PAYING TAXES TO CAESAR: JESUS SKATES ON A RIDDLE

A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin

October 22, 2017

Matthew 22: 15-22

 

Jesus’ telling of the Parable of the Wedding Feast, which we heard last week, is immediately followed in Matthew’s Gospel by an account of Jesus’ response to the Herodians, who purport to challenge him with the dilemma of paying taxes to Caesar.  A natural question for us might be, what is the relationship of the Wedding Feast and the payment of Roman taxes?  

Before we attempt to address this question, I think it important that we first correct a common misconception; when Jesus says, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” and “give to God what belongs to God,” he is not saying that it is God’s will for his followers to pay Roman taxes. When we pay taxes that are used to perpetuate injustice, corruption, violence, and bloodshed, we do so because we think we have no choice.  That perception is possibly debatable.  What cannot be coherently argued is that God wills for us to join cause with unrighteousness in one sphere of our life while laying claim to righteousness in another.

We said last week that “God’s Kingdom is central to the Christian story, but barely understood.”  For instance, in Mark’s Gospel, which is the earliest of the four Gospels, listen to the first words we hear Jesus speak.  “The time has come,” he said, “the Kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news” (Mk 1:15). Matthew, who refers to the kingdom 50 times in his Gospel, puts these words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near,” in the mouth of John the Baptist (Mtt 3:2). In both Gospels, we hear the announcement of a new reign which is brought about by the arrival of the Son of God.

The inauguration of this new reign coincided with the Roman army’s occupation of the land. Tiberius Caesar was the Emperor, Herod Antipas the governor of Galilee, and Pontius Pilate the governor of Judea. The image of Tiberius Caesar, son of the former Emperor Augustus, was struck on the silver denarius, the coin used to pay the Imperial tax. These coins were purchased from money changers, so that taxes could be paid in Roman, not local currency.  Many Jews found the coins offensive, for their image, used to promote the Roman cult of the deified emperor, and their inscription, “Augustus Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus” (Arch SB, “Imperial Cult”).  Of course, they also resented having to pay taxes to foreign occupiers, which in many cases were burdensome.  For these Jews, the traditional idea of the Messiah, as a deliverer of the people from unrighteousness, had been transformed into the expectation of a Messiah who would liberate Israel from Roman rule.  The drawing near of the Kingdom, which had been a future hope, had taken up immediate urgency.

Given this background, what is the significance of the account we heard today?  Jesus knew he was being set up by the privileged Herodians; while the coin’s use of the image of a man as well as the deification of a man offended many Jews, to condemn these as wrong would bring about his arrest.  If Jesus were to say, for instance, don’t pay taxes to the foreign occupiers of our land, he could be charged with sedition. Instead of taking offense, however, Jesus used the inelegant hypocrisy of the Herodians to cleverly evade their trap. Unfortunately, we are not so clever.  The distinction between Caesar and God has been used over the centuries to justify and prop up countless bad governments with self-serving theology.  Reformers codified this bad theology as the “two-kingdom” doctrine, which distinguishes between a civil – or worldly – kingdom and a spiritual – or church – kingdom.  According to this doctrine, the civil – or worldly –  kingdom is ruled by governments, their armies and law, and has one set of ethics, while the spiritual kingdom – or church – has another set of ethics, described in the Sermon on the Mount.  A follower of Jesus, in the two-kingdom scenario, moves between the two, accepting the injustice, corruption, violence, and bloodshed when he and she is out and about in the world, while striving to live up to the standards of Jesus while in the church.  This commonplace but false interpretation of “what belongs to Caesar” and “what belongs to God” justifies the perpetual separation of what might be called the dark and light sides of the One God’s sovereignty.

Jesus, I would argue, says nothing anywhere about accepting as it is the darkness of the world.  Such acceptance would be contrary to the Messiah’s promise to deliver the world from darkness. The word repent means to turn, not just one’s own ethics and behaviors, but those of the world, away from darkness and toward light. Individually and as a church we should aim to demonstrate the same ethical commitments in all areas of our life.  We twist the teachings of Jesus when we consign some matters to a civil realm and others to a spiritual realm.

The Israelites never identified theirs as a civil government:  Israel was led first by priests and judges in the name of God, and later by king and servants whose authority was derived from God.  This explains why Israel’s rulers were called out by the prophets: when leaders neglected or abused their legitimate responsibilities, the ordinary person, contrary to God’s will, was left bereft of care. Israel’s failure to govern itself in accordance with the standards of righteousness necessitated the coming of a Messiah to “save” the nation.

Expecting swords and power, the people were disappointed; as it turned out, the Messiah by any worldly sense was powerless and never lifted a sword, for non-violence is the way of true redemption.

As we have frequent opportunity to observe, everything belongs to God – all of Creation.  And everything that belongs to God, including you and me, needs to be looked after and cared for.  Jesus skates through a difficult situation in the temple using a riddle, but we – the very members of his body – should not be fooled.  We are not Herodians.  We are not collaborators with foreign oppressors who turn light into dark.  We are the children of God, heirs of the creation which is the very same Kingdom of God that the Messiah drew near us with his presence, and it is up to us to deliver God’s kingdom from civil authorities and their destructive madness.

What then is Jesus saying with his answer?  I suggest that once again he is showing us a way to get from here to there, from the kingdom of the world to the kingdom of heaven.  Specifically, he demonstrates that there are situations where we can amaze the powerful simply by not giving offense. The cleverness of his answer lies in the fact that it offends no one: Caesar himself, the governor, the Herodian collaborators, even the pious Jews and their leaders will find nothing wrong with it.  It is only later, upon reflection, that we can say, Hey, wait a moment: Jesus didn’t say anything!  And why is this?  Because, as we continue to note, everything belongs to God, so nothing can belong to Caesar.  Were we to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, we would give him zilch: nothing.

We are not called to be anxious about governments; where they are wrong-hearted, we need only contend against them, as Jesus did, remembering the One from whom we have our being.  Let us not be swayed by deceivers, who have only self-interest and greed to motivate them.  Let us instead devote ourselves to the service of God.  Let us fix our souls upon the God who is love.  Let us, even when oppressed, rejoice and be glad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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