Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 22, 2023
Matthew 22:15-22 Commentary
Over the last three Sundays we’ve watched as the Pharisees (as part of the temple leadership) were brought to task by Jesus. They’ve retreated and regrouped now and are trying a new tactic for solving their Jesus problem. Their new plan is to try to seduce Jesus with compliments and praise, suggesting that his influence is winning over their own disciples in order to catch Jesus in a political debacle.
But as the readers we already know what’s what. These disciples of the Pharisees have been coached, and they have been given an audience. Herodians were partisans of the Roman government’s representative in Jerusalem, Herod. They were intentionally planted by the temple leaders so that they would witness Jesus speak against the government.
The disciples begin by fawning over Jesus, perhaps using a tactic that has served them quite well in other settings with religious authorities… sing his praises and maybe he’ll let his guard down. Ironically, the words they are saying are actually true. Jesus is sincere; he teaches the way of God truthfully and with integrity. Their last compliment is meant to prime the pumps for the sort of answer they are trying to goad out of Jesus– if he shows no partiality or deference, then surely he will not pay homage to the Roman principalities.
By asking him a yes or no question, they think they have Jesus in a lose-lose situation. If Jesus answers no, the Herodians will surely be spurred to action, but if he says yes, then those who have been colonized and want to see the empire fall will be scandalized by their beloved prophet.
Our human wiles and guiles are obvious to Jesus, who knows what comes from the heart. These disciples have learned to be hypocrites from their rabbis: they are “playing the part” of inquisitive student, but really, they have another unwholesome motive in mind. They have not come with an openness to receive, but think that they can outwit Jesus with the rhetorical methods of this world.
Of course, like he did when the Pharisees asked him about his authority, Jesus does not play our games. Instead, as he often does, Jesus raises the stakes by taking the conversation to a higher plane of existence.
What the disciples of the Pharisees have posed to Jesus was a very real question on the minds of the people. A foreign power ruled them and they were reminded as such with each daily wage (the denarius coin). The tax they then had to turn around and pay felt, to some, like salt in the wound and was part of why they were looking for a political, military-like messiah. Jesus does not deny this reality. Just or unjust, fair or unfair, the system was the system, symbolically captured by the image of Caesar on the coin.
The significance of the image is the same as a seal: it is a marker of a grander meaning. In this case, it was a reminder that everything in the empire belonged to Caesar, everything and everyone had a place because of Caesar. As Jesus answers it, paying the tax is to simply give back to Caesar what Caesar gave to you: an empire to live in, work to do, food to eat, money to earn… the “fruit” of the system. Not all “giving back” to the society in the form of government-mandated requirements are inherently evil or unchristian.
But then, if we are keen observers, Jesus gives this word of hope and calling. Yes, we give to the nation-states, but we also give to God the things that are God’s. The way Greek works makes this sentence quite powerful to the ears– the verb is not repeated in the second clause so Jesus literally just repeats “God” twice. The words in italic are the words in the Greek: the [things] of God to God (“of” and “to” are demonstrative pronouns in the genitive and dative cases, respectively.)
Caesar might have an empire, but God created the cosmos. We are brought back to Genesis and the creation of all that there is. It is a reality much bigger than Caesar’s empire. God put God’s stamp on the earth by making humanity in the image and likeness of God’s very self. Our very existence, everything that we are, not just what we own or earn or contribute to society and the world-politick, belongs to the one whose image it bears. It turns out that there is a lot more to give back to God than to Caesar.
This turn is what sends the disciples of the Pharisees away, amazed at what they have heard from the Master. If they had stuck around, I wonder if the conversation would have turned to what it is we offer back to God as image bearers. And I wonder if Jesus would not have reminded them the same thing he reminded their rabbis earlier. That obedience produces the fruit that proves the root. That the prophets have always invited image bearers “to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6.8). And that the law and prophets hang on these two commandments: to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…” and to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22.36-40). But that’s part of next week’s text…
The disciples of the Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is lawful “to pay taxes,” using the verb didōmi (to give, including to pay). While holding the coin, Jesus alters the word in an important way, adding a preposition to it: apodidōmi (to give back). Thus, evident in the verb itself is the idea that we return what has been given to us to who it rightfully belongs to. This is part of what it means to belong to something larger than ourselves.
When I took the Oath of Citizenship for Canada I received a Certificate and a letter from the Prime Minister to remind me of my “the rights and privileges” as well as the “responsibilities, obligations, and duties of a Canadian subject.” Both carried the official Arms of Canada, which is an image of authority and therefore a reminder of my obligation to give back to my country. Interestingly, images on our money gives Canadian citizens a sense of what that commitment looks like. On the $20 bill, along with an image of Queen Elizabeth, there is a drawing of the monument at Vimy Ridge, commemorating Canadian sacrifice during WWI. The $5 bill has the Canada Arm (from the space station), and the $100 bill points back to the development of insulin by a Canadian. A new $10 bill was minted in 2018, depicting the civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond. These images project the best of what might be given back to society by the citizens of Canada, and remind us that our contributions to this world are best measured as a gift back to God in ways that bless others, seek justice, and are marked by humility even as we make “good trouble.”
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