Sermon for 21 Pentecost, Year A
Based on Matt. 22: 15-22
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
"Christ & Caesar"
What a gospel passage we have today! To put it bluntly, it's a loaded one! Not only does it heighten the conflict between Jesus and some of the religious and political leaders; it also lays bare, for all to see, the hostile motives of these people by attempting to trap Jesus in public, by his own words to their trick, no-win question. But, their plot backfires. Their flattery of Jesus gets them nowhere. Jesus' answer catches them off-guard, they are all amazed.
It's rather interesting that the Pharisees and Herodians form an alliance here against Jesus. The Pharisees, of course, are devoutly religious folks. As such, many of them were not exactly happy with the Roman occupation and rule of their nation. They were firm believers in the sovereignty of God; they would have been much more content with a Jewish theocracy, where God was their sole ruler. On the other hand, the Herodians were of the household and family of Herod, therefore, members of the wealthy, privileged class of Romans who ruled the Jews. Hence, there is among some, considerable scepticism concerning the likelihood of this alliance.
The question they put to Jesus, was, by design, asked with the motive of trapping Jesus, to discredit himself publicly-to put him into an either/or, no-win situation. They asked: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" Most scholars agree that this was a poll tax, which was paid to the Roman government by every male person from 14 to 65-years-old, and, every female person from 12 to 65-years-old.
This tax was not very popular among the Jews, just as taxes in our day are not very popular among us either! For example, one of the major attractions of the right-wing, Reform party of Canada has been their promise to reduce taxes, if elected.
The Jews highly resented this poll tax for at least two reasons. First, some believed that it violated the first commandment. God was the one and only God, thus no worship or images of other gods was permitted. The poll tax of one denarius, bore the image and inscription of the emperor, which read: 'Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus. ' For the devout Jew, there could only be One, True God-hence, Caesar, or any other earthly ruler for that matter could never be a god.
Second, the Jews resented this poll tax because it was a symbol, a visible reminder to them of their servitude to Rome. They longed for the day when this foreign political government would leave their nation. They dreamt of the future, when Jews would be free in their own Jewish-ruled nation.
Of course, Jesus was keenly aware of this. How then was he to answer the question? If he were to answer: "Yes," he would have most certainly offended the nationalistic Jews in the audience, who despised Roman rule. If he were to answer: "No," the Herodians in the audience would have evidence against him for the charge of treason.
After someone brings a denarius and his opponents tell him that it's the emperor's head and title on the coin, Jesus answers: "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."
Down through the centuries, Christians have come up with a variety of interpretations of Jesus' answer. Some have used Jesus' words to justify their conscientious objection during times of war. They also have refused to pay a portion of their taxes, which goes towards military spending-or, they specifically give that portion of their taxes for peaceful purposes.
Back in the days of the divine right of kings and queens, some Christians tended to claim too much power for the state. For example: Henry VIII in the sixteenth century claimed total sovereignty. Thomas More responded by saying: 'I will obey you but swear total and absolute allegiance-No!' And for that, Thomas died a martyr's death by going to the block.
Martin Luther, in his Table Talk, interpreted Jesus' words this way: "It is not Christ's opinion that He wanted to suspend and destroy the police force, secular authority, and law. On the contrary, each individual must do in their office what they are called to do, without, however, doing violence to their faith and conscience. In this way they give to God that which is God's and to the emperor that which is the emperor's."
Jesus' answer acknowledges that we all have a dual citizenship. We are citizens of the nation and citizens of God's kingdom. Therefore, worldly government has its place. The state does have a right to taxes for the services it provides us with, like: education, healthcare, roads, parks, the maintenance of peace, democracy, law and order, and so on.
Most, if not all, of us as Christians recognize the necessity of government. However, what we as Christians have wrestled with down through the ages is less certain: namely, what do we as Christians do when a government goes awry, is no longer just, responsible, and democratic? What happens when the government claims too much? Are there limits as to how much we can rightfully give the emperor?
Jesus' answer is open-ended, hence, it allows room for a variety of interpretations-depending upon the particular circumstances. However, if we are faithful in giving "to God the things that are God's," then we shall realize that everything is God's and comes from God. Therefore, as Christians we cannot get ourselves off the hook by avoiding the worldly realm, and saying: "religion and politics don't mix."
Quite the contrary, without Christians involved in politics, the world would definitely be in a worse mess than it already is right now. Throughout history, Christians have played an invaluable role in the worldly realm by speaking a prophetic word when needed; by being a courageous, tireless advocate for the poor, powerless, and marginalized; by being examples of justice, mercy, reconciliation and love; by being the moral-ethical conscience of society.
Ultimately, Jesus' answer is a matter of conscience for every Christian person. What we as Christians must always be clear on is that our allegiance and duty to God always comes before our allegiance and duty to the state. If the state would have it the other way around, our answer is the same as those early Christians who said: "We must obey God rather than any human authority." For God is always our highest authority.
May we pray for the courage and integrity to serve God and God's world as faithful followers of Jesus.
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