Sermon: "The Place of God, Caesar, and Self"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Exodus 33.12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22
As we have noted, the Pharisees and the Sadducees have been questioning Jesus’ authority. Jesus’ teaching and ministry was a threat to the stablished religious system. They desired to arrest Jesus; they sought ways they might charge him with blasphemy. Last Sunday we considered the parable of the wedding banquet. While traditional interpretations held that God was the king, and Jesus was the son, I offered an interpretation in which Jesus was the man who was not wearing the wedding robe and set forth several reasons for holding this interpretation. Jesus is the odd man out – the misfit! He does not fit in to the established religious institutions or practices. Remember how he cleansed the temple and proceeded to preach to the people. The leaders, threatened and perplexed, repeatedly asked by what authority Jesus was doing these things. In today’s gospel reading we find them plotting how they might entrap Jesus.
There is an old and true saying – “Politics make strange bedfellows!” Today’s reading offers a fine example for we see the Pharisees and the Herodians have joined forces against Jesus.
The Pharisees opposed the Roman occupation. The Pharisees shunned sinners and stressed purity laws. Roman coins were idolatrous in that they bore Caesar’s image and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of the divine Augustus, high priest;” hence, they would not possess or handle Roman coins. For this reason, money changers operated inside the temple.
The Herodians consisted of Jews who supported King Herod; they considered Roman authority to be legitimate and pledged their allegiance to Caesar.
Both groups opposed Jesus’ teaching and ministry. Mark’s gospel points to their opposition in two places. In Mark 3, we read how Jesus, upon entering the synagogue on the sabbath, cured a man who had a withered hand:
Jesus said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him (Vss. 3-6; NRSV).
In Mark 8.15, Jesus cautioned the disciples: “Watch out – beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod” (NRSV).
In today’s gospel reading, a group of Pharisees and Herodians set out to entrap Jesus. Hoping Jesus may lower his defenses, they begin with a dose of false praise then pose the question meant to entrap 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22.16-17; NRSV). If Jesus answered “Yes,” he would have offended the Pharisees; if “No,” he would have offended the Herodians and the Romans.
But Jesus was aware of their intent and he replied: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax” (Matthew 22.18-19; NRSV). They handed Jesus a denarius. The account does not tell us whether a Pharisee or a Herodian handed Jesus the denarius, but the fact one was so readily available is interesting. After all, the Pharisees viewed the coin as idolatrous. If a Herodian produced the coin, the Pharisees were in bad company! Their hypocrisy was evident in the readiness with which they handed Jesus the coin.
Jesus asked, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They replied, “The emperors.” Then Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God, the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22.20-21; NRSV). Jesus’ reply amazed them, and they departed.
As noted previously, the coin bore the image of Tiberius Caesar, and was inscribed “son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” The creation account informs us we are created in the image of God, we bear the image of God! Thus, there is deep meaning in Jesus’ words, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.” Most of us are probably more familiar with the King James Version: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” Let Caesar have his coin; give yourself to God!
This passage from Matthew confronts us with a fundamental question: Will we render unto God what is rightfully God’s? A few related questions also arise: Will we render unto the government what is required by law? Both questions present a challenge to our selfish impulses and interests. Many have chosen to worship the Self – to put Self above all else and all others. Some careful reflection reveals those who do so create their own special hell. God gives them up to their own impulses and devices.
As St. Paul points out, God has revealed God’s Self ever since the creation of the world. Paul describes those who live by their own impulses and desires as follows:
They are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them … they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them (Romans 1.20-25, 28-32; NRSV).
Sad to say, this description fits all too many of our politicians! Is this what we want? Is this what we are willing to settle for?
Let’s render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. We are on the eve of an election – many have already voted. We have a voice in determining the nature of our government. Exercise your voice; exercise your right to vote!