Posts Tagged ‘Caesar’

Say It Plainly 10-22-17

In this sermon, based on Matthew 22:15-22, I explore an odd little encounter with Jesus and the elite over the subject of taxes. Jesus, as per usual, takes their trick and turns it on its ear.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Earlier this week I did some organizing in my office…I went through stacks of papers that had piled up…files that had accumulated…I moved some pictures and decorations around…and I took a look at many of the books that I’ve pulled into my ever-growing library. And I came across one book that I had to get very early on in my seminary career…The Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms…a “handy” little book with “Over 300 terms clearly & concisely defined.”


As I glanced through this book, I came across A great deal of fancy terminology…many of which I tend to call the big fancy 50-cent seminary words that perhaps don’t mean much…words like Eschatology…Hermeneutics….Paradigm, just to name a few…now when I was in school, I heard these words get thrown around a lot…and most of the time, I didn’t really know what they meant, and to be honest I didn’t really care.

But as I thought about it a little more I began to realize that here at the congregational level, we’ve got some fancy language of our own…words or names that are, perhaps, pretty foreign to anyone new that might come in our doors.  Words like…chancel…that’s the fancy name for the area up here in front of the altar…I could probably just say the front.  Or what about…Narthex…if you don’t know that one…it’s the area where we all gather out there…you know like the lobby…There’s another one that I kinda laugh at…Hymnal…its that green book with all the songs in it…someone might call it a song book…which wasn’t lost on whoever put together our supplemental red hymnal…go ahead, pull it out and look at the cover…its right there in the title…the Other…Song Book. At least they knew what was going on.


As I think about these things…all this fancy terminology…50-cent seminary words…insider church language, there are times when I think that it would be easier if we just said what we mean…if we just used plain language that everyone understands…if we would just…say it…plainly…and I can’t but think that today’s gospel features Jesus doing just that. (pause)
Now before we jump in, we need to review just a bit…over the course of the past 4 weeks-worth of Gospels, Jesus has been teaching in parables…which of course he did on a pretty regular basis…and while the intention of a parable is to illustrate some difficult idea or concept in a way that is familiar, we see that often times his audience fails to grasp what’s he’s trying to tell them and they ask him to explain…once even going so far as saying “Tell us plainly…”

I can’t help but think we’re starting to see this today with the encounter that Jesus has with the powers that be.  Now if you’re familiar with the narrative, Jesus is in Jerusalem…and over the course of about a week, following his arrival, he’s in and out of the temple teaching…and as we’ve heard over the past few weeks, continuously butting heads the big wigs, mostly the religious elite, but here today some of the political ones as well.

For the past 3 Sunday’s we’ve heard parables from Jesus that have pointed out the shortcomings of these individuals…the failures of those entrusted with the leadership of the Jewish people…the hypocrisy that seems to dominate their actions and words, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not…but yet still there.

But now…it seems that Jesus is ready to cut the parables…to stop using illustrations and metaphor…and start…speaking…plainly. And I can’t only think that it’s a bit of knee-jerk reaction when he hears some very thinly veiled flattery coming his way.

Now his opponents think they’re pretty crafty…and they’ve come up with a scheme that will surely create problems for Jesus. But they’ve got to lower his defenses before they spring their trap…and so we hear… (lay on the sarcasm) 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…

I can only imagine, but it stands to reason that just hearing this…Jesus’ hackles are probably up aren’t they? Because he catches on as they lay out the trick question…What do you think…is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar or not? (pause)
Truly their craftiness is beyond measure…this will get him…You see, the Jewish people hated paying Romans taxes…it was a slap in the face that they had to pay to support the very people who were oppressing their culture…and so no self-respecting Jewish person liked these taxes…and so if Jesus says yes, he’ll lose credibility with the crowds…but if on the other hand…Jesus says no, that we should not pay the tax…well the Herodians, who represent Herod…who in turn really represents Rome…well then that’s gonna land Jesus in hot water from a legal standpoint.

But Jesus isn’t falling for it is he…and here’s the point where he switches from parables and illustrations to just calling a thing what it is…or in this case…calling them what they are. Hypocrites.

They don’t care about loyalty to Rome verses loyalty to the Jewish culture…and they sure as heck don’t care about the law, even as they pose the question…is it lawful. And we see this because Jesus points it out in a way that he seems REALLY good at doing in these different encounters that happen throughout the gospels.

Now the tax in question cost a coin…a denarius…a commonly used bit of currency in Jesus’ day…the normal payment for a day’s worth of labor…a coin that everyone there would have been familiar with…one that they all would have used…

Now we know what a denarius looks like…archeologists have found them, you can find pictures…and we know that the face on the coin was Caesar Tiberius…the son of the great Caesar Augustus…who the Romans understood to be divine…to be a god…and so the face of Tiberius was the face of the son of a god…and the inscription that is referenced says the very same thing. Son of the living god.

In short…this coin bears the image and wording of a god, small g, a false god…which is something the Jewish people would tend to call an idol…and something that the Jewish people would call breaking the first commandment….or more specifically, breaking “The Law.” (pause)

And here’s where it gets interesting. As Jesus is trying to make his point…he asks for a denarius…and where does he get one? The very people trying to trap him, reach into their pockets and pull out the coin…the image of idolatry. (pause) Hmm…seems like they’ve already made their peace with breaking “the Law” haven’t they?  Like they’ve fully accepted the rules of the human authority at the time. No wonder he calls them hypocrites as they try to trap him on something they are already doing. (pause)

But there’s something else at play here…something that is perhaps more important…because Jesus never just leaves things with straight up antagonism does he?  Doesn’t it seem like he always manages to reveal something else? Something good…something hopeful?

With his first statement and question revealing who the coin…who the tax belongs to…that being Caesar…he lays this little ditty out there…give that which is of Caesar to Caesar…Give that which is of God to God.

Now we could go round and round with just what that means but let’s keep it simple…that which belongs to Caesar..that which belongs to the realm of human authority…or government…or whatever we want to call it…it bears the image doesn’t it…the coin has his image on it…and Jesus says go a head and give it to him…quit worrying about all this petty human stuff…because when it comes to God, it’s a completely different playing field…Caesar’s stuff is down here (point low), but God’s stuff is clear up here (point high).

So the big question…what belongs to God…what’s created bearing God’s image…and to answer that question we need to take it clear back to the beginning and this cool little blurb from the book of Genesis.  Following the creation of everything else in the world…God says this. “Let us make humankind in our image…according to our likeness…and so God created humankind in his image, male and female he created them.”

Here’s the take away…often times I hear people talk about this passage…specifically this statement of Jesus about giving to Caesar and giving to God…and they use it to point towards the idea of the separation of church and state…or they talk about how its good that we do our part and pay our taxes, or they use it to highlight stewardship and giving to God…but I think the important thing for us to remember is that there are aspects of life that are just that…life…Jesus told them to pay the tax…it was the reality of the day. But he also reminds us that God claims a whole lot more than just taxes…because God places his image upon a whole lot of things. The coin was made bearing the image of Caesar…You are made bearing the image of God…and not only that…but I’m pretty sure that we hear in scripture that the Word was God, and through it ALL things were made…which seems to indicate that God’s concerned about, pretty well everything…and that includes the one which God deemed worthy of being made as a divine image bearer…that’s you.

God made you and God claimed you…period. You don’t need to be anything special…you don’t need to accomplish anything amazing…you don’t have to make yourself better…you don’t need to pass any test or batch of achievements to catch God’s attention. For God’s attention and love is already on you…that’s already done. You belong, now. You are seen now. You are loved…now…as you are…remarkably imperfect…and yet of priceless worth to the one who made you in the first place. God loves you now.  I can’t say it any more plainly. Amen.