We think of the last days of Jesus’ final week as being full of challenges coming at Him from every side. (Understatement of the century, right?!) During His final week Jesus dealt with betrayal, arrest, torture, and crucifixion. Jesus’ final week was full of challenges coming at Him from every side.
In Matthew’s version of the week, Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly on Monday and proceeds to the temple to cleanse it of abuse.
On Tuesday Jesus curses the fig tree, is questioned about His authority, offers three parables that each conclude with dire warnings for those who assume they are comfortably within God’s favor.
Then On Wednesday Jesus is challenged on whether to pay taxes to Caesar, is questioned about the resurrection of the dead, challenged about the greatest commandment, and engaged in discussion about the nature of the messiah.
It seems one of the chief accomplishments of the day was to put the religious leaders in their place. Jesus overwhelms His verbal adversaries and denounces temple leadership so thoroughly that by the next day, Wednesday of Holy Week, the leaders began plotting to arrest and kill this bothersome prophet.
The section of Matthew’s Gospel which we heard today lies within Tuesday’s busy agenda. Here we have the failed attempt by the Pharisees and Herodians to trap Jesus on what appears to be a political issue: whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. We might imagine the smugness with which the religious leaders employ this trap. The Pharisees are against the Roman occupation government, so they bring along the Herodians, people obliged to Rome for keeping Herod in puppet power.
Together, it ought to be easy to trip-up Jesus. Note the false flattery of their opening remarks: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth . . . “ (22:16). Their own insincerity is palpable. Then, they spring the trap: “Tell us, then, Jesus, what do you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
By this time in the day, Jesus is well warmed-up for this treacherous game of chess. He sees through their sarcasm to the malice that lies beneath and brands them hypocrites. This is why: Jesus seems to carry no coins. The Pharisees dare not carry Roman coins, for they bear the blasphemous image of Tiberius Caesar and the inscription proclaims Caesar to be divine. Yet, when Jesus asks for a Roman coin, the religious leaders readily provide it. There, in the sacred space of the temple, the Pharisees possess the idolatrous image.
The Pharisees are thinking two moves ahead in this game:
If Jesus says that it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, then He alienates the people who hate the Roman occupation and its Caesar.
If Jesus says it is unlawful to pay taxes, the people will be pleased, but Jesus will then be liable for arrest by the Romans.
A clever move on the part of the religious leaders; but, not clever enough. Jesus asks them whose inscription is on the coin. “Caesar,” they answer. Then Jesus says, “Then render to the emperor what is due him, and give to God what belongs to God.”Checkmate!
Application to our lives:
But this is not just a game; and the teaching reaches far beyond those who first heard it. It reaches even to our time. As much as we might like to determine Jesus’ attitude about taxes today, or the way governments do their business, our narrative makes it clear that Jesus has greater concerns in mind.
Governments are necessary, taxes are necessary, and every country has a Caesar of sorts to contend with. So, render unto that Caesar whatever is due; but, don’t mess around with the things that belong to God. Which begs the question:
To whom do we belong? Sometimes it seems like we belong to Caesar. Taxes, legal restrictions on our freedoms, imprisonment if you engage in civil disobedience. Or, perhaps, we feel that our job owns us. Or our families. Sometimes, we even feel owned by our material possessions.
But to whom do we really belong? Take a good look at any person. Whose inscription is on him or her? Each is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). There can be no doubt, then, what Jesus means here: Give yourselves to God because it is to God that we belong.
It is God who claims us, who made us in His own image. We do not belong to anything or to anyone else. We don’t even belong to ourselves. We belong to God in all our being, with all our talents, interests, time, and wealth.
The consequences of belonging to God are remarkable. First, it means that God will not forsake – or give up – on us. The Pharisees and the other religious leaders that Jesus denounces were notoriously bad at caring for the people. They ignored their responsibilities and the people God placed in their care. They deserved condemnation.
But, God does not forsake His own. By Friday of Holy Week, Jesus made that abundantly clear in the boldest way possible. By going to the Cross – Jesus made it abundantly clear that He does not give up on His own.
Second, it means that because we belong to God, we also belong to the people of God, the body of Christ. We are baptized into this fellowship and can only lose our membership by turning our backs on God. If there is any alienation, it is our own doing. And, if we return, God is there, as always, to meet us exactly where we are.
Third, it means that we give to God that which belongs to God: that is, we give ourselves – to God – as a way of saying “Thank You God for everything you have done for me.”
We thank God by participating in worship. Sometimes, that worship occurs privately, in devotion. Sometimes, worship occurs in church – or outdoors safely distanced – with our sisters and brothers in Christ. And the rest of the time, worship occurs in the sphere of daily work and service. All of this is worship. Ultimately, giving ourselves to God means that we give ourselves in service to the world.
Let’s allow ourselves to sit with this incredibly important question:
To whom do we belong?
I suspect, at the end of the day, we all want to confess that it is to God alone that we belong. Not to anyone or anything else. We belong to God.
So give to God what is God’s. Us. Give us. Give us back to God, every day, by how we live our lives and by what we say and do.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog