Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said. 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 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.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. ~ Matthew 22:15-22
~ ~ ~
Sometimes it amazes me that I dare to climb into a pulpit to offer a word on the gospel. It amazes me that anyone dares to do it! That’s because, if you spent any time reading the gospels, you pretty quickly have to come face to face with the fact that the religious professionals do not come off well. Not at all. Priests, scribes, elders, Pharisees, Sadducees… the whole long list of those who attempt to speak for God are portrayed as lacking. With one notable exception.
Take today’s story. Though it’s fall here in the Southern Tier of New York, it’s spring in our gospel passage—in fact, it’s the week leading up to the Passover, meaning that Jerusalem is filling up with pilgrims who wish to celebrate the festival in the holy city. For Christians, we recognize that this is Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It’s only a few more days until Jesus is crucified.
Things are heating up.
Remember with me what has happened over the past couple of days.
Jesus has come into Jerusalem with crowds singing psalms, and identifying him as the one on whom they are pinning their hopes (Matthew 21:1-11). Is he the Messiah? Will he save them from oppression by the Roman government? Is he capable of toppling Caesar himself? Is he truly the prophet they have been waiting for?
Jesus then performs one of the most controversial and shocking acts of his ministry. He strides into the Temple, into the area where Roman coins are being exchanged for the Temple coins, and animals are being sold for sacrifices. He knocks over the tables of the moneychangers and chases them out, telling them they are turning his father’s house of prayer into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:12 ff).
And we need to talk about the doves. Jesus also knocks over the benches of those selling doves—a detail present in three of the four gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and John.
The purpose of Temple sacrifice is to make right the relationship between people and God. The offerings are described in Leviticus as “penalty for sin.” It’s an ancient practice, one found in many cultures, and one that persisted with God’s covenant people right up until the Temple was destroyed. For Jews, a lamb was required. But Leviticus offers an alternative for those who can’t afford a lamb—for the poor among God’s people. The alternative was two doves (Leviticus 5, 12, 14, etc.).
It is significant that Jesus chases away the dove-sellers. If there’s one thing we know about Jesus, it’s that he is for the poor, unapologetically, and without modifiers such as “deserving.” The fact that Jesus drives out the dove-sellers points us to what he really believes is the heart of the problem: the poor are being exploited and harmed. They are being forced to choose each week whether they will feed themselves, or offer sacrifices in order to be on good terms with God. On those weeks when they choose to feed their families, they have to live with the fact that they are not forgiven for their sins. On those weeks when they choose sacrifice and atonement, they risk their lives and health. Jesus demonstrates vividly his belief that there has to be a better way.
Throughout the rest of the week, Jesus teaches in the Temple. And from his very first outing, the religious authorities show up. And now, they are fired up by his shocking confrontation with the moneychangers and the dove-sellers. They are determined to confront him, to trap him, to topple him. First, it’s the chief priests of the Temple and elders (Matt. 21:23-27). Then, in our passage this morning, it’s a rare alliance of the Herodians and the Pharisees. The Herodians—people in the camp of King Herod, steadfastly carrying on the family tradition of government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich—banding together with the very morally upright Pharisees, whose greatest concerns are things like ritual purity, and who is worthy of sharing table fellowship. The only thing these groups have in common is their desire to “ensnare” Jesus.
The allies approach Jesus with soft, slippery words—their first move is to flatter him.
“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.” Their words ooze insincerity. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Paging Admiral Ackbar.[i] It’s a trap! Which, of course, Jesus knows very well. Matthew tells us, he is “aware of their malice.” And he calls them out on their playacting, calls them a bunch of “hypocrites.” Then he calls for the “coin used for the tax.” He doesn’t specify which tax—which he could, by saying, “the poll tax,” or “the tribute tax.” It’s a flat tax, which a person of wealth—such as the Pharisees, and Herodians, standing there in front of Jesus—would have absolutely no problem paying, would not even miss it. A poor person, on the other hand, would have to work an entire day out in the hot sun to earn that coin; and would then need to spend it for the daily bread of their family. It is a denarius. And Jesus asks: “Whose head is this? Whose image? And whose inscription?”
Do any of you happen to have a coin in your pocket or your purse? Who is on that coin? Is it the president we call “the father of our country”? Is it the one who wrote the Declaration of Independence, outlining the God-given freedoms of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” while, nevertheless, keeping more than a hundred slaves on his plantation? Is it the president who freed the slaves, but who paid for his courageous stance with his own life? Is it the president who was confined to a wheelchair, but who brought this country out of the Great Depression, and put its people to work again, and signed the Social Security act?
For citizens of the United States, the faces on our coins tell us which qualities we value in our leaders—and also, sometimes, which ones we will overlook. For citizens of Rome, the face on their coin told them to whom they owed specific acts of allegiance, such as the payment of the tribute or poll-tax.
Whose image is on the denarius? The image is Caesar, revered as a god by the Roman citizens. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, Jesus says. If you intend to use the Roman roads, if you hope to be protected by the Roman soldiers, if you want to do business in this Roman province—by all means, pay your taxes.
But the mention of “image” is always going to remind Jesus’ audience of a particular verse of scripture, isn’t it?
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. ~ Genesis 1:27
God made humans—and continues to make them—in God’s own image and likeness. Caesar’s image may be on the coins carried around by Pharisees and Herodians alike. But the image of God is imprinted on every human heart. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.
And, as it turns out, everything is God’s. As another Presbyterian pastor wrote this week, “The coins we give to Caesar or to Costco or to Amazon or to the electric company or to the church may not have God's image stamped on them, but they are nonetheless part of God's grand economy of abundant life.”[ii]
The Pharisees and Herodians are “amazed.” They back off—they leave Jesus, and go away. Jesus seems to have avoided the trap they laid for him. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t traps for us, traps we can and do fall into, on a regular basis. How often have we been led to believe that we really do owe to Caesar the things that truly belong to God? When we have found ourselves committed, heart and soul, mind and strength, to things, rather than to God’s people, and God? The stories of the California wildfires are still coming out, and many, many remain to be told of those who lost their homes and their lives. But the one I found the most heartbreaking so far was the one of the man who lost his life because he couldn't find his keys. There were other people there, family members, offering him rides, there was a nephew, begging him to leave—but he’d just bought a beautiful brand new truck, and he couldn’t bring himself to leave it behind. I think of that nephew and the haunting and complicated legacy of loss he will bear. The thing is, sometimes we don’t know what we will lay down our lives for, until we do it. It’s a tricky business, avoiding the traps.
So, what is the answer to all our questions about Jesus? Has this encounter answered any of the big questions about him? Is he the Messiah? Will he save the people from oppression by the Roman government? Is he capable of toppling Caesar himself? Is he truly the prophet the people have been waiting for?
The answers to these questions are not simple, even for Christians. We believe Jesus to be the Messiah. But Jesus was killed by the Roman government, by representatives of Caesar.
Is Jesus capable of toppling Caesar?
Is Jesus the one we have been waiting for?
I go back to those doves. Together with the coin for the tax, they tell a tale of a long history of anxious dealings with God and gods. The tell of systems in which people are fighting to justify themselves before deities whom they assume need something from them, and who will not be satisfied otherwise. But isn’t Jesus about to do something entirely new? In the name of the God who created humans in God’s own image, isn’t Jesus about to show us the ultimate demonstration of a God who is not asking us to sacrifice animals or our children’s daily bread? Instead, isn’t Jesus simply asking us to accept a gift purely and freely given? Isn’t God about to say to humanity, “I am enough, and therefore, you are enough”? Isn’t God about to show us, in Jesus, what grace is—God’s mercies, fresh every morning, available to us right now, and forever?
How willing are we to trust Jesus—not our image of him, but God’s image in us? Not our old notions, carried with us from childhood, but his words and actions? Out with the old systems of sacrifice and moneychanging, out with anything that increases the misery of the poorest and most vulnerable—that cannot possibly be from God; it’s a trap. Instead, hear this invitation: give to God what is God’s. Aren’t we invited, heart and soul, mind and strength, to recognize that we are already one with the God who wants us to know that we are already his?
Are we ready to listen to Jesus, and to be amazed?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Erick J. Thompson, “Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22,” October 22, 2017, Working Preacher Website, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3450.
[ii] Jill Duffield, “Looking into the Lectionary: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time,” Presbyterian Outlook, October 16, 2017.