A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on October 16, 2011
Psalm 96:1-9; Matthew 22:15-22
The timing of this familiar story from Matthew’s gospel is interesting. The city of Little Rock has just been through a consideration of raising the sales tax by one penny because our leadership said we needed it, primarily for police and fire protection, as well as other infra-structural demands. The new tax was approved, according to the newspaper which opposed it, largely by those of us who live north of the city’s unfortunate I-630 divide. In other words, those who could more greatly afford it were in favor of it, those who could not were against it.
Boy, some things never change.
I keep good sermon records. Because of that, I am aware that I last preached on this text in 2004… on the 4th of July. Guess what the subject was when I began the sermon? Taxes. It’s natural. After all, that is what this story is about, isn’t it? Maybe, maybe not.
Seven years ago, when I last preached on this story from the first gospel, a new state-wide service tax had just been mandated by the legislature, a tax that would presumably help pay for some of the demands placed on our government to do a better and more equitable job in regard to public education. This new tax meant that services would now carry a sales tax that before went untaxed. For example, if your car needed to be towed, a tax would be collected. If you got locked out of your house or car, and needed the services of a locksmith, he (I assume it would be a he, though I doubt it’s a profession filled only with men) or she would have to charge you a tax. The same would be applied if you had your dog groomed or kenneled. What got my attention was that it would even be applied to getting a tattoo… not that I ever planned to do so, don’t you know. If you required services of any kind, the company that provided them would now be required to collect a tax.
Frankly, I thought when this tax went into effect, it might mean the decline of “body art.” If people had to pay tax in order to get it done, they might be less inclined to do so. Needless to say, I was wrong. One day I was walking from the post office down the street, when I noticed a middle-aged, conservatively dressed woman crossing the street near me. Just as she approached the tattoo parlor next to the Afterthought, she walked in another direction. In a teasing manner I said to her, “Oh good. For a moment there I thought you were going to get a tattoo.” She smiled at me and said, “I already have one!” More people than ever, it seems, are dressing up their skin in all kinds of innovative ways. But they have to pay a tax in order to do it.
Taxes, taxes, taxes. I’ve never met anyone who likes taxes, whether they are new or old… taxes, that is. Why? Well, taxes just get under your skin, don’t they? Sorry about that.
Evidently, what’s good for the 21st century was also good for the first. Have we already said that some things never change? Yes, I think we did. We might even have to say it again before this sermon is over.
It was a combined group that confronted Jesus that day in the temple. There were Pharisees in the bunch, Pharisees being the legal arm of the religious establishment. Not legal in the sense that we think of attorneys today, but those who guarded the religious law and made sure people abided by it. They were more watchdogs than litigants, scholars than judges. We’re used to the Pharisees; see them all over the place in the New Testament gospel stories having to do with Jesus. It seems that if anybody confronted or challenged Jesus at any point, the Pharisees had something to do with it.
In this particular temple encounter, they decided not to go it alone. They teamed up with the Herodians. Herodians, Herodians… do you get the connection? The Herods were the line of quasi-Jewish political leaders who cozyed up to the Romans. They had the philosophy that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So, they curried favor with their captors and got plum political appointments for their efforts. It made them rich and it made them powerful… and it made them largely hated and reviled by the common people.
The Pharisees, despite their positions of religious leadership, would have been considered fairly common in their own right. So, for them to partner with the Herodians revealed the desperation they felt when it came to Jesus the Nazarene. He posed a real threat to their way of life. And while the Pharisees no doubted hated the Romans as much as anybody, they had learned to accommodate themselves to the way thing were and were going to be. So, when Jesus came along and began, in their minds, preaching anarchy, they had to go to desperate measures to head him off at the pass. If that meant partnering with the Herodians to get that done, so be it. It is a classic case of the ends justifying the means.
“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?”
They are good, aren’t they? Really, really good. Why, they must have plotted and planned this question for quite some time. They have put Jesus in a classic no-win situation by coming to him, as Fred Craddock says, “with flattering lips and hostile intent.”1 First, they butter him up by using words such as “sincere” and “truth,” and admit that he shows no deference to anyone, which means he treats all people the same. That in itself is not true. He treated the least of these, as he called them, with much more compassion and understanding than those who were responsible for making them the least.
Talk about a political ambush. They follow up their smooth talk with this seemingly unanswerable question about Caesar. Washington could learn a thing or three from the Pharisees and Herodians. Wait a minute. Strike that. I think Washington has already learned this lesson.
Let’s analyze this encounter for a moment. If Jesus said no, the Jews should not have to pay taxes to the emperor (or Caesar, as we more commonly know it), all these interrogators would have to do is report his response to the Roman authorities and Jesus would be bundled up and thrown into the hoosegow quicker than he could say, “Give me a denarius.”
By the way, that’s how the Pharisees – part of the group that’s confronting Jesus – felt about paying taxes to the Roman government. You see, the coins had images of Caesar on them, and they hated that. Just hated that. Their resentment toward their oppressors ran deep and long, and every time they had to pony up their IRS statements, they seethed to the point they just about had a stroke. So, if Jesus said no, the Jews should not have to pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisees would no doubt agree with him, yet would be the first to take political advantage of his answer. They win both ways, you see. Not only does the Nazarene come down on their side, but he gets in trouble with the Roman authorities, which of course, is their goal because there were plenty of other things they disagreed with Jesus about to the point that they wanted to be rid of him.
But what if Jesus said yes, the Jews should pay taxes to Caesar? Now, he would be in agreement with the Herodians whose pockets are being lined by this foreign government that’s occupying their land. But he would incur the wrath of the Pharisees as well as all the other people who no doubt are standing around listening to what he might have to say.
Jesus was in a no-win situation, to say the least, which was their intent all along. Matthew, who reports this story to us, is very clear about that. Their goal was to “entrap” Jesus, he tells us, and it appears they have been quite successful in doing just that. The next time someone is up for appointment to the Supreme Court, and he or she sits in a confirmation hearing, listen to the questions put forth. If it doesn’t remind you of this story in Matthew’s gospel, nothing else will. It makes you think of a Maytag washer with its agitation and spin cycles.
Just when the Pharisees and Herodians think they have Jesus right where they want him, he provides them the simplest of answers that enables him to slip right between their combined intentions and make them look foolish in the process. I doubt, frankly, that Jesus wanted to make them look foolish, but I also figure he got a certain measure of satisfaction from having done so. In his classic and quite well-known response to his questioners, he responds by calling for a coin, a denarius. “Whose head, or image, is this, and whose title?” he asks the group. “The emperor’s,” they answer. “Render therefore to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.”
End of story, right? Well, it might be the end of the story, but it doesn’t completely answer all our questions. In fact, it leads to even more questions. After all, what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?
When Janet and I were in Scotland eight years ago (has it really been that long?) we discovered that Scotland was required to accept English currency, but England would not, in turn, accept Scottish money. The same was true in Jesus’ day when it came to Roman and Jewish coinage. When the Jews were required to pay their due taxes to Caesar, they had to do so in Roman currency. No Jewish coins were accepted. The Jews could use their own currency when conducting business with one another, but when it came to exchanges between the people and their Roman captors, that was no longer true. And, of course, all Roman coinage bore the likeness of Caesar, who, to the Romans, was a deity. If you resent paying taxes to our government, imagine how the first-century Jews must have felt.
To the Jews, Caesar’s likeness on their coins was a graven image and ran counter to one of their most important commandments. Yet, when Jesus says, “Show me the coin used for the tax,” they immediately bring him a denarius. Somebody in the group was carrying an idol around in his pocket! As soon as that happens, both groups – the Pharisees and the Herodians – are compromised. George Mason says it’s kind of like asking a Baptist if the lottery ticket in his pocket is a winner, or a preacher asking a deacon for a light. The question itself carries its own answer.2
Matthew doesn’t tell us, but it’s not hard for us to figure, that Jesus does not take the coin in his hand. This is the way I see it in my minds eye… he simply points to it and asks, “Whose head, or image, is this, and whose title?” And already his accusers are beginning to realize that they’re dead in the water. The answer is so obvious that it doesn’t even have to be voiced. But they say it anyway, they have no other choice. “The emperor’s.”
“Render therefore to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.”
But what exactly does that mean? We have a hard time in this country figuring out what belongs to God and to Uncle Sam. Debates fly all over the place… prayer in public schools, the Ten Commandments displayed in courthouses, the extent to which a presidential candidate’s faith figures in to his or her political legitimacy. How do we divide that which belongs to God and that which belongs to Caesar?
Don’t you wish Jesus had expanded on his answer, to the point that we wouldn’t have to make this issue a point of political debate? Perhaps a better question is, does Jesus need to expand on his answer? He does not, if we have the courage of our convictions.
You see, what Jesus tells the Pharisees and Herodians is not that God and Caesar combine to make for a 50/50 split, cut it right down the middle and give half to each. Jesus isn’t necessarily saying that equal weight needs to be given to both. When push comes to shove, and more often than not it does, most of the emphasis of life is to be given to the kingdom of heaven, not our kingdoms on earth. Earthly kingdoms, as much as we don’t want to think about it, have come and gone and will continue to do so. The kingdom of heaven – do I need to remind you? – is forever. God deserves our highest loyalty. When all is said and done, we are citizens of an unseen kingdom and our ultimate allegiance belongs to God.
So what do you render to God? If you think the U.S. government first thought of it, when they came up with the image of a white-haired bearded man in a tall hat pointing his finger and saying, “Uncle Sam Wants You,” then think again. God first and last makes that claim. It’s only right, isn’t it, since God was willing to give his all for you? Think about that, if you will, the next time you’re called to make a rendering.
Lord, help us to give more of ourselves to you in response to your giving all of yourself to us. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Fred Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year A (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), p. 482.
2George Mason, “A Terrible Loyalty,” (unpublished sermon, October 17, 1999).