Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22
My brother is sixteen months younger than me. Being that close in age meant that once my sister was born, my brother and I had to share a room which we did for about twelve years. Being so close in age as children we tended to like a lot of the same stuff and play with the same type of toys. One of the side effects of this is we knew exactly what belonged to who. We did a fairly good job at sharing, but we also tended to know exactly which hot wheel car belonged to which person. This meant that for some of our particular favorites, we actually had doubles of-one for each of us. As we got a little older our interests diversified some and this became less of a problem. While I ended up with all of our old Star Wars toys, I could probably still go through them and be able to say which figure belonged to who. From an early age we develop a strong sense of what is ours, and we tend to be fairly possessive of it. This is why one of the toughest and most persistent lessons that parents try to impress upon their young children is the importance of sharing. Many parents have had to deal with a toddler melt down that resulted from another child not sharing or telling the child they needed to share. As these experiences attest, sharing what we believe is ours does not always come naturally. This is true for children, and honestly is probably truer for adults than we like to admit.
Children may be possessive of toys, but what adults tend to be possessive of is money. Which does make some sense. After all, we tend to work hard for it and in our current system we kind of need it to live. One of the more common interpretations of this morning’s scripture focuses on money. This common interpretation seeks to help us realign our understanding of what is our money. This common interpretation frames the scripture that as one that encourages paying our taxes to the government and paying our tithe to God. This interpretation seeks to help us not think about the money we have as strictly our money. There is wisdom to that. Because even if we may not want to, we should pay our taxes. Likewise, offering back to God a portion of what God has blessed with is an act of obedience and an act of worship. That common understanding of this scripture, even if it contains wisdom, does miss the point a bit. This scripture is about a trap question involving taxes and it involves a Roman coin, but this scripture is not about money. It is about far more than that. This scripture is about what belongs to whom, specifically what belongs to God and what we should properly render to God.
This morning’s scripture takes place during Holy Week, the week that led up to the crucifixion and resurrection. At this point Jesus was well known in Judea and the Pharisees had long decided that Jesus was a threat to them and their beliefs. The Pharisees were desperate for anyway to discredit Jesus, and that led them to the genius plan they tried to execute in this morning’s scripture. To fully understand this scripture requires some cultural and historical context. Specifically there are four pieces of information that we need to more fully understand what is going on here.
First we have to understand the people involved. Compared to most of the Roman Empire the Jewish people did not fit in well. The Jewish, monotheistic faith did not mesh well with the more common polytheistic, open faiths found throughout the empire. In addition to this the Jews had a strong national identity. This put the Jewish people and the Roman rulers at a tentative and uneasy peace. While the majority of the Jews merely tolerated Roman rule, a minority embraced it. The Romans had propped up King Herod as a local ruler. The Herodians mentioned in this scripture were those Jews who supporter King Herod and by extension Rome. The Herodians were the closest to loyal Romans that could be found in Judea. Typically the Pharisees and the Herodians would have been two factions not on speaking terms, but in this instance the Pharisees get their help to debate Jesus.
It is, of course, all a trap. This is where the second piece of information is helpful. The Pharisees ask Jesus about paying a tax, but it is not just any tax. It is the imperial tax. This is a tax that the Empire levied upon subjugated peoples. It was this tax that was used to support the very soldiers and bureaucracy kept the Jewish people from being truly free. It was a loaded question for which there seemed to be no good answer.
Here is how the Pharisees were hoping that thing would play out. They asked Jesus is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? If Jesus answered yes, then they would argue that Jesus was a sellout, that he was not fit to lead true Jews because he bowed down to Caesar and not God. However, if Jesus answered no, then the Herodians could argue that Jesus was rebellious, teaching sedition, and laying the ground work for insurrection. Jesus was asked a yes or no question and either answer would put him on the losing side of an argument.
Jesus chooses a third option though, he does not pick a side but instead states to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s”. Our scripture reading today states that when people heard this they were amazed. The gospel of Luke has the same story, but the ending is a little more dramatic. After Jesus gives his answer, Luke 21:26 records: “They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.” By not picking a side, Jesus managed to avoid the trap. Just avoiding the trap though does not indicate why the answer Jesus gave was so amazing or why it was so astonishing it opposed the Pharisees into silence. To understand we need the third piece of helpful information.
This exchange took place at the temple complex. The temple was supposed to be free of anything unclean, and this included the Roman money. This is why there were moneychangers at the temple. People had to exchange their Roman money for temple money to buy goods in the temple complex. This was to prevent anything unclean from entering the temple. In verse 18, Jesus calls the Pharisees challenging him hypocrites, and then he shows them their hypocrisy by asking for a coin. Where did that Roman coin come from, because remember it was not supposed to be there? Jesus was specifically asked, is it lawful, that is, he was asked is it a sin to pay the tax. By Jesus asking for a coin, that the Pharisees then produce in a place they are not supposed to technically have it, Jesus shows that the Pharisees did not view as sinful. Jesus revealed they were asking a question in bad place, and he could have left it there but Jesus goes one step further to make his answer be about far more than taxes and money.
When Jesus is handed the coin he asks “whose image is this? And whose inscription?” The image and inscription is the fourth piece of information. The coin that Jesus was handed was a denarius. Archeologists have uncovered multiple examples of these kind of coins that would have been in circulation at this time. Those coins do have an image of the Roman Emperor Tiberius and the have a Latin inscription that means: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus”. It was this claim of divinity that made these coins so problematic for the Jewish people, it is why the Pharisees thought asking Jesus about this was such a good trap. Not only did Jesus first reveal the hypocrisy of those challenging him, but then his answer was both practical and profound. Since the Roman coin bared the image and name of Caesar it should be given to him. This would mean that which bears the image of God should be given to God. Jesus was talking to Pharisees, these were the experts on the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Because they were the experts Jesus did not need to connect the dots for them, and as they made the connections it astonished them into silence. Many of you might be able to make the same connections.
Like the Pharisees, many of you might know be familiar with the same scripture that the Pharisees were familiar with. Genesis 1:27 states, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God, he created them: male and female he created them.” According to Jesus the tax belong to Caesar because the coins needed to pay the tax bared his image, so in the same way people, we belong to God, because we bare the image of God. This morning’s scripture may have started about taxes, but Jesus-in the way that Jesus was so good at- made it about something more. A subject of the empire was to pay the imperial tax because that was how one properly rendered to Caesar what is Caesars. Perhaps what astonished the Pharisees to silence was pondering the question, “As worshippers and image bearers of God, how do we properly render to God what is God’s?”
I think it is fair to say that without actually stating it aloud, Jesus asks that question in this morning’s scripture. To answer it, we can look to the greater context of Jesus ministry. The Imperial tax was used to support the Empire, so that which was rendered to Caesar is what supported Caesar’s empire. The single topic that Jesus talked most about, was the kingdom of God, so that which is rendered to God is what supports God’s kingdom. To go back to the common understanding of this scripture, one could make the case that our tithes and our offerings are how we support the kingdom of God. Yet it is more than that, because the kingdom of God is more than just the church our tithes and offering help support, and what should be rendered to God is more than money and resources. We are created in the image of God, as the image-bearers of the divine, to properly render to God what is God’s means we give all of ourselves. Following after Jesus, to spread the good news, this is exactly what the apostle Paul advocated. In the book of Romans he wrote, “in view of God’s mercy to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your true and proper worship.”
This scripture is about more than money, it is about more than tithes and offerings, it is about being willing to offer all that we have and all that we are for the kingdom of God. While God is the ultimate architect and Christ the builder of God’s kingdom, we are invited to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice in this great cause. Whenever we give of ourselves so that the forgiveness of sins, the unrepayable grace of Christ, and the overwhelming love of God is made known and experienced in this world then we play a small part in building and expanding the kingdom of God. This requires us to be willing to invest in God’s kingdom with our time, our talents, and yes even our treasures. We need to be willing to render to God what we tend to view as ours, and we already pointed out that does not always come naturally to us. It is more natural to think of ourselves first, but the ministry of Jesus points to the opposite. The way that we render to God what is God’s is to use what we have been entrusted with so that others can know and experience God’s love. Christian theologian Walter Rauschenbush pointed this out more than a century ago when he wrote, “We love and serve God when we love and serve our fellows, whom he loves and in whom he lives. We rebel against God and repudiate his will when we set our profit and ambition above the welfare of our fellows and above the kingdom of God which binds them together.”
This morning’s scripture should help us realign what we view as ours because in this morning’s scripture Jesus challenges us to consider what it means to fully give ourselves to God. This morning’s scripture is about so much more than paying taxes and giving 10% to support the further mission and ministry of the church. There is still wisdom in doing those things, but this scripture is about considering how we can give not 10% of our money but 100% of ourselves to God in the support of God’s kingdom. We do this through how we love and serve others. So may we express our love of God by loving those in need around us. May we give of ourselves so that through our actions other people will be able to experience the great love that God has for them. As image bearers of God, may we render to God what is God’s. May we be willing to live this day and every day as a living sacrifice for the glory of God and for a hope in Christ that his kingdom may come and his will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.