the parable of the mad king who sent soldiers after his wedding guests when they refused to come.
All of it has been part of a plot to trap Jesus into saying something heretical.
And finally, we land today with the question taxes and authority. The Pharisees have questioned Jesus’ own Authority way back at the beginning of this series interchanges, and now they are questioning to what authority Jesus will submit.
Now, before going any further, knowing some history is vital to understanding what is going on. The question of paying taxes to Rome, was more of a question of idolatry, than it was civic responsibility. Most people in Israel were taxed about 85% of their income. Some to Rome, some to the temple, some to pay off tax collectors, some to the Levites, some to the towns and villages in which they lived. People were bled dry for their money, and were often only allowed to keep just enough to survive. Most had to go into debt in order to make ends meet.
However, the issues with paying taxes to the Emperor had to do with the coins themselves. The Roman Denarius coin bore the image of the Caesar, with an inscription that read “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus.” The coin was the symbol of Caesar’s godship.
Yet, Israelites were prohibited from having any other God’s but the God of Abraham and Moses… therefore to even touch a coin would be sin. And yet, their Roman occupiers gave them no choice, since they all must pay taxes. This is why there were money changers in the temple, sinful Roman money needed to changed into pure temple money.
The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus so that they can get rid of him and his enthusiastic followers.
They were attempting to get Jesus into trouble by making him either choose heresy by denying the one true God or to risk the wrath of the Roman Empire by undermining Caesar’s divinity.
Yet, in the way the Pharisees pose the question the reveal a problem of their own. They reveal their own use of God as an object. Their faith is revealed to be nothing more than a tool to be exploited, a means to obtain power and influence. Being a Pharisee meant status and material comfort.
The Pharisees might not have even known or seen what they were doing. They had convinced themselves that their objectification of God was true faithfulness. The did not see how they were making everything about their own power and control.
We don’t have Denariuses with graven images of divine Caesar’s in our pockets, but we certainly try to prop up and hold on to our power and control in the same way. Christians aren’t above using God is a weapon to condemn and judge others, but more often than not, it is a matter of our trust and sense of security. Like the Pharisees we don’t even see the ways which we place our faith in ourselves, that we seek to control our world in order to protect ourselves from danger and fear.
Especially during this moment of global crisis, especially when we are being called upon to trust authorities that call us to care for our neighbour and do our part, especially when delusion mad men are on twitter all day and in the news every night spewing lies and hate into air.
Especially these days, our instincts push us to trust ourselves, and hold on to whatever power we can see, whatever security we can create, whatever delusion might give us comfort.
It is a very human thing to try to make into God something we own and control and can use for our purposes. And it very human to rationalize acting out in self-interest because it is too hard and scary and exhausting to keep admitted how little control we actually have over the world.
It is easier to believe the conspiracies about the pandemic, easier to convince ourselves it is nothing, easier to insist on life as normal in whatever ways we can.
Only to discover that we have lost our way.
And so when Jesus answer the Pharisees, he points to their contradiction. He asks for a coin… one that the Pharisees should NOT have inside the walls of the temple. (Jesus can be a little cheeky sometimes).
“Whose head is on this coin?” He says.
“The emperor’s” they answer.
And then Jesus replies,
Give to Caesar what is Caesar and give to God what is God’s.
So what belongs to God?
The entire universe.
And what then belongs to Caesar?
Jesus has caught the Pharisees in their own trap.
But more thouroughly, he has made plain their own problems of faith.
The Pharisees are using God as a tool, a weapon and a trap for Jesus, yet Jesus points them back to God. Reminding them everything belongs to God.
All things. All of creation. All of life. All power and might. All righteousness and virtue.
And all Grace and forgiveness. All mercy.
Even us and our broken faith belongs to God.
But more importantly, giving to God what is God’s is NOT really ours to do.
Because we cannot give anything to God.
And that is thing that Jesus has caught the Pharisees with. As they try to trap him, and contain the threat of this ministry, and they try to protect the true faith of Israel, which just happens to give them a lot of power and privilege and wealth… Jesus reminds them their faith, that God is not a thing to control, nor tool to use to maintain their position.
Rather, God is the one who to whom all things belong.
And the Pharisees and all Jews knows this, even when they don’t remember it. Because they pray it at every sabbath, and they pray the reminder over and over at passover:
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe.
And so giving to God what is God’s is truly to be reminded of the God to whom we belong,
is the God of Kings and Empires, of beggars and the lame, of regular folks.
Giving to God what is God’s is to let go of our hope in ourselves, to let go of our efforts at control and security, to recognize that the power we think we have in this world is an illusion.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe.
Jesus reminds the Pharisees and us that we cannot hold the power of God, no matter how hard we try.
Rather that The Lord God, King of the Universe is holding on to us. Holding us in our broken, backwards, forgetful attempts at faith. Holding us even as we are surrounded by the dangers and threats of our world. Holding us even though we don’t always see it.
In fact, our broken faith, our tendency to try to turn God into a tool to use and manipulate is the whole reason God has come. And it is the whole reason that Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem a conquering King and it is the whole reason that soon after the Pharisees ask this question, Jesus will be arrested, put on trial and put to death.
But the blessed Lord God, King of the Universe is the one to whom all things belong, even death.
And in death, God shows us that there is nothing that doesn’t belong to God, no place where God will not seek us out, no brokenness that surprises God… and that there is nothing in all of creation that God does not hold in God’s hands. That even death belongs to God.
And so in pointing the Pharisees and pointing us back to God, Jesus is also pointing us from death to life. Reminding us that the God to whom all creation belongs has promised us, and our misguided faith, resurrection and new life as well.
So what belongs to God?
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe to whom all things, including our very selves, our life, our death and our salvation, belong.