Matthew 22: 15-22
What do you all think about this passage from Matthew? How do you understand it?
I want to start by telling you that the commentaries all seem a bit confused by the passage – many ignored it completely, others said opposing things about it.
That being said, there are some basic things that all the commentaries I read agreed on. It is clear that the Pharisees in the story are trying to entrap Jesus with the question of whether or not they should pay taxes to Caesar. If Jesus were to have answered yes, the people should pay taxes, then the nationalists, the Zealot movement of the Jews would have become very angry because they believed that Israel should be separate from Roman rule and should not have to pay taxes to the Romans. Additionally, the coins that he was discussing all lifted up Caesar as a deity. So honoring this was against Jewish religions (after all, thou shalt have no other gods before me). As a result, the pharisees should not have had any of these coins with them or it would have been considered as going against Jewish belief and Jewish law.
But in the face of that, if Jesus answered that they shouldn’t pay the tax, he faced the possibility of arrest by the Roman government. At this point in time, every year a census was taken, and this particular census tax had to be paid with the Roman coin to Caesar. Because this was such a hardship on the Jewish people and a grave injustice, it is this very tax and the rebellion of the Zealots in AD 66 which led to the disastrous war that destroyed the temple (where they believed God lived) and therefore Judaism as they knew it by the year 70. Matthew wrote his gospel sometime after this and he was looking back on the results of this as he wrote the story.
Because of this history many commentators believe Matthew was trying to convince his readers that they should have just paid the tax, no matter what the hardship, and that if they had done so, the temple and Jerusalem would not have been destroyed. Other commentators point out that in this story Jesus is entrapping his entrappers. In response to their question, he asks the Pharisees for a coin which they give him. Roman coins contained the image of the emperor on one side ‑ at this time the infamous Tiberius, with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus” ‑ and on the other his title “Pontifex Maximus” (which means high priest). Since Matthew locates this incident in the temple area, the questioners are discredited from the start, because they have carried the image of a pagan emperor into the temple. Therefore, according to these commentaries, Jesus is confronting their hypocrisy in having the Roman coin in the temple which is firstly, supposed to be about God and not about money, and secondly is a place for the Jews and therefore certainly not a place where money from the oppressing Romans would be acceptable. Jesus is trying to entrap and point out the hypocrisy of the people.
Still other commentators say that the point here is that the Kingdom of God is much bigger than Caesar, much bigger than taxes and that everything that is owed is owed to God. Biblical Scholar Sarah Dylan Breuer puts it this way, “What belongs to God is everything. And if we really take seriously the claim that God is rightful Lord of the earth and all that is in it, the world and all people in it, over what is Caesar a rightful lord? Nothing. Squat. Nada.” Therefore what do we “owe” Caesar? Nothing, squat, nada.
But we know that life is not that simple. If we don’t give to “Caesar” or our government something, if we don’t pay our taxes, our country can’t function. We need our roads and our firefighters and our schools. And we know that things in this life “belong” to more than God. My food, my clothing, my house, yes, primarily they belong to God. But at least temporarily they also belong to me. And I keep them and take care of them by participating in a culture which requires things from me in return – work, taxes, contributions of time and energy. This is how our culture functions. And it is interesting to note that in the happiest countries in the world, part of that happiness equation is that people feel good about contributing to their cultures, to their societies through their taxes. They remember it as an honor to be able to give, rather than seeing it as a burden. This is such a different attitude than we have here, isn’t it! We know that the very richest people, people who have way more than they could possibly need, still do whatever they can to AVOID contributing, having forgotten that it is a gift and privilege to give back. Are there things we disagree about the government money being spent for? I can’t think of one single person who is completely happy about how the government money is spent. No matter what “sides” you are on, we will never be completely happy. But this, too, is part of what it means to be in community. We will not agree with everything, ever, in any kind of group, in any kind of society. But hopefully we will find some things that we do agree with. And we can agree that as members of our culture, we should give back and give to those who are most in need.
This was not the case at the time of Jesus, by the way. It was different because the Romans were completely oppressive and demanded a religious fidelity to Caesar, one that went against everything Judaism spoke against. And yet, it is in this context that we still hear Jesus say to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. And we are left to wonder what exactly he meant by this. We are told that they went away amazed. Jesus side-stepped the trap, expertly, truthfully, but in a way that just left the listeners unsure. “As wise as serpents and as innocent as doves”. He doesn’t tell them what to do. He doesn’t tell US what to do. He leaves us to ponder in our hearts, but more, to pray, to ask God directly for direction, for guidance and for wisdom.
Ultimately, this is a conversation about what values we choose. Those of the world, or those of God. But I’m not going to explain that for you. This is something you have to work out on your own. Instead, I want to say that whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Your actions have consequences and they are farther reaching than you know. So I want to tell you a story about consequences and choices for you to ponder.
“Good morning,” said a woman as she walked up to the man sitting on ground. The man slowly looked up. This was a woman clearly accustomed to the finer things of life. Her coat was new. She looked like she had never missed a meal in her life. His first thought was that she wanted to make fun of him, like so many others had done before..
“Leave me alone,” he growled….To his amazement, the woman continued standing. She was smiling — her even white teeth displayed in dazzling rows.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“No,” he answered sarcastically. “I’ve just come from dining with the president. Now go away.” The woman’s smile became even broader. Suddenly the man felt a gentle hand under his arm.
“What are you doing, lady?” the man asked angrily. “I said to leave me alone.
Just then a policeman came up. “Is there any problem, ma’am?” he asked.
“No problem here, officer,” the woman answered. “I’m just trying to get this man to his feet. Will you help me?”
The officer scratched his head. “That’s old Jack. He’s been a fixture around here for a couple of years. What do you want with him?”
“See that cafeteria over there?” she asked. “I’m going to get him something to eat and get him out of the cold for awhile.”
“Are you crazy, lady?” the homeless man resisted. “I don’t want to go in there!”
Then he felt strong hands grab his other arm and lift him up. “Let me go, officer. didn’t do anything.”
“This is a good deal for you, Jack” the officer answered. “Don’t blow it.” Finally, and with some difficulty, the woman and the police officer got Jack into the cafeteria and sat him at a table in a remote corner. It was the middle of the morning, so most of the breakfast crowd had already left and the lunch bunch had not yet arrived.
The manager strode across the cafeteria and stood by his table. “What’s going on here, officer?” he asked. “What is all this, is this man in trouble?”
“This lady brought this man in here to be fed,” the policeman answered.
“Not in here!” the manager replied angrily. “Having a person like that here is bad for business..”
Old Jack smiled a toothless grin. “See, lady. I told you so. Now if you’ll let me go. I didn’t want to come here in the first place.”
The woman turned to the cafeteria manager and smiled. “Sir, are you familiar with Eddy and Associates, the banking firm down the street?”
“Of course I am,” the manager answered impatiently. “They hold their weekly meetings in one of my banquet rooms.”
“And do you make a goodly amount of money providing food at these weekly meetings?”
“What business is that of yours?”
“I, sir, am Penelope Eddy, president and CEO of the company.”
The woman smiled again. “I thought that might make a difference.” She glanced at the cop who was busy stifling a giggle.
“Would you like to join us in a cup of coffee and a meal, officer?”
“No thanks, ma’am,” the officer replied. “I’m on duty.”
“Then, perhaps, a cup of coffee to go?”
“Yes, ma’am. That would be very nice.”
The cafeteria manager turned on his heel, “I’ll get your coffee for you right away, officer.”
The officer watched him walk away. “You certainly put him in his place,” he said.
“That was not my intent. Believe it or not, I have a reason for all this.” She sat down at the table across from her amazed dinner guest. She stared at him intently. “Jack, do you remember me?”
Old Jack searched her face with his old, rheumy eyes. “I think so — I mean you do look familiar.”
“I’m a little older perhaps,” she said. “Maybe I’ve even filled out more than in my younger days when you worked here, and I came through that very door, cold and hungry.”
“Ma’am?” the officer said questioningly. He couldn’t believe that such a magnificently turned out woman could ever have been hungry.
“I was just out of college,” the woman began. “I had come to the city looking for a job, but I couldn’t find anything. Finally I was down to my last few cents and had been kicked out of my apartment. I walked the streets for days. It was February and I was cold and nearly starving. I saw this place and walked in on the off chance that I could get something to eat.”
Jack lit up with a smile. “Now I remember,” he said.. “I was behind the serving counter. You came up and asked me if you could work for something to eat. I said that it was against company policy.”
“I know,” the woman continued. “Then you made me the biggest roast beef sandwich that I had ever seen, gave me a cup of coffee, and told me to go over to a corner table and enjoy it. I was afraid that you would get into trouble. Then, when I looked over and saw you put the price of my food in the cash register, I knew then that everything would be all right.”
“So you started your own business?” Old Jack said.
“I got a job that very afternoon. I worked my way up. Eventually I started my own business that, with the help of God, prospered.” She opened her purse and pulled out a business card. “When you are finished here, I want you to pay a visit to a Mr. Lyons. He’s the personnel director of my company. I’ll go talk to him now and I’m certain he’ll find something for you to do around the office.” She smiled. “I think he might even find the funds to give you a little advance so that you can buy some clothes and get a place to live until you get on your feet. If you ever need anything, my door is always opened to you.”
There were tears in the old man’s eyes. “How can I ever thank you?” he said.
“Don’t thank me,” the woman answered. “Thank God who led me to find you.”
Outside the cafeteria, the officer and the woman paused at the entrance before going their separate ways. “Thank you for all your help, officer,” she said.
“On the contrary, Ms. Eddy,” he answered. “Thank you. I saw a miracle today, something that I will never forget. And, and thank you for the coffee.”
In the book, Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson tells the story of helping a man who was clearly extremely mentally ill who was put on death row for an incident that ended with the accidental killing of a cop without the circumstances of the incident or his profound mental illness and years and years of abuse being taken into consideration. Bryan Stevenson talked about his visit, as a lawyer, to the prison where the guard treated Mr. Stevenson with extreme cruelty and abuse, undoubtedly because he was an African American lawyer. Mr. Stevenson, though, came to help this inmate and after working with the system he had to go and see the inmate one more time. He saw that the horrible, cruel, abusive guard was there again. I want to read to you part of what transpired after that. (For copyright reasons I’m not including this here, but it is pages 200-202).
The guard’s witnessing of the work Mr. Stevenson did changed him. Stevenson’s actions were for the inmate. They were not intended to help the guard. But they did. His actions had long ranging consequences. Ours do too, though we rarely are given the chance to see what they are.
In today’s scripture Jesus took the coin and asked whose image was on it. Caesar’s image was on it, so Jesus said return the coin, therefore, to the one to whom it belongs. But to take this a step further, whose image is carved onto you? We are made in the image of God. Therefore all that we are is owed and should be returned to God. We are called to give God everything, including all of who we are, because everything belongs to God. That means when we give our money to taxes, we are called by our faith, by our God to do so with an eye to serving God’s people, all people, with those taxes. When we vote, we must do so with an eye to serving God’s people, all people with our elected officials and our propositions. When we eat our food, when we bathe, when we drive our kids to school – we have to do it all – everything with an eye to serving God’s people, ALL people with those actions. Everything else is to be subordinate to God, everything else. And we are called to remember that in all that we do. Amen.