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Pentecost 20A Sermon
Matthew 22: 15-22
18, 2020


Sermon Archives


Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" 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 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with us in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

Do any of you have any money in your pocket? Does it bother you that the coin or bill is imprinted with the face of a human being, someone long dead who was an important figure in the establishment or continuing of our nation? Does it offend you when you hear that most of these men – and most of them are men – owned slaves or somehow participated in the economy of our country in a way which we look upon as evil today? Do you like the idea of replacing the image of someone like Andrew Jackson on one of our notes with the likeness of Harriett Tubman, or another important person of color from our history? With all of these factors, would you stop using this currency because you cannot, in good conscience, continue to carry around pictures of these people?

According to strict Jewish laws, no good Jew would have a coin from the Roman Empire on their person. Coins were basically a piece of precious metal which weighed a certain amount. The term for the Jewish coin, “shekel” literally meant, “weight” and was a piece of silver that weighed a uniform amount. Jewish shekels were stamped with non-human likenesses – buildings, cups or plants. This was the coin used between Jewish merchants and in the Temple for offerings and temple tax. If a person wanted to participate in the more open Roman commerce and pay Roman taxes, they needed to change shekels into denarii. If a person had a denarius and wanted to give to the temple, they had to visit the moneychanger and do the opposite. It was these moneychangers that Jesus had just driven out of the temple days before this encounter with the Herodians.
The denarius was also a certain weight, but these were stamped with the image or likeness of the emperor. You see a couple of examples on the bulletin cover of the coins of the day. It was a way of reminding citizens of who rules their lives and blessed them that they should have this wealth! This was a direct affront to the very first commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” or as some have translated it, “You shall have no graven image.” This is the root of why people of Jewish faith do not make pictures or statues of important people in their heritage. To possess one makes an idol or god out of that person. It is more than remembering a historical figure; it is akin to raising them up to godhood.

So, when Jesus is once again tested by a new group of folks – this time Herodians, Jewish leaders who were also supporters of King Herod – he knows both the evil at the root of their question and how he can easily address it. “Should we pay taxes to the emperor?” If he says “Yes” they can claim that he is encouraging people to participate in the occupational force and their economy of persecution. If he says no, they can bring him before the Roman authorities as one who is encouraging civil unrest. But of course, Jesus will not be caught up in such an insidious test! He asks for a denarius, and proudly one of the Herodians produces one! “Here … I have one!” Then, just like that Jesus stifles his enthusiasm: “And whose head and title are on it?” Um … well … the Emperor’s. “Then give to the emperor that which is the Emperor’s and give to God that which is God’s! We are told that that they went away, amazed at all of this. I imagine that their amazement is part guilt, part acceptance and part lack of understanding. I imagine them staring at this round piece of copper with the likeness of someone who claims to be their god, the source of their life and blessings, of which it is officially illegal to be in possession, and yet … they cannot get rid of it. They must participate in this system because it has been set up this way – it is out of their control and they must participate in order to live their lives.

This sounds very familiar to me. I cannot stand politics, especially this time of this year when we are just a couple of weeks away from a presidential election. The American political system is an extremely faulty system that seems to favor politicians more than it favors the people whom politicians are supposed to serve. Now I know that no system or institution is perfect, but the division and greed involved in our government right now keeps on amazing me on both sides of the aisle … and not in a good way! I would prefer to leave it all behind, to chuck all of these denarii into the ocean because of the idolatry that is implicit in them. But I know that I must participate in this flawed system to fulfill my calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

We are constantly actually put into situations where we cannot help but sin! What if someone breaks into my home and threatensthreaten my family? If I don’t do anything to prevent it from happening, then I am neglecting the people I love most. But if I were to actively try to prevent it – to take up arms against the intruder - I am trying to harm another human being. Either choice I make is flawed, and that is the sinfulness that is embedded into this imperfect world.

What about my taxes? Just because I pay them as I am supposed to, does that mean that I approve of the ways that they are used? Am I happy that so much of my tax dollars goes to military spending? Do I want to support those who do not work, or the schools in which I have no children enrolled anymore? Do I like all of the subsidies that my taxes fund, the safety net programs, the research projects? For some of these things I can say yes … but not for all of them. I am sure you could say the same and more. But I pay my taxes and in so doing, am participating in an imperfect – yes, and sinful – system of life.

And that is okay. We will hear more next week about our Lutheran Heritage on Reformation Sunday. One of Martin Luther’s famous quotes was, “Sin Boldly.” That little phrase does not not mean that we have free license to do whatever we please! What it does mean is that we can dare to live life not worrying about earning our eternal salvation by tallying up our sins over/against our good works. We are freed from keeping score of all of that. We do not place our hope of salvation on political or economic systems … BUT we are called to participate in those systems as followers of Jesus Christ. That means that because we pay taxes we also speak out, we vote for people and issues that have the same values for the spending of our tax dollars, and sometimes we even demonstrate when we see how the systemic sinfulness harms people who cannot speak out for themselves.

The response of Jesus to the Herodians to (as the King James Bible translation puts it) “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s” is an encouragement to get back to the root of life in relationship with God and each other. Get back to life under the first commandment. For you see, God’s image has been stamped on each one of us as God’s created humanity, no matter what we look like, what taxes we pay, where we live or how we vote. Render unto God that which is God’s – is a call to give of our whole selves in love toward God and to our neighbor. Yes, even though we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people and imperfect laws, we must engage in a life of risk – to sin boldly, as Luther put it … BUT, to let our trust in Christ be even stronger! That is how Luther’s quote continues. So, Christian brothers and sisters, do not wallow in despair or guilt. God’s people have always been caught in sinful systems which leave us in the position to make imperfect decisions in life. Our call is to prayerfully AND boldly live our lives in love and care for our neighbors confident that we have been stamped with the perfect image of God in this sinful world. Use your money, your vote, your voice with the image of God to guide you, and remember, your hope of salvation does not depend on your participation in perfect or imperfect systems in life – it depends on the wonderful amazing grace of Jesus Christ! Amen.