Scripture - Matthew 22:15-22 (The Message)
15-17 That’s when the Pharisees plotted a way to trap him into saying something damaging. They sent their disciples, with a few of Herod’s followers mixed in, to ask, “Teacher, we know you have integrity, teach the way of God accurately, are indifferent to popular opinion, and don’t pander to your students. So tell us honestly: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
18-19 Jesus knew they were up to no good. He said, “Why are you playing these games with me? Why are you trying to trap me? Do you have a coin? Let me see it.” They handed him a silver piece.
20 “This engraving—who does it look like? And whose name is on it?”
21 They said, “Caesar.”
“Then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his.”
22 The Pharisees were speechless. They went off shaking their heads.
There are a four topics that you aren’t supposed to talk about in polite company - money, politics, religion, and sex. Today we’re going to cover three of them. (Interestingly enough, Jesus never considers any of subjects to be taboo). I believe it’s important to spend some time thinking about these things in church not just because Jesus talked about them, but because they offer us wisdom on how we, as people who are doing our best to follow Jesus, can understand how we are to make decisions and how we are to carry ourselves in the midst of our complicated world.
To give some background to our story, at the time of Jesus, Israel was not its own sovereign nation. King Herod (incidentally, it is not the same Herod that is part of the Christmas story) did not rule on his own, but governed in the name of the Roman Empire. There were Jews that supported Herod and his rule as part of the Roman empire and these people were called Herodians. They were not favored by the Pharisees, who believed that their interpretation of the law as handed down by Moses was the authority to be obeyed by the Jews.
So to find these two rival groups working together to trip up Jesus is our first indication that Jesus is threatening the very fabric of power and authority in first century Palesitine - the political might of the Roman Empire and the religious institution of the Temple.
Politics and Religion.
To complete the trifecta, they ask him a question about taxes -- money -- while they were gathered in the Temple. They really don’t want an honest answer - they want to trap him into saying something damaging.
Taxes were a way of life to the Jewish people. There were temple taxes, customs taxes, land taxes. But the tax in question here was one that would have set Jesus up should he answer the wrong way. The tax referenced in the story was the Imperial tax, the very tax that supported the Roman occupation of Palestine. First century Jews were required to pay their oppressors a denarius a year to support their own oppression.
The tax was divisive. Those who were put in power by Rome - the Herodians and their supporters - advocated Roman governance of Israel, and the tax was a means to ensure safety and security. To those who wanted Israel to be its own kingdom, however, found the tax offensive and a reminder of their oppression. To further complicate matters, the denarius was engraved with an image of Caesar Tiberius and proclaimed him as God. and so to the Pharisees and the other religiously devout Jews of that time, this tax was heresy, forcing them to break the first two commandments - you shall have no other gods before God and you shall not make any graven images.
So this innocent question - Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? - is double-edged. If he says yes - he risks disapproval by the people -- and most likely even some of his religious credibility with the Pharisees. If he says no, he risks trouble with the Roman government.
Jesus asks them to produce a denarius -- and they do. We don’t get just how shocking this action was. Remember that they are in the temple. God’s Temple. The most sacred place for Jews. And this group carried into the Temple an image of Caesar into the Temple of the God who alone claimed lordship and who forbade such images. It was a transgressive act - bringing this depiction of Caesar who claimed to be lord into the Temple of the God who was actually lord. It would have been a powerful object lesson to any in the crowd -- and those standing around would have understood what had just happened and would have chalked up a victory for Jesus.
Perhaps to further drive the point home, he decides to give a more formal answer to their question by saying “then give to Caesar what his and give to God what is his.”
You see, Jesus believed everything belonged to God. Jesus believed that everything had its source in God - including political power. In Jesus’s worldview, religion and politics went hand in hand - we see this over and over again in the Old Tesament where God’s acted through foreign rulers, through enemies, through kings and peasants - through the political forces of the day. Jesus himself was mired in the political machinations of his day. And yet this simple statement - give to Caesar what is his and give to God what is his - demonstrates a creative way to live in the middle of this political, religious tension.
If we take seriously this idea that all things belong to God - including the way that we our society is structured - then as Christians, the way we live our lives, who we choose to vote for, where we choose to shop, what issues we choose to fight for, even what we pray for, are all expressions of our faith and have political and religious implications.
Every Sunday here we pray for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done in earth as in heaven. That’s a political statement - because God’s kingdom means a certain reordering of our society. We’re asking for God’s political intervention to make our world more like God’s kingdom. It means that our ultimate allegiance is to God and God’s kingdom and that as people of faith, we offer ourselves to making that kingdom real here on earth.
This actually brings me great comfort as we approach this Tuesday’s election. I don’t know about you, but I have been living with an awful amount of fear and anxiety about our political process and potential outcomes. It doesn’t help that any time I turn on the radio or check Facebook or switch on the television, I am bombarded with news stories, polling data, trolling memes, sound bytes, articles - you name it - about the election and how high the stakes are and how ignorant you are if you are voting for this person or that person and it makes me want to burrow my head in my bed covers and not come out until 2020 and maybe by that time we will have grown up enough as a nation to have some semblance at civil discourse. I fear, too, for what kind of world we are creating for future generations -- what are we setting in motion in our country that Michael will one day have to deal with? What norms are we setting for how we make tough decisions together as a country?
I get caught in this cycle of stress and fear and anxiety, and then I remember -- everything belongs to God.
Everything belongs to God, so over what is Caesar ultimately lord? Nothing. With candidates and politicians promising this and that, enticing us with safety and security, it reminds me that my safety and security rests with God and with God’s kingdom.
If my faith and trust rests in God and if that is the organizing principle of my life, then no other claim can compete with that. And I am bound to work so that God’s kingdom - a radical reality of peace, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, healing, justice, and righteousness - can be made real here on this earth. We as a church are bound to do that as well. And even our whole denomination - as the United Methodist Church - works to that end even in the political sphere, using our Social Principles as a guide to advocate laws in Washington DC and even working to change those Principles that continue to stand in contrast to God’s kingdom.
And so when Tuesday comes around, I will cast my ballot, knowing that as I do so, it is an exercise of faith - that I will vote in ways that I think best align with God’s purposes in our world. And I will keep in mind some advice that John Wesley gave to the Methodists when people were electing candidates to the British Parliament. I think it is advice that we all need to hear this year. He writes, “I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them, 1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy: 2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against: And, 3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”
We live in a complicated world. We are faced with so many demands on our time and attention and we are asked to give our loyalty to so many competing things. We are enmeshed in our own socio-political landscape, trying to do the best we can with the world we are given. Yet I believe Jesus invites us to remember that everything belongs to God. Jesus invites us to give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s .
To close, I’d like to teach you the hymn we are singing next. It’s from Taize, and it’s a beautiful reminder of the kingdom that we are each called to build, the kingdom that we each, by virtue of our baptism, are ultimately accountable to. We’ll sing it through several times, but I invite you to hear the words and to join in when you feel comfortable doing so.
*Hymn - The Kingdom of God is Justice and Peace and Joy in the Holy Spirit. Come Lord, and open in us the gates of your kingdom.
May we remember this week that everything belongs to God and that we are called to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, working to create justice, peace, and joy. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and almost 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.