Sunday, October 18, 2020

Sermon: "Obedience", Matthew 22:15-22 (October 18, 2020)


Someone ought to tell Jesus that politics don’t belong in the Church.

But seriously, in a book that says a lot of uncomfortable things, this passage has got to be one of the top five most awkward moments. It hits ALL THREE of the topics you’re NEVER supposed to talk about in polite conversation: politics, religion, and finances. To be entirely fair to Jesus, this confusing mess of taboo subjects isn’t his fault. While he’s not afraid to dive into the matter (Jesus never was one to back down from a challenge) he doesn’t initiate the conversation. It’s a set-up.

In order to fully appreciate this passage, we need to understand what’s really going on here. Although they appear to be working together here, Pharisees and Herod supporters were essentially arch enemies. Pharisees were religious purists who saw the Roman occupation as an affront to God, while Herod *relied* on the Roman government for his power and authority and therefore had a vested interest in its continued presence. But these two diametrically opposed groups with competing interests had something important in common: they both saw Jesus as a threat. They unite here for the sole purpose of trying to get him in trouble.

Now, consider the kind of mood Jesus must have been in when these two groups first approached him. These events occur a day or two after what we now call Palm Sunday—the beginning of Holy Week. Jesus was probably on-edge, anticipating the trials and tribulations were ahead of him. Since entering Jerusalem, the chief priests had already openly questioned his authority, and he’d taken some of his frustration out by cursing a fig tree. He was obviously not having a good week. Most notably, Jesus had just cleansed the temple in Matthew 21, so one can imagine the emotions that must still be running through him at this point. He’s probably still furious about the people’s manipulation of religion for their own financial gain. He’s certainly not going to have much patience for anyone trying to use money to make a religious point.

So the stage is set, the question is asked, and Jesus has a decision to make. If he responds to them by saying, “Don’t pay taxes to Caesar,” he’ll anger the Roman authorities and give them an excuse to arrest him as a radical seditionist. But on the other hand, if he says, “You *should* pay taxes to Caesar,” he’ll risk undermining his own teachings and alienating not only the religious authorities, but his own followers and disciples. He’s no fool; he knows that the Pharisees and Herodians are trying to force him into a corner, to “pick a side”…so he does. Just not in a way that anyone expected.

Jesus’ opponents presented him with what they thought was a binary choice. They may have even assumed he’d asked for the denarian in order to flip a coin. Heads, taxes to Caesar; tails, no taxes. But Jesus chooses an unexpected third option. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” This surprising non-answer manages to speak volumes between the lines. There’s a lot more going on in these few words than we might expect: just as the question isn’t REALLY about taxes, the answer isn’t REALLY about the separation of church and government.

This interaction between the Pharisees, Herodians, and Jesus is part of a larger conversation in Matthew’s gospel about authority. Jesus’ opponents seem to be asking an innocent question of religious logistics, but as Jesus knows, they’re hoping that his answer will force him to proclaim his allegiance, either to Rome or to Judea. Essentially, by asking, “Is it lawful to pay taxes?” they’re asking the implied question, “To whom do we owe our loyalty? Which power do we obey?”

With his answer, Jesus forces them to consider a different question: “What does Caesar deserve? What does God?” Suddenly, a coin flip doesn’t seem sufficient for this decision. And we realize that Jesus has a different purpose in mind for the denarian. The footnotes in my Study Bible explain, “When an emperor minted coins with his own image, the coins were regarded as his property.”[1] So initially, it seems like Jesus is agreeing with Caesar’s right to the taxes: by putting his “mark” on the coin, the emperor has already claimed it as his own. Which, to be honest, isn’t a bad approach. I mean, kids have their names sewn into their jackets to indicate who they belong to, adults write their names on their lunches to mark their claim on them…heck, I even have my name on my office door.

But what are these claims based on? The circumstances of human ownership can be easily changed. One day I’ll retire, and the next pastor will take over “my” office. You might decide to buy a salad to eat and give “your” lunch to someone who forgot theirs. A child will eventually outgrow “their” jacket and might pass it on to a younger sibling. Caesar will eventually fall and “his” monetary system will no longer be valid currency. Each of these claims is based on human constructs of ownership that are, by their very nature, temporary. They’re subjective, at best.

Meanwhile, that to which God has a claim has also been marked. From the time that the very first humans took their very first breaths, WE have been marked with God’s own image—Imago Dei. This mark is indelible and immutable. It cannot be transferred or annulled. God claims every single part of us as God’s own. So when Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”…who do you think has the better claim?

Some of us try to claim the world around us by putting our mark wherever we can—on statues and on business ventures and on deeds, in letters 20-feet tall on the side of buildings, in print and on the internet. But ultimately, every time we exalt ourselves and demand loyalty from others in this way, we’re creating an idol in our own image. Such objects themselves are empty of any real value—they’re graven images, and have no meaning beyond that with which we give to them. Sure, give the emperor his coins back, if they’re that important to him. But as people of faith, we MUST draw the line when such idols are used as a way to demand our obedience and loyalty. That’s placing a claim on the people themselves—something that only God can rightfully do.

Our human constructs (societal, governmental, economical) are set up in such a way that we do owe certain things to one another. But God has the ultimate claim on us. We CANNOT live our lives in such a way that God gets the leftovers. This becomes more and more difficult as the earthly “powers and principalities” demand more and more from us. But anything that we give to Caesar must not take away from what our obedience to God demands of us. As theologian Debie Thomas puts it, “As Christians, we don’t have the option of fudging on the love and mercy of God for some ‘greater’ political end result. We can't isolate our political choices and actions, as if they don’t reflect who we are as image-bearers of our Creator. If everything belongs to God, then our spiritual lives and our political lives must cohere…Our ‘rendering unto Caesar’ must always take second place to what we render unto God.”[2]

This means that, unlike the kind of obedience that the Caesars of the world demand, the obedience that God asks of us requires careful discernment. God doesn’t WANT our blind, thoughtless compliance. If that were the case, Jesus would have given us a lot more rules and a lot fewer parables. God wants us to use the brains that we’ve been given to figure out how to live as a reverent people in an irreverent world. It’s not the act of following the law that makes us obedient. It’s willingly and eagerly living into the values that God has given to us, following God’s will with mindful discernment. The law is merely a tool to help us in this endeavor.

This is what the Pharisees and Herodians failed to understand. No law is an end in itself. No human leader has ultimate authority. If a law or a leader demands something that keeps us from following God’s will in any way, then IT IS WRONG. Michael E. Lee, Theology Professor at Fordham University, puts it this way: “The law should not be an obstacle to serving, nor an excuse for avoiding, the higher purpose of god’s merciful desire that all people should flourish.”[3] NOTHING—no ideology, no law, no political party, no system of government—is equal to God’s will except GOD’S WILL. It’s the only truly unchangeable thing in the universe. All laws are subject to change and reinterpretation in light of humanity’s changing needs, but God’s will—the desire for all humanity to be in holy relationship with God and with one another—is the only thing deserving of our unwavering obedience. And so, we give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar…but only once we’ve made certain that we give to God all that belongs to God.

At the end of the day, our loyalties shouldn’t come down to a coin toss—choosing option A or option B and that’s the end of it. Holy obedience isn’t a thoughtless, instantaneous thing. It’s a constant evaluation of what each of our choices is in service to, and if the rules we’ve set up for ourselves are truly working towards the same ends. Are you giving to Caesar what actually belongs to Caesar, without compromising God’s claim on you? Are you giving to God what truly belongs to God, and not just what’s left over once you’ve satisfied your own agenda? If so, then carry on working towards God’s Kingdom, beloved. If not…well, then you’re not with Jesus. Are you the Pharisees or the Herodians? Which kingdom are you serving? To whom do you give your obedience? Amen.


[1] CEB Study Bible, footnote Matthew 22:19-21.

[2] Debie Thomas, “What Belongs to God”,

[3] Michael E. Lee, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year A Vol. 3. P. 404.

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