The Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity: Render to God and Caesar
The Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity: Render to God and Caesar
St. Matthew 22:15-22
by William Klock
The Pharisees—and a lot of other important people—were mad at Jesus. Our Gospel comes after Jesus marched into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to acclamations of “Son of David”, after he upset the temple, and after telling those parables about wicked tenants and about the wedding guests who refused to come to the wedding of the king’s son. The leaders of Israel knew that Jesus’s rebuke, his condemnation was aimed straight at them and they were angry. And so Matthew picks up in our lesson today, at 22:15, and writes:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might trap him into saying the wrong thing. They sent their followers to him, with the Herodians.
Every time they’ve confronted Jesus, he’s turned their accusations against them. So this time they conspire. They’ll send their henchmen. And this time the plan is to trick him into saying something that will get him in trouble with the Romans—something revolutionary, something that will get him arrested—and if they’re lucky, maybe even crucified.
“Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are truthful, and that you teach God’s way truthfully. You don’t care what anyone thinks about you, because you don’t try to flatter people or favour them. So tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar, or not?”
These guys are pretty obsequious as they approach Jesus. They’re undercover. They want him to think that they’re like those other people who hailed him as Messiah and who were hanging on his every word. They want Jesus to let his guard down. So they address him as “Rabbi” and they try to butter him up. But then the question.
And context is everything here. We need to understand the background of this question. The tribute they refer to was the poll- or head-tax assessed by the Romans on all the adult males in the territories and provinces they conquered. As a tax it didn’t amount to very much: just a single denarius each year—about a day’s wages. But it was the principle of the tax that was a problem for the Jews. The Jews believed that the Lord was their king. Their identity as a people was forged in the Exodus, when the Lord rescued them from slavery in Egypt and set them free in a land of their own. Their more recent national hero was Judas the Hammer, who had revolted against their pagan Greek overlords, driven them out, cleansed the temple, and established a new monarchy. But year in and year out as they paid tribute to the Romans, they were reminded that all of that was in the past. Even in their own land, they were subjugated and ruled by pagan Caesar. Many people felt that to pay the tax was tantamount to denying that the Lord was their king.
And it didn’t help that to pay the Roman tax, they had to use Roman coins. These coins ordinarily bore an image of Caesar—at this time it would have been Tiberius—and an inscription describing him as “son of God”. The coins themselves were blasphemous. They were a violation of the Second Commandment against graven images and they were doubly blasphemous in ascribing divinity to Caesar. There were some among the Pharisees who taught that it was a sin even to look at the coins. The Jews were so outraged by the usual imperial coinage that the Romans removed the image of Caesar from the coins struck in Judaea, but they still bore that blasphemous inscription: “Tiberius, son of God”. There was a sense in which just to use the coins, to carry them in your pocket was, for a Jew, to deny the kingship of God and to break his commandments.
But everybody just paid the tax because they didn’t know what else to do. They weren’t happy about it, but they paid it. Many of the religious leaders: the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, the Sadducees knew that to refuse to pay the tax was to declare open revolt against the Romans. They had seen what the Romans did to people and nations that revolted and they knew it wasn’t pretty. It was also true that the province of Judea had a unique relationship with Rome. The Romans had had enough trouble with the Jews that they were willing to make some compromises. They took the image of Caesar off the local coins and they let the Jewish authorities govern the temple and local worship. But the Romans would only compromise so much. The Jewish leaders knew that if they stopped paying the tax the Romans would remove them from power and would very likely stop their worship and desecrate the temple. And so the Jewish leaders encouraged people to pay the tax. It was the price of being able to continue to serve and worship the Lord. (It was also the price of being able to stay in power.) They argued it was a justified compromise: Yes, we know that God is King, but we have to pretend that Caesar is or they’ll kill us all.
But there were others who objected. Not too many years before, in a.d. 6, when Jesus was a boy, a man known as Judas the Galilean had started a revolt. He reminded the people that the Jews had no master but the Lord and that to pay the tax was to deny this and to compromise with pagans. The Romans brutally put down his revolt and left the revolutionaries hanging on crosses all around Judaea—sending the clear message: Roman taxes aren’t optional.
Those taxes were still something everyone grumbled about. If you’d asked people, most of them would have said that this was exactly the sort of problem the Messiah would fix when he came. Well, probably not the taxes, but he’d bust up Roman heads so that no one would have to worry about anything Roman anymore. So you can see where the Pharisees’ question is headed. If Jesus says that people shouldn’t pay tribute to the Romans, well, that would probably get him crucified as a revolutionary very quickly. But, on the other hand, if he tells the people that it’s okay to pay the tax because what God is interested in is a “spiritual” kingdom rather than a worldly one, the people will reject Jesus. They’re looking to him as Messiah to set everything to rights in the real world, not to give them spiritual cop-outs and pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. The sad irony is that this is precisely what many Christians have done with Jesus’ answer: They’ve copped-out by spiritualising the kingdom of God and the lordship of Jesus and giving Caesar lordship over the world. “Caesar is lord of this world and Jesus is Lord of the next,” say many Christians today. Of course, the good news says Jesus is Lord of all!
How does Jesus answer them? Look at verse 18:
Jesus knew their evil intentions.
“Why are you trying to trick me, you hypocrites?” he said. “Show me the tribute coin.” They brought him a dinar.
“This…image,” said Jesus, “and this…inscription. Who do they belong to?”
“Caesar,” they said.
“Well then,” said Jesus, “you’d better give Caesar back what belongs to Caesar! And—give God back what belongs to God!”
Jesus wasn’t born yesterday. He knows exactly what game they’re playing and once again he turns their question back on them and puts them in the hot seat. Instead of answering their question he asks them to show him one of the coins used to pay the tax. One of them pulls a denarius from his coin purse and shows it to Jesus before he realises that he’s just hanged himself with his own rope. If this coin is so blasphemous, what’s he doing with it? Jesus drives this home by asking him to confirm the obvious: “Whose image and inscription are on it?” And, of course, they answer: “Caesar’s”. Jesus reveals that they’ve already made up their minds. Clearly, they don’t have a problem carrying around Caesar’s coins, which means they’ve come up with some compromising rationalisation for paying Caesar’s tax too. Presumably it was as obvious to the crowd as it was to Jesus that these were spies of the religious leaders trying to trap or to discredit Jesus. It backfired. He stole their thunder. He deflated their balloon. He could have left it at that, but he goes on to give them an answer and his answer points beyond both the compromise of the priests and elders and the revolutionary zealotry of men like Judas the Galilean and the kind of messianic revolution the people were longing for. Jesus points them to the true nature of the kingdom of God. He tells them: “You’d better give Caesar back what belongs to Caesar! And—give God back what belongs to God!”
Or in the familiar words of the King James: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar and unto God the things that are God’s.” Jesus echoes words that everyone would have known. Two centuries before, the priest Mattathias lay on his deathbed and inspired his son, Judas, to lead a revolt against the pagan Greeks. It was that revolt that the people commemorated every year when they celebrated Hanukkah and they all knew the story very well. As he was dying Mattathias said to his sons:
Pay back the Gentiles in full and heed what the law commands. (1 Maccabees 2:68)
These were the words that followed a career of zealously calling the Jewish people away from compromise with pagans and back to the law. Mattathias tore down altars and forcibly circumcised the sons of many compromising Jews. These were words that inspired Mattathias’ sons to revolt openly against the Greeks. He charged them to keep the Lord’s law and as far as the Maccabees were concerned, to keep the law meant revolting against the Greeks, driving them out, and cleansing the temple so that the Lord could once again be King in Israel. And that’s exactly what they did. Jesus echoes those words and in them the people would have heard him saying that to render to God what is Gods—to be faithful to the Lord’s law—meant paying back the Romans in full. The people would have heard Jesus talking about revolt.
At the same time, though, there’s a second layer of meaning. Jesus’ words sounded like revolt as they echoed Mattathias, but at the same time Jesus was also saying “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” while holding up Caesar’s coin for everyone to see. With the coin right there, Jesus’ response is also undeniably a statement that you’d better pay your taxes! So which is it? Do you suck it up, compromise the law, and pay your taxes or do you revolt against Caesar? The answer is both and neither. And Matthew says:
When they heard this they were astonished. They left him and went away.
They were astonished. Jesus changed the paradigm and they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around it. It’s not easy for us to understand either, because we’re too often trapped in the same mode of thinking as the people who were trying to trap Jesus. They looked at the pagans around them, the pagans who were oppressing them, the pagans who were insisting that they compromise their worship and their faith and their service to the Lord, and they only saw two options: Either you went along with the blasphemous compromise in order to keep your skin intact, or you rose up in open revolt, drew your sword, and charged into battle for the Lord the way Judas the Hammer had done. Not many Jews were interested in doing the latter anymore. It worked for Judas the Hammer against the Greeks, but when Judas the Galilean tried it against the Romans everyone ended up dead. In a generation the Jews would try open revolt again and it would result in their destruction. So many would die that the Romans would run out of crosses. But this is what so many people were hoping for in the Messiah. They couldn’t revolt on their own, but the Messiah would come with the Lord’s blessing and with supernatural help. With the Messiah they could pull it off—or so many thought. These were the two choices: compromise or war.
In some ways it seems like we have much the same choice today. We face a hostile culture. Of course, it’s nothing like the persecution of either the Jews of Jesus’ day or the Early Church. Still, our culture is moving rapidly away from a biblical way of seeing the world. It’s becoming increasingly hostile to Christians. And what responses do we see? We see many churches and many Christians compromising with the world. We’re afraid people won’t like us, so we hide our principles in the closet and hope no one will find them. Many often go so far as to deny fundamental tenets of our faith and practise. Many twist or throw out portions of the Bible to justify their compromise. On the other hand, there are Christians spoiling for a fight. If we can only capture Caesar’s power for ourselves and for our agenda, we can manifest the kingdom of God and drive out God’s enemies. That’s not to say we shouldn’t vote or speak our consciences. Good and godly laws help to shape a good and godly people. The church should be the conscience of the nation. But legislation is not a substitute for the gospel and its transforming and saving power. There’s a third option as well: We spiritualise the kingdom of God and compartmentalise our lives: Caesar here, Jesus there. Obey Caesar in the things of this world and Jesus in the things of the next, as if the kingdom of God is pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, not a present reality here and now. The third option, in the end, is simply a variant of the first: compromise.
Again, Jesus changes the whole paradigm. The Jews then—and many Christians today—were looking for the right answer to the wrong question. Do we compromise with Caesar or take up the sword against Caesar? Those are the only two options we see. But Jesus offers another and we see it manifest at the core of his ministry as he goes to the cross. Jesus brought a revolution and he brought it because he refused to compromise, but it was a revolution unlike anything the world had ever seen. He called the people to the true and uncompromised worship of God. He called the people to repent: to turn away from everything that was not of God’s kingdom. He reminded them and he reminds us that he is Lord, that God is King, and that Caesar, whatever form he takes, is a cheap imitator and failing rival. By his very life, Jesus undermined the false lordship of Caesar. He exposed Israel’s idolatry as she tried to save her skin and keep her place in the world through compromise with Caesar. He called for an end to all these things. And for it he went to his death. For a brief moment, Peter tried to stop it. He drew his sword and attacked one of the soldiers arresting Jesus. For just a moment it looked like the revolution everyone was hoping for might begin. But Jesus told him to put his sword away and he healed the soldier Peter had injured. Instead, Jesus took on himself the punishment the Romans meted out to revolutionaries. He took Israel’s punishment on himself. He bore the pain of rebellion and provided a means of escape, of forgiveness, of reconciliation, and of restoration not just for Israel, but for the whole world—for all those who would repent, turn away from the old ways of compromise and violence, and follow him in trusting faith.
The martyrs of the century that followed and the martyrs of our own day continue to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”. A century and a quarter after Jesus began his revolution in humility on the cross, Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, like so many others of our brothers and sisters in that time, was arrested by Roman soldiers. He didn’t draw his sword. Instead, he invited them to come into his house and to share his dinner. He wanted to tell them about Jesus. They bound him to a stake and demanded he renounce Jesus and acknowledge Caesar, but he refused and they burned him alive. Polycarp rendered to Caesar what was Caesar’s and rendered to God what is God’s. The history of the Church is full of stories like this and it was through the blood of the martyrs, who followed Jesus in faith even to death, that the Roman empire was transformed. Even the emperor eventually acknowledged the Lordship of Jesus as he saw the Church’s witness.
Brothers and Sisters, this is the story we tell. This is the good news we preach with no compromise. Jesus dealt with sin and rebellion and violence, not by meting out violence and death, but by taking sin and rebellion and violence on himself. He took Israel’s punishment in his own flesh. He died the death that rebellious, idolatrous sinners deserve. He rose three days later, victorious over sin and death. And now he calls us to trust him and to follow in his footsteps in faith and in love, uncompromisingly rendering to God the things that are God’s, even if that means rendering to Caesar our privilege, our security, our freedom, or even our lives as witnesses to the humble and servant way of the cross: the only means of bringing life and restoration into the darkness of this world.
Let’s pray: O GOD, our refuge and strength, the author of all godliness, hear the devout prayers of your Church: and grant that what we ask for in faith we may surely obtain, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.