Sunday, October 19, 2008
Good, Acceptable, and Perfect
Matthew 22: 15-22
It’s a very sticky thing that the Pharisees have asked Jesus in this passage—very cleverly worded, so as to suss out Jesus’ true motives. If it was a normal person, they probably would have fallen into the trap.
The trap was set up like this. They invite people who support the Herod family, some of whom may have even believed that a member of the Herod family may himself be the messiah, to go with them to this opportunity to question. That way, whatever answer this Galilean preacher gives will get back to the family. They come upon the question of asking about taxes. They know that the Jews resent paying the tax; not because they don’t want to pay taxes, but because the coin that is required is a coin with a human head, and the letters on the coin claim divinity for the person whose head it is, that of Tiberius, Caesar, Roman Emperor.
As one commentator says, “coins (of the time) were handheld billboards of imperial propaganda with busts of imperial figures and inscriptions.” No one had checks back then, there was no electronic transfer of funds, so one had to pay using the coin of the realm. No exchanges like they had at the temple, to transfer the offending idolatrous money to safer, Jewish Temple coin. One had to handle the unclean money.
So, the question is “is it lawful to pay takes to the Roman Emperor or not?” If Jesus answers yes, then he can be seen as less than serious to the Jewish hopes for the messiah. He can be dismissed, because he is not truly willing to lead the people. He will be no danger, because Zealots and more passionate Pharisees will see him as not real. If he says no, it is not lawful, there are the Herodians who can report back to their boss that there is a new leader among the Jews who is now preaching sedition and treason, and he can be taken out by force. Either way, the Pharisees seem to have finally gotten Jesus to a decisive declaration that they can use against him.
Except he answers the question differently than yes or no.
The way he answers is very wise. Give to Caesar what is due Caesar, give to God what is due God. Caesar made the coin, Caesar distributed the coin, Caesar uses the coin to build roads, to pay soldiers, Caesar uses the coin to feed the people. Caesar, being the civil authority, needs to use coin in order to do his job. The coin, distasteful as it is to the people in appearance, help them live more peaceful lives. It keeps chaos away from their world. As onerous as it is to have an army occupying their land and profiting from their labor, the trade routes through the area stay open, keeping body and soul together.
But he keeps the primary focus of the Jews where it is supposed to be. Give to God what is due God. Jews of the time believe that all of the world is God’s. Christians, as spiritual, and in some cases literal descendants of Jews, believe similarly. Paul, raised as a Pharisee and still influenced by his education, says it this way in the 13th chapter of Romans; Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist incur judgment.
Note, by the way, that it doesn’t say that all government is to be obeyed. It says that there is no authority except from God. A chapter earlier, Paul writes that Christians (his exclusive audience) should not confirm to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of (their) minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God- what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.
So, Jesus answers the question with more than just the words. Yes, we should pay the tax, no matter what the government requires that the tax be paid with. If they want coffee, give it to them in coffee. If they want it in chickens, give it to them in chickens. If they want it in coins of semi-precious metal, using words an symbols that are important to them, then fine, give it to them that way. It keeps the peace, and keeps the men with the swords out of your house. But remember that they govern by the will of God, and even a government as large and mighty as the Roman Empire governs at the disposal of God.
This is an amazing answer to the Pharisees and the Herodians, because they don’t really know what to do with it. Remember, they were asking with devious intent. They really didn’t want to know the answer, but they did want to trap him. It was an early version of what we have heard a lot about, lately; gotcha journalism! And Jesus avoids being “got.”
In fact, Jesus reverses the gotcha. Remember that these are the parables that Jesus is teaching his last week of life, while he is in Jerusalem. As he teaches them, he is actually in the temple. Do you remember that Jesus asks them to show him the coin used for the tax, and they do? Well, the guy who had the coin was actually defiling the temple, because that very coin should not have been within the walls of God’s Holy temple. It’s the whole reason for having moneychangers outside, it’s the whole premise of the question. And an authority has the coin inside the temple. It’s like taking whiskey to an AA meeting—a definite no-no.
So, all this being interesting and educational and all, what’s the point? What can we leave this room with this morning and take into our lives so that we can more closely resemble Christ?
It means that as Christians, we have discernment to do. The governments that we live under are all the subject of the will of God. To the degree that they resemble God’s wisdom, grace, will and love is the degree that they are Godly.
Our job as Christians is to discern what God requires of us. We are to always keep one eye towards the words of Christ, and compare the actions of government and authority against these. We are not called to separate the worlds of Caesar and God, but to compare the world of Caesar against the will of God as expressed by Jesus, and where the two do not match, to advocate for mercy, for peace, and for loving thy neighbor. Our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God.
We are the face of God to the world. The governments of the world are in power by the will of God, and it is our duty to be their conscience. But we are to be transformed by the renewing our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God; what is good, and acceptable, and perfect. And expect goodness, acceptability, and perfection when it is not yet achieved.