Matthew 22: 15-22
Who Are We?
Let’s take a deep breath and open our hearts, mind, soul and spirit to receive the message that God has for us this morning. As we focus our thoughts on the mystic presence of the Holy One, let us pray: Lord God, Lord Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit, please let the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Strength, our Rock and our Redeemer. In Jesus’ name, amen.
This morning, my questions for you are what is your passion, and by extension, who are you? In Psalm 24, we read, “The earth is the LORD's, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it. For He has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” In today’s scripture lesson, we see Jesus being quizzed by the Pharisees during Passover, and the answer that Jesus gives to them and us, regarding giving to God what belongs to God, and to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, is astonishing. In today’s world, the idea of the separation of church and state has always been a good one. But lately this idea of the separation of church and state has become blurred, in part because many churches, both independent and denominational, have politicized their message in order to pursue a political agenda that exerts power over our secular government, and by doing so, build its membership. But it has, instead, resulted in having the opposite effect of giving the state more and more power, at the expense of both our personal secular freedom, as well as our spiritual freedom. We may find ourselves looking to the government for our security, or for meaning and purpose in our lives, or a host of other reasons. The state is then left free to try to attend to all of the really important things in our lives which, of course, it cannot possibly do, thus making us and the church impotent.
So, if we give up our spiritual freedom to the secular state for the sake of secular security, we end up walling out God and the Holy Spirit. Then what becomes of our passion and our identity? When we wall God out, or put our trust in something besides God, then our passion usually degenerates into a hunt for material possessions, and we bow to Mammon, the god of materialism, in our flight to secular security and material survival. Material survival equates to the pursuit of material wealth, so without God, in the fight to merely stay alive, we lose sight of our dreams, and consequently, we doom ourselves: in our spirit, our identity and our dreams, to extinction. So, ask yourself: What dream is stretching your faith today? What is your passion? Who are you? You know, God can give us the faith to guide us to hope, so that our baptism still has meaning. So also ask yourself: Where do you and Jesus come face to face? Where does your life intersect with the Savior? Again, who are you?
In Matthew 22, we see the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians and even Pontius Pilate, coming face-to-face with Jesus to examine Jesus in Jerusalem, before He is sacrificed as God's Sacrificial Lamb, on our behalf. All of them ask questions of Jesus: First, the Pharisees, and then the Herodians, who are enemies united in their opposition to Jesus; then the Sadducees, who don’t believe in the resurrection, question Jesus. Though this amounts to the inspection of God's Passover Lamb, and who He is, they still cannot find any fault in Jesus. God’s sacrificial lamb, Jesus Christ, is perfect. Eventually, even Pontius Pilate is forced to admit that..."I find no fault in Him."
The Pharisees ask Jesus, "should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?" If Jesus answers Yes, He would be unpopular with the Jewish People, because Caesar was worshiped by the Romans as a god, and the Jewish people thought it was blasphemous to serve any god but Yahweh. On the other hand, if Jesus said, "don't pay taxes"; then, Jesus could be arrested and executed for sedition and treason by the Romans. So, the Pharisees thought that they had Jesus between a rock and a hard place.
For the Jews, the annual payment of this poll tax to Rome was a painful reminder of being in the hands of a foreign power, a foreign power that worshiped false gods. The tax could only be paid with Roman coins, which were not just legal tender, but also pieces of propaganda. Most of the coins contained an image of Caesar with inscriptions proclaiming him to be divine or the son of a god. One common phrase during the time of Jesus was: "Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, high priest." Of course, graven images were blasphemous to both Jews and later, to Christians. Thus, paying taxes to the Romans raised both political and religious issues.
Don't we think that sometimes we are in the same boat that the Pharisees tried to place Jesus in? Not only do we have to pay our taxes to our government; local, state, and federal: but we have to work hard just to have a place to lie our heads, and provide for the many other necessities that we really need to survive. So, what does Jesus do? He simply says, "Bring me a coin used to pay the tax. Whose image and inscription is on it?" They said to Him, "Caesar's." And He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.”
It seems that the Roman Empire not only demanded tax payment from these Jews in occupied Judea, but it also wanted the tax to be paid with Roman coins. That was a big problem because those coins had the idolatrous image of Caesar stamped upon them. So, when Jesus asked his questioners to produce a coin and they do so, they indict themselves as already collaborating with the pagan empire. Note here that Jesus’ pockets are empty of the coins with Caesar’s image. The coin has the emperor’s head stamped upon it, and by asking them if they have a coin that has been minted by Caesar to pay the tax, it seems that Jesus intends to refer this debate to the Second Commandment, which reads: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water underneath the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” So, those who have this coin in their pocket are indicted as idolaters.
I think we need to look at what Jesus is saying about the word, "image", or in the Greek, "eichon", on the coin and the "image" that we have stamped on ourselves. Again, who are we? The coin has the image of Caesar on it, but what about our image? Well, let's go all the way back to the Book of Genesis, and look for the answer there. In Genesis 1:27, it says that..."God created man in God's own image, in the image of God, God created man; male and female God created them." So, in whose image are we made? We are created in God's image-so we are to give ourselves to God, just as the coin with Caesar's image on it would be rendered unto Caesar. What a simple solution. Just give the government what is it's due, and to God what is God's.
But, when we talk about giving ourselves to God, what part of the self are we talking about? What is God's due? Do we owe God? And if we do, is there anything that we can possibly measure out that can please God? Well...there's the scripture in Psalm 24 that I began today’s message with..." The Earth is the LORD's, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it." Then there's the scripture from Job 41:11 that reads, "Who has given to Me that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine." Then, there's the scripture in Luke 12:34 that says..."Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Then there is the scripture from Malachi 3:10 that says, "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, That there may be food in My house, And test Me now in this," Says the LORD of hosts, and see "If I will not open for you the windows of heaven, And pour out for you so much blessing, That there will not be room enough to receive it.”
So love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. The message that Jesus brings to us, today and every day, is to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to love one another and thereby honor God's house in every way. With today's scripture, we move out of the world of parable and into the realm of real life. What tribute can we give to God, our Creator? The answer is that we give the only thing that we can give that has any value to God, the gift of ourselves: heart, soul, body, mind and spirit.
Today’s Gospel reports that Jesus evoked “astonishment” in his questioners. I wonder if Matthew would also say that their astonishment was mixed with some fear. The Bible says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”. Presumably, it is not a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a dead god. A dead god is otherwise known as an idol, a work of human imagination, a “god” who is but our own sweet mindless concoction. This non-god is not fearsome at all, since it’s an idol created through our own wish-projection to serve our own selfish needs, a god that can be manipulated for our own desires and our own ends. But to have one’s life grabbed, commandeered, and radically ripped open by a living God; now that’s a fearful thing!
In the end, if you’re looking for some sort of simplification and clarity, you won’t find it here this Sunday! After hearing the answer that Jesus gave to the temple biggie-wowz, “they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.” What you may find instead is simple astonishment. We are astonished that Jesus doesn’t look at things the way we look at things. We’re astonished by the ways that we say we love God above all else, but so easily slip into various forms of idolatry, sin and mischief. And if you don’t believe that, stopped sinning right now. Try spending just one day without whatever secular thing that you feel you need every day, and listen to Jesus when He said, “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect!” We’re astonished that Jesus, through his teaching, while on the way to the cross, makes our lives more difficult rather than easier. And perhaps most of all, we’re astonished that Jesus believes that limited, naturally idolatrous folks like you and I can, with God’s help, be faithful to and radically love such a demanding teacher! So---what is your passion? AND who are you? Let us pray: