Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

We think of the last days of Jesus’ final week as being full of vexation.

October 16, 2011

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Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22

We think of the last days of Jesus’ final week as being full of vexation.

Indeed, they were: betrayal, arrest, torture, and crucifixion. But the first two days of the week were also filled with difficulty. In Matthew’s version of the week, Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly on Monday and proceeds to the temple to cleanse it of abuse. Tuesday is particularly full.

Jesus returns to Jerusalem for a series of pronouncements and confrontations by religious leaders. On this day, Jesus curses the fig tree, is questioned about his authority, offers three parables that each conclude with dire warnings for those who assume they are comfortably within God’s favor.

Then he is challenged on whether to pay taxes to Caesar, is questioned about the resurrection of the dead, challenged about the greatest commandment, and engaged in discussion about the nature of the messiah.

Finally, Jesus engages in a long discourse (23:1-25:46) in which he denounces religious leaders, laments over Jerusalem, foretells destruction of the temple, gives his disciples a list of signs concerning the end times, offers additional parables, and tells of the final judgment. Tuesday was a big day. 

It seems one of the chief accomplishments of the day was to put the religious leaders in their place. Jesus overwhelms his verbal adversaries and denounces temple leadership so thoroughly that by the next day, Wednesday of Holy Week, the leaders began plotting to arrest and kill this bothersome prophet.

The pericope for this day lies within Tuesday’s busy agenda. Here we have the failed attempt by the Pharisees and Herodians to trap Jesus on what appears to be a political issue: whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. We might imagine the smugness with which they employ this trap. The Pharisees are against the Roman occupation government, so they bring along the Herodians, people obliged to Rome for keeping Herod in puppet power.

Together, it ought to be easy to catch Jesus up. Note the false flattery of their opening remarks: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth . . . ” (22:16). Their own insincerity is palpable. Then, they spring the trap: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

By this time in the day, Jesus is well warmed up for this treacherous game of chess. He sees through their sarcasm to the malice that lies beneath and brands them hypocrites.  This is why: Jesus seems to carry no coins. The Pharisees dare not carry Roman coins, for they bear the blasphemous image of Tiberius Caesar and the inscription proclaims him divine. Yet, when Jesus asks for a Roman coin, they readily provide it. There, in the sacred space of the temple, the Pharisees possess the idolatrous image. 

The Pharisees are thinking two moves ahead in this game. If Jesus says that it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he alienates the people who hate the Roman occupation and its Caesar. If he says it is unlawful to pay taxes, the people will be pleased, but Jesus will then be liable for arrest by the Romans.

A clever gambit. But, not clever enough. Jesus asks them whose inscription is on the coin. Caesar, they answer. Then render to the emperor what is due him, he says, and to God what belongs to God. Checkmate.

But this is not just a game; and the teaching reaches far beyond those who first heard it.  It reaches even to our time. As much as we might like to determine Jesus’ attitude about taxes today, or the way governments do their business, our narrative makes it clear that Jesus has greater concerns in mind.

Governments are necessary, taxes may be necessary, and every country has a Caesar of sorts to contend with. So, render unto that Caesar whatever is due. But, don’t mess around with the things that belong to God.

Whom do we belong to? Sometimes it seems like we belong to Caesar. Taxes, legal restrictions on our freedoms, imprisonment if you engage in civil disobedience.  Or, perhaps, we feel that our job owns us. Or our families. Sometimes, we even feel owned by our material possessions. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it: “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”

But to whom do we really belong? Take a look at any person. Whose inscription is on him or her? Each is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). There can be no doubt, then, what Jesus means here. Give yourselves to God because it is to him that you belong. 

It is God who claims us, who made us in his own image. We do not belong to anything or to anyone else. We don’t even belong to ourselves. We belong to God in all our being, with all our talents, interests, time, and wealth. “We give thee but thine own, whatever the gift my be. All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.”1

The consequences of belonging to God are remarkable. First, it means that God will not forsake us. The Pharisees and the other religious leaders that Jesus denounces were notoriously bad at caring for the people. They forsook their responsibilities and the people God gave into their care. They deserved condemnation. But, God does not forsake his own. By Friday of Holy Week, Jesus made that clear in the boldest way possible.

Second, it means that because we belong to God, we belong to the people of God, the body of Christ. We are baptized into this fellowship and can only lose our membership by turning our backs on God. If there is any alienation, it is our own doing. And, if we return, God is there, as always. 

Third, it means that we give to God that which belongs to God’s: that is, we give ourselves. We take the sacred trust and invest it in lives of worship. Sometimes, that worship occurs privately, in devotion. Sometimes, in church with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And the rest of the time, it occurs in the sphere of daily work and service. All of this is worship. Ultimately, giving ourselves to God means that we give ourselves to the world.    

1William W. How, 1823-1897.