Feast Day: Pentecost 20
Readings: Matthew 22:15-22
“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)
Perhaps the most important part of our gospel reading this morning is not what Jesus says but rather what he does not say. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We know what belongs to Caesar but what belongs to God? What are we to render unto God?
Our reading this morning asks to be understood in light of what has just come before in Matthew’s account of the gospel: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.” Then. Their attempt to ensnare Jesus, to back him into a corner and force him to indict himself, comes on the heels of that reading we heard last week. The parable about the wedding banquet. The story Jesus tells to highlight the incomprehensible mystery of God’s grace and his desire to have the company of each and every human creature. The Pharisees—the religious leaders—had just heard this and what is their response? They conspire against him. That is, they embody those who were invited to the feast but who shrug it off as if it were of no interest to them. Not only that but they even plan to do-in the Son himself.
And so that Pharisees send their own disciples to him, along with the Herodians. The Herodians and the Pharisees were unlike in many ways except they were united in their opposition to Jesus. Here it is the Pharisees and Herodians plotting against Jesus but in a few chapters on the morning after his arrest just before he is taken to stand before Pontius Pilate Matthew writes that, “all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death,” (27:1).
In the gospels, opposition to Christ begins as a small seed planted in the hearts of some religious leaders but by the end it has grown into a full-fledged resistance. It is the crowd, that mass of humanity aligned in opposition to Christ, that cry out, “crucify him!” (27:23). And during the tumult of Holy Week we find that even we ourselves are caught up with the crowd.
So they go to try and catch Jesus up in his own words and after buttering him up a little bit they hit him with it: “Tell us, then, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” They’ve got him now. The matter of Jews paying taxes to Caesar was one of the hot topics of the day. How Jesus responds matters greatly.
If Jesus says “yes” then it appears as if he is colluding and collaborating with the enemy which would anger those Jews who sought liberation from Rome’s oppression. On the other hand, if Jesus says “no” then it looks like he himself is signing up to be the next in a line of renegades that would take up the case of Israel’s liberation with the sword and lead a violent rebellion against Rome.
The books of I and II Maccabees tell the story of Judas Maccabeus whose revolt against the civil authorities when Jesus himself would have been a boy was mercilessly crushed and left bodies hung up on crosses along the roadside. For the Pharisees it did not matter whether Jesus answered “yes” or “no” for either answer would have accomplished the goal of alienating Jesus from the people.
In every age the Church faces similar temptations to the hot topics of the day. Lean too far in one direction and we are in danger of capitulating to the culture altogether. Lean too far in the other direction and we are in danger of forming a holy huddle, forgetting that we are called to love the world that Christ has made and to work for it’s flourishing. Yet Christ calls us each in our own time to walk that narrow path between both of these ditches. The narrow path of being a distinctive people that have been set apart, with our own strange practices and languages that nourish our faith in Christ, while at the same time working for the good of the world that Christ loves and gave himself for and inviting others to find their life in following him.
A contemporary example might be the matter of human sexuality which if you pay attention to Anglican insider-baseball you know is a live debate in the global Anglican Communion as well as here at home in the Canadian church. This week a new website was making the rounds in my social media circles. It’s a website that literally scores churches on whether or not they are LGBTQ affirming and how clearly their website communicates this. “We believe,” states the website, “that ambiguity is harmful.”
I imagine that there are those of us who would like to get Jesus on record with that question. “Tell us, Jesus, what do you think? Should the church be affirming of the LGBTQ community or not? Yes or no?” And I imagine that Jesus would have a way of turning the question back on us to both challenge our unspoken motives while calling us deeper into our commitment to him and him alone. Because the way of Jesus does not line up all that well with any particular party or worldview. You cannot hijack Jesus to serve your own ends, try as we might. And when we do Jesus simply calls us deeper, calls us to set aside our political maneuvering and rest in him alone.
As we heard Jesus settles the debate by pointing out the fact that the Roman currency used to pay the tax had the likeness of Caesar imprinted upon it. In essence what he says is, “This is the property of Caesar so go on and give it back.”
Christians have commented here on the relationship between the Church and the State and on the Christian duty to the State, within reason. In Jesus’ words here he both dignifies and limits the State. Limits, because sometimes the State is hungry for more. Sometimes the State wants everything and the 20th century provides a litany of one murderous dictator after another that over-stepped the boundaries of the State.
Even now we hear concerning rhetoric coming from down south. Talk of, “respecting the flag,” and so on. Suddenly the most powerful man on earth is very concerned with how football players conduct themselves on the sideline and demands total and unflinching allegiance to country. Yet as one New Testament scholar has said, “the State becomes demonic in the measure that it asks for itself, “the things of God,” such as total commitment, unconditional obedience, or uncriticizing allegiance.”
Here we are now back at the question with which we began: What are “the things of God” which we are to render unto him? As noted Jesus leaves that question hanging out there for the Pharisees and more importantly for you and I.
However, by the end of the chapter Jesus will say two things that point us in the right direction: “He is God not of the dead, but of the living,” (22:32) and, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” (22:37). That is to say, God gives life and sustains it only to invite us to offer it back to him in love.
That this scene takes place during Holy Week as Christ is on his way to the cross where he will offer his life unto the Father for the sake of the world only underscores this. And in calling us to follow him you and I are invited to take the same leap into the merciful arms of God, casting aside all else.
Why? Because we belong to God. The Roman denarius may bear the image of Caesar but each and every human creature bears the image of God and those who are in Christ are being transformed into his likeness. It is therefore God and God alone who can claim you as his own. Only God can claim your total allegiance and obligation and he does indeed do so. You are his and he fashioned you that you might learn to render unto him the love that he has given unto you.
In our Tuesday small group study we have been reading Rowan Williams’ book Being Disciples. Along the way we have come face to face with the challenge of following Jesus. If you’re going to be with Jesus the bar is very high. There is no area of your life that he does not claim as his own. He is not interested just in your Sunday morning worship but in you yourself. He wants to invade every square inch of your life with his love and invites you to relinquish control of yourself to him. There is no middle ground. You’re either in or your out.
Needless to say not many of us who gather on Tuesdays feel particularly qualified. And yet those who struggle to give themselves to God will find that he is rich in mercy. As the Lord says to Moses: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” (33:14). They will also find that if they give their life to God he will return it 100-fold in his Son Jesus Christ. Render unto God the things that are God’s. Render unto God your very self. Amen.
 Frederick Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 400