Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 18, 2020
Matthew 22:15-22 Commentary
In recent years there has been a lot of talk about religion in America. This election year of 2020 is no exception—indeed, the upcoming election magnifies such things. Maybe other nations have similar conversations but America is definitely the epicenter of some pretty serious conversations in this area. This is due in part to the endurance of an old idea that America is somehow supposed to be—or ostensibly at least started out to be—a “Christian nation.”
Thus whenever something new comes along in society or in the law of the land that feels disagreeable to some people, they demand a return to how it used to be in some imagined golden era when every law in the country reflected Christianity somehow (or at least that made it easy to be a Christian without having to deal with pluralistic religious practices or the specter of gay marriage and the like). Sometimes we act as though we want to make it easy to be religious and hard to be unreligious. People of faith ought not have to keep bumping up against what looks like paganism or unbelief.
Jesus generally did not seem that bothered by instances of pagan practice or a thoroughly secular mindset.
After all, the Roman government in question in Matthew 22 was not some religiously neutral (much less faith-affirming) institution. Few Christians in North America can imagine serving a government that was openly idolatrous the way Rome was. Indeed, most scholars believe that the inscription on the coin to which Jesus refers in verse 20 was likely some blasphemous designation. Some scholars believe that the denarius in question likely bore the image of Tiberius with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” and an image of the “high priest” Livia on the coin’s obverse.
“In God We Trust” it wasn’t. Caesar was the official Dominus et Deus, “Lord and God” of the realm.
Yet Jesus calmly deflected questions about it all even as he held the coin in his own hand. He did not fling the coin away as though it were white-hot with paganism. He did not roll his eyes at the unbelievable fact that not everyone worshiped the God Jesus called Father. That alone is curious and just possibly instructive.
Jesus took this opportunity to convey some pretty profound theological truths after all. Because Rome at that time was all-powerful. Pax Romana covered most of the known world and the influence and almighty power of the Empire was all-but unchallenged. Indeed, when a revolt against taxes in A.D. 70 took place, Jerusalem paid the ultimate price for daring to stand up to the Caesar. It was sacked and Herod’s Temple—the locus of Second Temple Judaism—was destroyed.
But Jesus was able to see down to a deeper and more profound reality. When you know that the whole world belongs to God and when you know that above all the human heart is what belongs to the Creator God who fashioned us in his image, then even the big, bright, loud, and resplendent realities of this world become mere sideshows and distractions. But they do not ultimately touch God. They do not finally threaten God. Getting all excited about the powers that be and becoming hyper focused on them tempts us to downplay and underestimate the glorious sovereignty of God.
When Jesus takes the Caesar’s coin into his hand and holds it up in front of his bewildered questioners, you can almost see him shrug his shoulders, furrow his brow, and just generally convey the idea, “What are you talking about? THIS is all you have to ask me about? Who cares? This means nothing! Get a life! And remember that God is still ever and only God and that no human power can dislodge him, displace him, or challenge his claims on our hearts and on this world that belongs to him.”
As Jesus’ sermons go, this one may be brief, but it packs quite a wallop! And in a political age when so many people are so sharply divided along so many various cultural and social and economic fault lines, Jesus’ confident posture and consistent, laser-like focus on God both challenge us and call us back to our better selves, to a set of core truths that we can all agree upon.
Notice in Matthew 22:16 that the Greek text can be literally translated as “. . . for you do not look upon the face of people.” The Greek there says blepeis eis prosopon anthropon. Does the typical translation of this text (“you pay no attention to who they are”) maybe miss a pun? After all, in the very next verse Jesus calls his interlocutors “hypocrites.” As you may recall, a hypocrite was literally an actor, and in the Greek and Roman world of that time, actors wore masks to cover their faces when on stage. A hypocrite is someone who hides his true face behind a mask, a false front—a hypocrite grins at you and butters you up with unctuous words of flattery but is secretly sneering at you. So Jesus’ opponents say that they know Jesus does not look upon the “face of people,” and if by that they meant the public face people show, they were right. But Jesus does look upon the true face of people, that which we hide behind the masks we present to those around us. And that is precisely why he nails these slippery fellows who were trying to trip Jesus up!! He sees through to their true faces!
The last word in this story is “went away” (Greek: apelthen). There may be something to this little textual detail that we can play with, too. They were amazed at Jesus, which is a proper reaction. But they don’t use that amazement the right way. When we are amazed at Jesus, it should draw us to him. Yet it drove them from him. This alone may present a sad picture of how too many people react to Jesus even yet today.
One other possible connection here is what happens when Jesus looks upon the face of the one pictured on the coin: Jesus sees down to the true face of all, see what is what. That could be a wordplay here as well.
Some years ago James Dobson and John Woodbridge sparred in the pages of Christianity Today over Dobson’s repeated use of warfare language to describe a Christian stance over against the larger American culture. Woodbridge believed that such language blinds believers to the places where God may be lurking while also doing violence to the gentleness, humility, and love demonstrated by Jesus and listed in the New Testament as spiritual fruits. Dobson replied that there is little if any ambiguity in the wider culture such that not to use fighting words would be the equivalent of remaining silent.
It seems that we have a deep human tendency to want to make the divides between God and the world wide and deep and perilous-looking. And it seems that we in the church also like to gauge other people’s piety by litmus tests to see if their attitudes toward the big bad world out there are properly hostile and negative where they need to be negative and combative. But Jesus’ words about the Roman Empire, the Caesar, and taxes give one pause on all that. Is this the only way to go vis-à-vis the wider world? Or does striking a more confident and faith-informed posture convey the very message of hope and trust and joy in the Lord that we want to convey in the first place?
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