Matthew 22:15-22 – The question about paying taxes
Prayer of the Day
Sovereign God, raise your throne in our hearts. Created by you, let us live in your image; created for you, let us act for your glory; redeemed by you, let us give you what is yours, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. Shine like stars | in the world;
holding fast to the | word of life. Alleluia. (Phil. 2:15, 16)
Show me the Money
First they smother him with flattery:
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere…”
“You teach the way of God in accordance with truth…”
“You show deference to no one…”
“You do not regard people with partiality…”
Every adept leader knows, when they start pouring on the charm, watch out. They are buttering you up like a turkey before Thanksgiving. Here’s some ancient wisdom: Beware of flattery:
“Whoever flatters a neighbor is spreading a net for the neighbor’s feet.” Proverbs 29:5
The manipulator showers you with praise upon praise. In leadership you’re taking shots from every side, so you take affirmation anywhere you can get it. You grow to need it, depend on it. The first time you do something the manipulator doesn’t like, they yank the praise and replace it with scorn. If you’ve been feeding off the affirmation, it’s like a punch in the gut. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Most pastors experience it on internship or in their first call. After a while you learn to get your kudos elsewhere. Home? Friends? But even there it’s dangerous. Get in a fight with your spouse, and you’re back in the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Best to grow into the place where you depend, on the strength that comes from prayer. Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. Best to depend on a vibrant spiritual life. The joy of the Lord is your strength. If you depend on the praise of others for your sense of well-being, it will fail you.
“Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel are smooth lips with an evil heart. An enemy dissembles in speaking while harboring deceit within; when an enemy speaks graciously, do not believe it, for there are seven abominations concealed within; though hatred is covered with guile, the enemy’s wickedness will be exposed in the assembly. Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling. A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” (Proverbs 26:23-29)
So, with that cheerful word of warning, we dive further into the text. The Pharisees are plotting against Jesus. They send their disciples, along with the Herodians. The Pharisees are the purity party. They want the Romans out of Judea. The Herodians, of course, have accepted the Roman occupation as a given and are even profiting from it.
Then they ask an impossible question, designed to get him into trouble, one way or the other. Eight simple words: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” With that, the trap is set. If he says yes, he will alienate the Pharisees and all who want an overthrow of the Roman occupation. If he says no, he will alienate the Herodians and can be arrested and convicted of treason. (And he will be).
The casual listener today may hear the question as, “Is it lawful to pay taxes?” But this is not the question. There are many taxes, including a temple tax. The question is, essentially: Is it appropriate, according to Jewish religious law, to pay taxes to Caesar, a foreign, occupying emperor who claims to be the Son to God? The denarius coin said “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus” on one side and “Pontifex Maximus” (high priest) on the other. It had a graven image on it, making it idolatry. It said Caesar was the son of God. It was considered idolatry to use or even carry these coins.
Idolatry or treason? There is no way to win this one.
Or is there?
“Let me see the coin,” he says. “Show me the money!” This is brilliant. Jesus springs a trap back upon them. He doesn’t have one of these coins. Ironically, though, they do. Without thinking, one of them tosses him a coin. Even if he doesn’t say another word, he has now won the argument. He is under fire, but it is they who are carrying the idolatrous coins.
Jesus looks at the coin, a symbol of Roman power. “Whose head is this?” It was, of course, Caesar’s head. “Render, then, unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…” The Herodians smile. The Pharisees frown. Wait… What did he say? Did he just say to cave into the Romans and pay the tax?
“…and render unto God what is God’s.”
Did he also say to give to God what belongs to God? And what belongs to God? Doesn’t everything belong to God? (Psalm 24)
Somehow he has managed to circumvent the trap and at the same time spring it on them. The text says they were all amazed. Astonished. He had cleverly outwitted them. Perhaps it’s not such an easy dichotomy. Maybe he’s suggesting they’re a bit too focused on money. Perhaps the us vs. them mentality isn’t as important to God as they think. Perhaps rejecting the coin is as idolatrous as the coin itself. Perhaps they should focus on what God wants from us.
The preacher might take some time to allow people to dwell on the challenging question of what belongs to God.
Rather than just a church/state sermon or a two-kingdom sermon, perhaps this is a stewardship sermon. What does belong to God after all? 10%? Or 100%? If we practice “whole life” stewardship, if we truly believe it all belongs to God, what implications does that have for how we live our lives? Perhaps we give 10% to the work of the kingdom in the world, but even the 90% we “keep” belongs to God. What does it mean to be faithful not only to the 10% but also to the 90%, using it in godly ways?
Or perhaps it’s an opportunity to talk about economic exploitation of which we are all a part. Do you know how every penny of your money in the bank is invested? How about the purchases made on your behalf by companies you hire for services? What about your spending choices? Could not your most recent purchase being supporting adverse working conditions in China? We are truly in bondage to sin and can’t free ourselves. How do we live faithfully in a sinful world in light of money that cannot be anything but tainted? How do we, through our giving and spending, witness to the resurrected Christ and the reign of God?