Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22
“It’s a trap!” This famous line from the third Star Wars movie has become one of my favorite memes, particularly as I live and work in the church.
This Sunday’s text finds the Pharisees and Herodians setting a trap for Jesus, hoping he will answer their questions improperly and either lose favor with the public, or get in trouble with the Roman authorities. The larger issue is how we deal with this text in a contemporary world where, for some of us, our duties to God and country might seem to be at odds with one another. And, how do we find resources for preaching a text about traps that might be a trap in itself? The answer might be found in naming the various ways in which the text challenges us and still calls us.
The trap set by the Pharisees and Herodians is twofold: they not only hope to get him in trouble with the Roman authorities, but also get him in trouble with the popular people. The tax they are referring to is a Poll tax and was very unpopular amongst Jewish people at the time. They were not as concerned about his potential violation of the religious codes as his going against the popular sentiment.1
Two kinds of righteousness
This text is about righteousness, but Jesus evades the trap set for him by talking about two different authorities that one must respond to: the civil authorities and God. In the preface to his 1535 Commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther talks about two kinds of righteousness: Civil Righteousness and Spiritual (Alien) Righteousness. For Luther, our civil righteousness was something we worked on and something we were accountable for. Civil righteousness is achieved by how we act in society. But, our spiritual righteousness regards our relationship with God and, for Luther, is determined not by our actions, but by God’s love in Christ. It is sometimes called alien righteousness because we could no more increase or earn that righteousness than we could live on the moon. In some ways, Jesus is using similar categories to respond to the question posed to him.
By calling attention to the different obligations we have, Jesus is reminding us of the differences that exist for us as citizens of the state and citizens of heaven. Jesus carefully suggests that we owe the state exactly what is demanded of us, in this case, the coin with Caesar’s head on it. By contrasting that with his exhortation to give unto God what is God’s, Jesus is exposing the irony of the Pharisees and Herodians’ religious activities; they are more concerned with their own power than they are with honoring God.
I believe this follows Luther’s logic and can be a useful way to approach this sermon. In the civil realm, we must “earn” our righteousness, for example we are supposed to obey the speed limits. We cannot rely on our spiritual righteousness to answer for righteousness in the civil realm since, for Luther, our righteousness in the civil realm was earned by following the law. When we consider our vocations, our callings, in the world, they are part of our civil righteousness.
The trick for us is that our own sense of what’s right in the world might not mirror what we find in society. The current immigration debate is a good example of how many people hold differing viewpoints and the government itself seems to be in disagreement about how exactly to proceed. In this situation, many people may believe that it is their civic duty to voice their disagreement with the government about immigration. And, this civil disobedience may indeed be the proper “civil righteous” response.
Traps for us
Yet, there can be traps in this way of thinking as well. First, do we confuse the righteousness we try to attain in society with our spiritual righteousness? Given our current political climate, there are many churches and Christians who have taken an active role in calling and working for justice in our world. This may be the proper civil response, but does that make them more spiritually righteous? In our text for today, Jesus is not calling for people to worship these causes or to see them as gospel issues. Instead, Jesus is calling, quite clearly, to keep these two arenas of our lives distinct.
This distinction can lead to our second potential trap: Does our confidence in our spiritual righteousness allow us to stay quiet in the civil realm? It might be worthwhile to call our congregations to examine their callings as citizens and decide how they are called to be working towards God’s justice and good news in society. This approach might be strengthened by looking ahead in the lectionary to the next Sunday where there is specific talk about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves (and particularly for those churches who might miss this text as they celebrate Reformation Sunday).
Part of our learning from this text could be around how we, as Christians, learn to interact with the governing authorities and yet maintain our identity and honor our callings as Christians. For some, this may be easy. Their government and their conscience may line up pretty closely. Others may find this more and more difficult as government continues to be at odds with their conscience.
Finally, the reality is that preaching on this text may not be as easy as it seems, since it might be hard to ignore the contemporary aspects of this text. This could present its own traps for us. While it might be difficult to realize, we may have people of good conscience on both sides of the same issue. The key might be to find a way to proclaim the good news of God’s love for us while also calling people to think about what God’s good news and justice might look like in the world. Essential to this endeavor is being open to listening for that call while realizing that others might hear it differently than we do. Then, the question is: can we trust that God is at work even in those who believe differently than we do? I hope that we can give unto God what is God’s.
1. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 556.