22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
22:16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.
22:17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 22:18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?
22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.
22:20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
22:21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
This week’s lectionary gospel reading picks up right where our story about the expulsion of a wedding guest in Jesus’ parable left off. In the grand arch of these latter chapters of Matthew’s gospel, we are seeing an escalation between Jesus and the religious and political establishment. We would normally read these texts during Holy Week because they follow Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem, his effort to drive the money changers out of the temple, and his biting and witty exchanges with the Pharisees. All of these exchanges and events are pointed toward the end of his week in Jerusalem culminating in his crucifixion.
Immediately preceding this loaded question about loyalty to power and empire, there are three parables about the kingdom of heaven. Each one of the parables is a biting indictment of the Pharisees and their self claimed righteousness by attending to the law of Moses. Jesus makes it very clear that their claim to righteousness is on shaky ground.
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did.”
For a group of religious scholars and power brokers, that’s a harsh word that shatters the illusion that they are at the front of the line to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus offers two more parables to drive the point home to the Pharisees that they think to highly of themselves and their religiosity.
Having been burned by these parables, the Pharisees gather together in order to set a trap by posing a very touchy question to Jesus. They also brought along some folks from King Herod’s dynasty that served as a puppet government for Imperial Rome.
And the question is posed, only after an ingratiating, tongue in cheek, greeting that seems to warm Jesus up to his inquirers. Teacher, you know the way to the truth so answer this question for us.
Is it lawful, appropriate, or required to pay taxes to the emperor, to Caesar? This isn’t quite the same as wondering whether or not individual and corporate tax brackets in the United States are too high. The Pharisees aren’t particularly concerned about taxes in the way we might be concerned how taxes pay for infrastructure, social services, defense, education, and healthcare. Their question is a matter of ultimate concern: who is supreme and sovereign? Does God rule the universe or does Caesar’s domain stretch to every end of the Earth?
Like past weeks, there is a bit of historical context that is needed to set the stage for the question that is posed to Jesus. The nature of the tax is more than just an economic concern, redistributing wealth for the common good. It’s a deeply political concern, especially when payment of the tax propped up the occupying empire.
“The head tax had been imposed by Rome at the time of its conquest. Each year every person had to pay the equivalent of a laborer’s daily wage for the privilege of being a subject of the Roman Empire and of supporting the cost of Rome’s occupation. To add insult to injury, the tax had to be paid with a Roman coin, the denarius, which had the image of the emperor stamped on one side and an inscription on the other: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, most high priest.”
The tax was highly unpopular–and not just for the obvious reasons. For many religious people, possessing and using the coin was blasphemy against God’s law, particularly the commandments against graven images and idolatry. For those with nationalistic aspirations, the tax was a constant reminder that they were a subject people. So if Jesus stated that paying taxes to the emperor was lawful, many in the supportive crowds likely would desert him. On the other hand, the members of Herod’s royal family and other leaders had come to terms with the Roman rulers and supported the tax. If Jesus declared it was not lawful, the authorities would arrest him as a traitor and political rebel. There is no safe response. “Just answer the question, Jesus, yes or no.” His opponents are sure that whatever he answers, the problem of Jesus is about to be solved.”
Jesus asks his inquisitors about why they even bother asking a question like the one they posed. Then he asks if he can examine the coin which was needed to pay the tax. Jesus’ pockets are empty-he doesn’t have a coin on hand. Not surprisingly, the Pharisees are able to quickly furnish the necessary coin exposing their idolatry being in possession of a graven image. Jesus presses their examination of the coin. Whose face do you see on this coin? It’s Emperor Tiberius. And what does the title inscribed upon the coin say? Son of Divine Augustus.
Imagine this scene in its depth, texture, and stinging awkwardness for the Pharisees. Religious elite are exposed in a public setting by being in possession of an idolatrous item and then pressed to imply their loyalty to Emperor Tiberius. And the icing on the cake is Tiberius’ claim to the divine lineage of Caesar Augustus. Perhaps the Pharisees are not as devoted to the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jacob as they believed themselves to be. Jesus said, you can’t serve two masters. He was referring to God and money but the truth is all the same here. You can’t serve both God and empire-that’s my take.
Once the Pharisees identify who is on the coin in question, Jesus tells them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. And this one line is the interpretive aquifer that keeps on giving. What does it mean?
Is it Jesus giving a head nod toward the domain of Caesar, an ancient version of the separation of church and state? You stay over there and we’ll stay over here and never will the two mingle. Is it Jesus’ attempt to instruct his disciples to keep the peace with Rome like Paul does in Romans 13 to support the ruling government? Do we treat our loyalty, worship, and devotion as a pie carved up in varying percentages or portions for the ideas, institutions, and empires to which we are committed?
I think we’d be mistaken in hearing Jesus’ response and believe that there is any compromise to be had between the realm of God and empire. An unreflective loyalty to empire and its machinations is a demonstration of an individual’s or community’s ultimate concern. In other words, the way you pay tribute to the empire is a window into your life with God. “If it is true that our Lord is King, and that the emperors of this world are not, then this is true too: if we worship the Lord as our God, then we cannot worship anyone [or anything] else.”
God has gifted us with a timely opportunity to look at ourselves in the mirror and reflect on where our allegiance rests. Are we about the things of God in the world or empire that demands unyielding loyalty? And we’ll be using one of America’s favorite Sunday afternoon and Monday night activities to do this reflective work.
“It all started last summer. On July 4, 2016, Delrawn Small, an unarmed African American man, was shot and killed by a police officer, in Brooklyn, NY. One day later, Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old African American father of five, was shot in the chest and back by a police officer outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, LA. The next day, Philando Castile, a Black man, was shot and killed in his car by a police officer outside St. Paul, MN. Two days later, five officers were shot and killed and seven others wounded by sniper fire during a Dallas, TX protest against the earlier police shootings.
It was then that a quarterback playing for the San Francisco 49ers refused to stand while the National Anthem played. When Colin Kaepernick “took a knee”, his official release explained: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color…. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.””
There are at least two significant elements of concern in that brief summary of events. The first one is the systemic and ingrained patterns of behavior that value the lives of blacks in this country less than whites. The second one is the way in which American civil religion has exposed idolatrous allegiance the same way the Pharisees offered up a denarius with the image of Tiberius.
American civil religion is made up of sacred symbols like the flag and the national anthem. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Pledge of Allegiance are its sacred texts and codes. It’s holy days are celebrated on national federal holidays. It has its martyrs who are revered for making the ultimate sacrifice. It has its high priest who fills a liturgical role in modeling faithful behavior and allegiance.
In past weeks, the hysterical tone used when attacking NFL players and attempting to stamp out dissent as unpatriotic suggests that the deification of national symbols has intensified. The deification of a national symbol, the American flag, and worship of it should be troubling to anyone seeking to follow Jesus Christ. Nationalistic worship of perceived sacred objects betray the kingdom of God and the ontological truth that Almighty God rules sovereignly over the universe. Caesar, empire, and unyielding nationalism are undeserving of our worship.
Jesus says it best: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only. Bless you in the name of Almighty God. Amen.