This is a guest post from our pastor, the Rev. Jenelle Holmes, from her sermon of October 18, 2020 to Ormewood Church over Zoom. Used by permission.
Then the Pharisees plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, [asking] “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (See full text, Matthew 25:15-22, NRSV.)
As we inch closer to the election, any scripture that mentions anything political is bound to hit harder. This particular story about Jesus has been used as a political defense throughout history. It’s been used to defend a separation of church and state: give to the emperor, king, or president what is theirs and to God what is God’s. It’s been used to bolster the defense of high taxation when people start to grumble. It’s been used to support the argument that Christians must submit to the powers of government, just like they submit to the powers of God.
As you can tell—it is truly a very useful story for people in power.
However, before you use this passage in these ways you need to know exactly what was going on between the Herodians, the Pharisees, and Jesus.
This story in the book of Matthew happens in the dead center of Holy Week. Jesus has entered Jerusalem triumphantly on a donkey, thrown out the money changers, and offered some radical teachings that challenge those in power. All of this is leading up to the Friday of Jesus’ crucifixion. In the meantime, the religious leaders are closing in on Jesus.
And the identity of the different leaders play a really important role in understanding Jesus’ words. The Pharisees must be really desperate to get rid of Jesus because they are partnering with the Herodians, their enemies. The Pharisees are religious rule followers. They want to do their religion correctly. The Herodians, on the other hand, are the region’s ruling people for the Roman empire and have been known to make Jewish rule-following tough.
Case in point: the Jewish folks do not want to own, use, or touch the denarius coin used for the tax to Caesar. This coin not only has a graven image on it (a religious no-no), it also reads “Caesar is the son of God.” Well, the tax that the Herodians collect is exactly one denarius--so the Jewish folks HAVE to touch them.
And now the ambush. After a little false flattery the Pharisees ask Jesus a trick question: Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?
Trick question. First, revisit what you now know about the denarius. If Jesus says yes, we should pay the tax, the Jews would feel betrayed by Jesus. They would claim Jesus is siding with the empire that forces them to break their religious laws. But if Jesus says that Jews should not pay the tax because of religious reasons, he is a traitor to the empire and in very deep trouble with the Herodians.
It’s a trick question. The answers of yes or no will land him in hot water either way.
But Jesus musters a rather clever response: Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Now, to the non-Jewish listener, this is a decent and satisfactory answer. The emperor gets his money and the people get their God. The Herodians most likely see this as a compromise between the state and the church, a binary of sorts that suits them just fine.
But, to the first-century Jewish listener, especially a Pharisee, there would have been no binary in this answer. Jesus answered this question in just as tricky a way as it was asked. Jesus’ final statement is “to God the things that are God’s.” Do you know what the Bible says are “God’s things?” ALL OF IT.
In fact, Psalm 24, which was used at the entrance to the temple, starts like this: The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it. No Pharisee would have missed Jesus’ meaning when he says we should “Give to God the things that are God’s.” All things are God’s--even that denarius.
So while the Herodians see a nice division of labor in Jesus’ response, so too do the Pharisees see his play on words and cannot condemn him.
All things are God’s things.
And for us in 2020 this offers some insight and perhaps comfort.
In a political time like ours, where it’s easy to see people dividing up their lives based on power and political party, it is all the more important to remember that all that we have and all that we are, are ultimately to live in and grow out of the love of God. There is no binary where Christians get to divide some of our priorities to the state and some to God. That type of quarantine does not exist.
As my friend Rev. Dr. Richard Floyd says, “we only give to Caesar what can be done as a faithful service to God.” We only give to our government, to our communities, what can be done as a faithful service to God. God is our first loyalty and our first calling. In what is perhaps our most momentous and divisive election in the history of our nation, we as Christians are called to only give to Caesar what can be done as a faithful service to God. There is no part of our lives that can be lived outside of the scope of God’s reign. All things are God’s things.
And while saying that all things are God’s things is an exhortation to live a certain way, it is also a declaration of comfort. It is a declaration that God’s love knows no bounds. The Heidelberg Catechism proclaimed this comfort long ago: What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.
When you feel pulled in different directions, disappointed in the loyalties of others or maybe even yourself, when you are exhausted by all the graven images being tossed around, know that in the end you can rest in the comfort that your life belongs to God. The loyalties on earth cannot tear you apart, you are made whole and wholly made by and for God.
Copyright © 2020 by Rev. Jenelle Holmes. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author, venue (Ormewood Church, Atlanta) and blogsite. Other rights reserved.
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