Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost - Matthew 22:15-22
Jesus doesn’t have a need to be Caesar. He isn’t living and dying to be an emperor, he’s not running for political office, he doesn’t have the best public relations team. He’s not tweeting at 3 o’clock in the morning about Puerto Rico, dead soldiers, or Russia. Nor is he hoping to rile you up by what those rich people over there are doing, what the racists over here are doing, or what we are told is the truth. Getting soundbites in the news to wrangle you. To harm you. What Jesus does do, though, is upset our moments. He sees through our own hypocrisy to get to the root cause of our fear, our failure. He hijacks the moments we try to make him our Messiah in the way we want him to be, rather than the Redeemer that God has given to us in him.
In this passage, the Pharisees bring along some rather uncommon allies, the Herodians, those allied to the so-called king of Judea, Herod, and they want to try and trap Jesus. They have laid the snare in such a way that they think he is in deep trouble.
We know you teach the way of God, Jesus, but in your teaching where do you land on the issue of politics. The issue of state allegiance, of patriotism, of economics. Where do you land Jesus? Should we pay the poll-tax, or not?
They hope for him to be caught, tried and executed. If he says No, the Herodians are ready to arrest another revolutionary. Another political prisoner to add to the stockade. The sort of “messiah” that seeks to overthrow the ruling powers and usher in the Kingdom of Israel. Painting him the Zealot, like Judas Iscariot, who saw in Jesus his own version of the Tea Party or Bernie Sanders.
If he says Yes, it is okay to pay the poll-tax, a tax inflicted on non-roman citizens just for existing. For just having a head. That is where the word “poll” comes from. (BTW - This is the reason for the census in Roman times, and in the story of Christmas in Luke. It’s the same word. Using the counting for revenue sake.) If Jesus says – Yes, it is lawful, in obedience to Jewish law, to pay this tax – the people will turn against him. He will lose his followers, but also there would be a way for the religious leaders to convict him of breaking their law. They think they have him between a proverbial rock and hard place.
They want to truly catch him in this whole “Way of God” business. They try and flatter him, give him some kudos, then tear him down. You teach the way of God, Jesus. You don’t care about who someone is in life. So, which way is it then? Patriotism? State religion? Allegiance to an Emperor who equates himself to God? Or, allegiance to revolution? Radicalism? Pushing against the occupying forces? As though they want to tell him - Come now, Jesus. Pagan taxation can’t be the way of God, can it? God can’t condone things being done or used by stuff not connected to true worship, or faith, or the sacred.
How many of you fit into this category? Believing that there are these certain things that God just cannot possibly be part of. Using something bad or weird, in our own eyes? Not possible. Our participating in it, even passively, guilt by association as it were, would be dangerous. And this is how it is familiar for us. We live in a world that tries to say there is a state and there is religion or faith. Some wish to blur the lines to make one the other and vice versa. Others want the chasm to grow so much between them that if you have any allegiance to one side or the other it would be impossible for you to cross to the other side. One becomes bad, the other good. Government bad, religion good. Or State as savior, faith as a cheap trick.
I can just see Jesus smile a little and laugh. Thinking back to the Scriptures, even to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, where God, in Genesis, uses Joseph in a position of the power of a foreign government to save lives, especially his family. Where God uses the evil of his brothers, selling him into slavery, Potiphar sending him to prison, for the good of the world. Taking bad and doing good somehow.
Or Jesus looking to our first reading this morning and thinking of Isaiah’s declaration that the Lord has anointed a non-believer, Cyrus, king of Persia, the home of the Jewish exiles, an enemy of the people, he has chosen him to be his servant. To use him for purposes in the economy of God. That all may know that I am the Lord, God says.
This Cyrus we hear of, who will conquer nations and desolate kingdoms, is the same one in the book of Ezra that makes the announcement that the Jews can return to Jerusalem to build the temple again. To go back to their homeland with a mission, to do godly work for the sake of the name of the Lord of heaven, he says. Using one who looks like evil, for good.
The Bible is full of stories of God using all sorts of people and situations for the work of his Kingdom and word. We are so indoctrinated with notions of happy endings, of sweetness and love, of saints in their purity, that we can’t imagine a particular elected official, who tweets, as being an instrument of God, whether good or bad. Or we can’t think that God’s work and will is alive and well in a place like Hollywood. Because we have been told “This is how it should be.” Giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s seems like blasphemy to our ears, not theology.
We use this binary thinking, this Caesar vs Jesus, state vs God, to help our hypocrisy to boil over. Our hypocrisy gets us when we have no problem using Caesar for our own gains, while setting God aside, or using God for our own benefits to try and get rid of Caesar. Unfortunately, then we find ourselves in a bit of a quandary. We associate God’s work with either a certain type of Caesar, or only a certain place, time or thing. Usually something or somewhere we agree with or like, not thinking that God might work through someone, something or somewhere we don’t. And so, for the sake of the Kingdom, and the workings of Christ, he tells us “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s.” No definitions. No amounts. No percentages. Just a statement. Our place is not to put those things in boxes but to know that somewhere, in all of this, God is working.
God is a living God. A seeing God. A God who gazes upon the lives of the world and says, I can use that. If we try to ball God up into some sort of sacred category, some sort of happy ending only, working our way, where would the cross stand? Where would the suffering Jesus who takes upon the sins of the world be in the story of God if all God does is bring smiles, laughter, and happy endings? If what God does is do for us the good things and only use the “God things” what do we do with a God who dies at the hands of Roman executioners, on a Roman cross, at the behest of religious leaders?
It is in this giving to Caesar what is Caesar and God what is God’s a designation not of who God is or what he does in one place, but that God is one who gives. Most importantly, he has given himself to you in Christ. Knowing that we can’t give back anything close, he gives us this word to show us that our own thinking of what God does or can do is so limited. So small. So partisan. The human party. But Christ is the one who walks this tight rope to take the things we see as un-Godlike – death, a cross, burial – and make them God things for your sake.
Because of this life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we learn that the road, and the ending, can involve some suffering, some hardship, some pain, some people completely opposed to the kingdom of God. Using Caesar for the work of Christ. Using Rome to provide the method of death for the forgiveness of your sins. Where whether it is the things of Caesar or God, the path always meets at Calvary. At Calvary, Christ makes known that the sins of both Caesar and the godly are worth it through the blood of Christ. The blood that covers, that shadows us. That runs the middle between the things of Caesar and the things of God.
The road to that cross, the road to death, so that resurrection might come, is paved with humiliation. Not in the way a bully gives the weaker child a swirlie in the boy’s locker-room, but in the way that – Every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess, that Jesus is Lord (or as the word in the Greek truly means - Caesar) to the glory of God the Father. Thanks be to God. Amen