Matthew 22:15-22 Rev. Dr. Marion Tugwood
“Head I win, tails you lose”, the same trick question that my uncle fooled me with when I was young is put to Jesus in what is a continuing conversation about where his authority comes from. Here two factions become allies with one purpose – to trick Jesus with a question that is unanswerable, demanding a response that is designed to leave him the loser. But Jesus is playing an entirely different game and has a response that leaves his enemies speechless.
These groups want to trap Jesus because his teaching, both in words and in his life , threaten their power; he is a challenge to the Roman Empire with whom the Herodians were working, offering a different vision of how the world can be ordered – the Kingdom of God doesn’t look like the Roman or any earthly empire, doesn’t rely on violence to enforce peace, doesn’t need many to be hungry and oppressed so that a few can maintain a wealthy lifestyle. The Pharisees genuinely wanted to serve God and for others to do so too, but they could only see their interpretation of how to do that – and it too often excluded love. Jesus wants to serve God and for others to do so, but he can see beyond the letter of the law to God’s intention for all human flourishing – he offers life in all its fulness – he offers hope – he offers a real relationship with God as “Abba”, intimate and loving as a parent and a small child, and all of this threatens the power of the religious leaders, undermines their ability to determine behaviour and to decide who is welcome and who is not. Jesus’ radical welcome to all sorts of sinners stretches their understanding of God to breaking point and makes him dangerous. And so, the trick question, preceded by flattery to take Jesus off guard, “is it right to pay tax to Caesar or not?”. It’s a yes/no question and if Jesus says ‘yes ‘then he upsets the religious people and if he says ‘no’ he upsets the Roman sympathisers…either way those who put the question seek to take away the support of the crowds so that they can corner Jesus and put a stop to his subversive way of being. Jesus answer is clever, but there is more to it just verbal gymnastics.
The coins used to pay Roman taxes were Roman coins, they bore the image of Caesar on them, and more importantly an inscription which read ‘Tiberius Caesar, worshipful son of the divine Augustus’ stating the claim that the emperor was a god, the son of a god – Matthew’s readers and hearers of the Gospel would have known that, and so when Jesus takes the coin and reminds them of this, they are also reminded of the commandment to have no other gods but Yaweh. The coin has been minted by the Romans, so Jesus says “give back to the emperor what belongs to him, and give back to God what belongs to Him” – he does not endorse Roman rule, but points people (again) to the Kingdom of God.
I have heard people use this story to justify making religion – faith – a private affair – the things of God belonging to God and the things of the world being entirely separate and outside the faith sphere – the things of Caesar. But I think that that is a wrong reading and not what Jesus intended his audience, then or now, to take from it. Jesus world was one where there was no separation at all between the civic and the religious worlds – all things were under God. And that is the challenge in his answer “Give back to God what is God’s and give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” for in the end everything belongs to God. So Jesus understands that those around him, and us today, have to live in the world, but because we look to and for the Kingdom we must challenge government when it does not act justly. and to seek good government for all people. To deny the flourishing of all who are human, is to cease to worship God, and to cease loving our neighbour as ourselves. It is to side with empire, and with the nation, when it has become Caesar-like. I add the nation itself here, because we can see very clearly that nations aspire to a level of flourishing for their own people that they deny to other peoples; in fact, we currently flourish as a nation at the expense of other nations, and our policies on aid and immigration often reflect that, and racism and inequality are remnants of our own history of empire.
And just as the Pharisees were afraid of Jesus teaching about love, the church as an institution has often been afraid of it too. Historically we have done to the poor and those who struggle with drug or alcohol dependency rather than being with them and embracing them in our churches. We have meted out judgement along with charity and not in a constructive way. We have walked the way of power rather than the way of justice and of love.
So when Jesus says “give back to God what is God’s” he is inviting us to give back to God all of our lives – missional discipleship is not a new idea! George Herbert in hymns reminds us
Seven whole days, not one in seven, I will praise thee; and
Teach me, my God and King, In all things thee to see,
And what I do in anything, To do it as for thee.
Jesus is saying live in your society, be part of your church fellowship but every day look for both of those to reflect kingdom values. Bill Loader says
If everything is God’s, then in all things I will seek God’s will and that will entail measuring all things, including governments, by the vision Jesus has given us of God’s rule or kingdom. God’s compassion knows no bounds, so it will always be an irritant to regimes which stifle it and it will stand in conflict with oppressors, whoever and wherever they are.
So let us be an irritating church! One which lets the transforming love of God affect all our living – our relationships our budgeting, our prayers, our community, our congregation. Even in a time such as this, we can act as agents of God’s love and grace. Continue to take an interest in the world beyond the pandemic. Even in lockdown we can be neighbourly (at an appropriate distance!), we can write to our MPs raising issues of justice and equality, we can encourage those initiatives support others, we can rejoice at the signs of God at work in the world, we can pray. So let us remember that all things belong to God and take to heart the words of Paul: Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good , pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12 1+2).
The flower is Streptocarpus Marion.