In this sermon, taken from Matthew 22:15-22, I explore the conflict between Jesus and the joint effort of the Pharisees and Herodians. They intend to trap Jesus over a question of taxes, but as per usual, he simply points out a new way to think about the truth of the situation.
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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
It never ceases to amaze me when I think about different groups that have come together in and around an issue…Groups of people that ordinarily wouldn’t be in the same room with one another find common cause against something, and because of this, they wind up working as a team. (pause)
Perhaps the most prominent example of this in recent memory occurred in 1985, when a committee was formed in Washington aimed at controlling and possibly even censoring lyrics of songs released in the public media.
As concern grew, particularly among the music artist community, about the actions of this committee infringing on 1st Amendment rights, an unlikely trio banded together in opposition. Frank Zappa, an unorthodox musician producer…Dee Snyder, the loud and gaudy front man of the popular heavy metal band Twisted Sister…and in a shock…mild mannered John Denver, a folk icon…these three men who had nothing in common except a connection to the music industry…banded together in opposition.
And in today’s story, we see a similar situation…individuals that normally have nothing to do with one another binding together in opposition of someone that they seem to hold equal distaste for…the Pharisees and the Herodians…working together with common cause…to discredit Jesus. (pause)
Now this is an interesting pairing to be sure. One group that we’re pretty familiar with…another…not quite so well known. (pause) Now the Pharisees, we know all about them don’t we? The religious elite…the upper end of the social spectrum in Jewish culture…the ones who knew…and followed the law to the letter…and all too often…the recipients of a certain stigma in today’s reckoning…slammed with the nickname the Biblical Badguys.
They are forever hounding Jesus, opposing his teachings…questioning his motives…and hounding anyone that aligns themselves with him…and on the other hand, we’ve got the Herodians…a group that, admittedly, we aren’t all that familiar with…We only hear about these guys a couple times through the entirety of the four gospels…this story and one other brief mention early in Mark…but what we do know about them is who they represent…Herodians…sounds like Herod doesn’t it?
While we might not know the specifics of just who these guys are, we can assume that the represent Herod Antipas…a “ruler” in Israel at the time…but more accurately, a Roman stooge…someone set up to help maintain the peace between the Roman control and the Jewish people that suffered under it.
Ironically, in most situations, these two groups would want nothing to do with one another…The Herodians, being loyal to Rome, not only represent the oppressive government, but they also represent the alternate view points of the Romans, up to and including what gods they paid attention to…To them, the Pharisees are old fashioned…stuck in their old ways of thinking.
And on the flip side, for the Pharisees…arguably the most pious of the Jewish people…possessing the most “cultural pride,” they would see the Herodians as traitors at best…loyal to the rulers of the day, but far to willing to compromise in order to get along. (pause)
But despite these differences…it seems in this case…that both groups…the Pharisees and the Herodians start listening to that old question “is the enemy of my enemy my friend or my enemy.” And in the very least…within today’s story…they decide that the answer is…friendly.
And so they take common cause in opposition…to Jesus….and they’ve devised a trap for him…a trap that, ironically, highlights the very differences between them that they are choosing to ignore…and after some initial…and likely quite snarky…flattery…they pose Jesus with a question…Tell us what you think…is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?
At face value…this seems like a pretty logical question…but in their minds…they’ve got Jesus in a corner, because either way he answers, he’s going to land in hot water. On one hand…just as the Pharisees despise Roman rule…the latest in a long line of conquering empires…the rest of the Jewish culture is equally hateful…and the mere fact that they are required to pay taxes to the very people that are oppressing them…supporting that very oppression…is a slap in the face to the Jewish people…and so, if Jesus comes out and says “well yes…of course it is lawful to do so,”…he’ll lose credence with the people…and the Pharisees will gain the upper hand over him.
But on the other hand…the Herodians…well their interests were certainly more…politically minded…they represent the “king,” even if he is a Roman lackey…and so if Jesus makes the statement opposing paying taxes…well, in their eyes, that’ll land Jesus in some political…perhaps even legal…hot water. (pause)
Two different groups…who normally fall on opposite sides of the fense…joining together in opposition…to Christ. (pause) But of course…not wanting to seem too bloodthirsty…they begin their scheme with flattery…and reading this almost makes me laugh…just thinking about how thick they’re laying it on. (pause)
“Teacher…we know….that you are sincere…and teach the way of God in accordance with truth…and show difference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” (pause) It had to be dripping with sarcasm…and yet…do they say anything that isn’t true? (pause)
Jesus is always sincere…people might not like what he has to say all the time, but he’s nothing if not sincere in his interactions…and of course his teachings are true…and yes he teaches the way of God…HE IS God for pete’s sake…and truly, he shows no partiality but deals with each and every individual as God sees them…as a beloved child of God…worthy of respect…and time…and relationship.
And thinking about this…about how Jesus’ opponents are trying to be funny and yet they still speak truth…and not only that but also about how their well devised plan, where they are working together…really does nothing except point out their respective differences in loyalty…I realize that when we deal with Jesus…the truth is going to be revealed…whether we want to…whether we intend to…or not. (pause)
Not only does Jesus make a point with the coin about the importance of giving what is due to any individual, whether Caesar or God or anyone…but he also reveals the truth of just where our loyalties really lie.
As Jesus talks about the coin…he’s talking about ownership. “This coin has the face and inscription of Caesar…so its his…so give him his due.” And in the same sentence he also tells us that we are to give God his due.”
But then this raises the important question of just what is God’s due? So let’s think about that for a bit…we know that it is right that we offer God our worship and praise…that’s a no brainer. And perhaps we can use this to talk about stewardship and offering our gifts back to God…or maybe we expand it a little bit and think about the notion that everything in the world belongs to God and we shouldn’t hold anything back. (pause)
While these are all valid thoughts, I think today that Jesus takes us beyond that…and just as he proposes that the coin belongs to the emperor because it has his name on it…I think we need to ask the question of who do we belong to…who’s got their name…on us? (pause)
And perhaps that’s hard to think about…after all, we are constantly drawn in so many different directions at any given time…but in the end…its important to remember the words and the promise that was made for each of us in the waters of our baptism…when God claims us as His own…when we are marked with the cross of his son Jesus Christ and we hear the promise that we are sealed in his love forever. Pause)
We celebrated a baptism just last week in worship…and while that is a wonderful reminder…we must each remember our own baptism day by day…when we put to death the sinful self…and we received the mark of Christ upon us…and in doing that…we remember not just who we are…but more importantly, we remember who’s we are…and today, here in this sanctuary, we remember in who’s name we gather…the one that names and claims us…even in those moments when we overlook it…or forget it…or even turn our backs on it…the name of God…the cross of Christ…and the seal of the Holy Spirit remains upon you…to carry with you as you go through this life…and what joy we find in knowing that God shows no partiality…and because of that…we too…are included in his number…and that is a truth, which will not…be denied, no matter how hard the world tries. Amen.