10/22/17: To Whom Do We Belong?, Matthew 22:15-22
To Whom Do We Belong?
Fourth in the series: Bearing Fruit
First Lesson: Isaiah 45:1-7
Second Lesson: Matthew 22:15-22
Rev. Scott Dickison
It’s still early in Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus is up at the Temple mount, and after having caused a scene a few days prior, is being confronted by the various authorities. First it was the chief priests and the elders of the temple, and now it’s the Pharisees. Actually, it’s “their disciples”—It seems they’re unwilling to dignify Jesus by confronting him directly—or is it that they’re a bit intimidated. In any case these disciples, we’re told, bring with them another curious group in the Jewish landscape of the day: the Herodians.
Now, this was an odd alliance. The Pharisees, were a kind of lay-movement in 1st century Judaism, mostly made up of working class people who abhorred their Roman occupiers. The Herodians we don’t know much about, other than they were Jews who supported the Roman occupation, which means they were most likely pretty well-heeled and at home at the top of the very rigid social hierarchy of the day. That these two groups would find a common adversary in Jesus should tell us something: there will be no easy answers here. These interrogators have been sent to trap him into saying something either at odds with the law of Moses, or at odds with the law of Caesar. And their plan is savvy. After a lengthy introduction with more than a little flattery, they get to their question, and it’s a brilliant one: Tell us, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?
Now, we looked at the version of this story as found in Mark last year, so some of this may sound familiar, but this question they ask is brilliant because it’s far from a hypothetical; this was a genuine dilemma for Jews in those days. Ever since Rome had conquered the Jewish homeland some 70 years before Jesus’ birth, they had required an annual tax on the Jewish people—a census tax, as it was known. It was required of every adult male, and was burdensome, not simply because of the economic pain it caused, but because of its painful symbolism. It was a tangible reminder that their land and their livelihoods, if not their very lives, were not their own—they belonged to Caesar. So this wasn’t just a question of paying taxes, it was also a question of honor, or more accurately, a question of shame.
And even more, the first of the 10 Commandments is very clear that God is Lord alone, and so the question of paying taxes to a foreign power was also a question of faithfulness. But then again, in the eyes of Rome, not paying taxes was seen as an act of rebellion and they could be killed, so this was also a question of survival.
And aside from the principle of paying taxes at all, there were also questions about the actual currency it was to be paid in. There were two types of coins in circulation in those days, one was used by Jews, which, again in accordance with one of the 10 Commandments prohibiting graven images, had no markings. And the other was the currency of Rome, which, as Jesus has them point out, was imprinted with a picture of Caesar along with an inscription declaring Caesar to be the divine Son of God. Because of this, many Jews, the Pharisees chef among them, wouldn’t use the coin for anything other than the tax, and certainly wouldn’t want to be caught carrying it, so this question of paying taxes was also a question of piety.
Which leads us to Jesus’ response.
Now remember, these Pharisees were well aware of the commandments, and advocated resistance to Rome, and yet when Jesus asks them to bring him one of these idolatrous Roman coins in question, they produce one easily, and so as some have pointed out, before he’s even had a chance to get to his punch line, Jesus has already won the argument by revealing the compromise they’ve made. They—who would rail against Caesar in their public lives, in their private lives would carry his image, and even more, would carry it into the hallowed grounds of the Temple. This is finally a question integrity, and Jesus has revealed that they lack it.
Now, Jesus could have stopped here. He’s already exposed the hypocrisy of his opponents, but he doesn’t. He takes it a step further and answers their question. Holding up the coin, he says, Who’s head is this and who’s title? The emperor’s, they reply.
Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s.
Or as you probably learned it: Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.
Now, you don’t have to get very far into the gospels to learn that Jesus was not much for quick fixes or easy answers. Jesus rarely intended to settle much of anything once and for all, in fact, his aim was usually to unsettle. So it’s no surprise that rather than answer their question directly about what they owed or didn’t owe the emperor, he instead reframes it in such a way that gets to the heart of the matter. Decide for yourself what belongs to Caesar, he seems to say. This has his face on it, his name, so if you want to give it back to him, give it back to him. But when you do, ask yourself another question, which is What belongs to God?
You know what bears the divine image, don’t you? You. You do. And the person sitting next to you and the person sitting next to them, and all people everywhere and at all times. You bear God’s image. These questions that follow from Jesus’ answer about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, really amount to an even deeper question: To whom do you belong?
What was at stake in this dilemma was nothing short of one’s identity: do you belong to Caesar, as his loyal subject?—which is what he would have you believe. Or do you belong to the God of creation, who Scripture says made you with purpose and with meaning and inscribed upon you the divine image? Jesus has already reminded us we can’t serve two masters: you’re heart can never be whole when you do.
And Caesar, we should say, is for us more than some dead emperor. Caesar is any lesser power who would claim to be Lord—who would claim your allegiance, but even more, your heart, your mind, your soul and your strength. Yes, Caesar can be the government, especially when it does things in your name that should make you shutter. But Caesar is also alive in other ways. Caesar can be a nationality—you identity as an American or a Canadian or German or Brazilian, or whatever the case my be. National identity can be a very powerful force. Caesar can also be a political party. The word Caesar in today’s world often has two spellings, three letters each: DNC and the GOP. Caesar can also be the words Liberal and Conservative spelled with capital letters. Caesar is any identity you could claim that would have you to believe is more essential to who you are, than the image of God inscribed upon you. Or, any identity someone else could claim that would lead you to believe is more essential to who they are, than the image of God inscribed upon them.
I’ve been reading a wonderful little book this past week called How to Think, by Alan Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor. He writes about this curious dynamic in our culture today where we so quickly and easily break off into these camps or tribes that would have us believe represent something essential about ourselves, and each other, leading us to see others as what he calls Repugnant Cultural Others—ROCs for short. Jacobs sees this troubling dynamic in his own world, being both an academic and an Evangelical Christian—part of two camps that have tended to view each other with mutual suspicion. And this sort of thing is true in different ways around the country, as we all know. As Jacobs puts it, this is “a profoundly unhealthy situation.” It’s unhealthy, he writes, because it prevents us from recognizing others as our neighbors—even when they’re quite literally our neighbors. If I’m consumed by this belief that that person over there is both Other and Repugnant, I may never discover that my favorite television program is also his favorite television program that we like some of the same books, though not for precisely the same reasons; that we both know what it’s like to nurse a loved one through a long illness. All of which is to say that I may all too easily forget that political and social and religious differences are not the whole of human experience. In others words—and this is me talking here—these different Caesar’s would have us forget that whatever identity we would claim or that would claim us—apart from being a child of God, with the image of God inscribed upon us—is only part of our story, and likely should be a much smaller part than we make it.
But the real power of all these many Caesars in our life is not that they would claim to be more important to us than our identity as a child of God or a follower of Christ, but that they’re interchangeable with these things. We begin to blur the lines. We begin to think being a good Christian looks remarkably similar to being a Good American or a Good Liberal, or a Good Conservative or a Good Democrat or a Good Republican or a Good “fill in the blank.” We begin to assume the goals and values of these different identities are identical, and so those outside our tribe cannot be Good Christians. Jamie Smith, a theologian I’ve quoted many times before, said in a Tweet recently, “If your Christianity doesn’t somehow scandalize your closest political allies, you’ve trimmed your faith to predominant winds.” I think that’s so right, and fall victim to it more than I’d like to admit.
But Christian faith—and I would dare see any real religious faith—shouldn’t fit neatly into and of the prescribed boxes we’re given. It didn’t back then and it doesn’t now. Jesus had a way of inspiring his enemies to build strange alliances against him. He didn’t fit neatly into any group, and the Kingdom he proclaimed was unlike any other Kingdom in the world—which is still true. Ruled by a King that was unlike any other king—still true. And it claims that we’re something unlike any other claim that could be made on us: you’re a walking image of the God of creation. This is to whom you really belong. And this is still true.
We’re delighted to have Peggy Campolo wth us this morning, who with her husband Tony has been a longtime leader for in the Christian world. A couple of us from church were fortunate to have dinner with the two of them last night, and at one point Tony told us a story four some former students of his who opened a construction company up in Michigan with the purpose of hiring folks to work who were chronically un- and under-employed—folks with criminal records, and so forth. They even had a kind of half-way house where some of the guys could live for a time until they got in their feet. There was a Bible study at the house, that the men who’d been hired into the company ran, and when they found out Tony would be in town, they asked him to come and be with them in the study. While he was there he asked the men if they were attending church anywhere and they told him yes, they were attending a a church called Mars Hill church, found and at the time pastored by Rob Bell, who among many things is known for his book Love Wins, in which he questions traditional Christian notions of heaven and especially hell. The book had just come out when Tony was there with them, and so he asked how it was to go to a church where the pastor was receiving so much heat for this book. The men hadn’t really heard about the book. And so he told them, Well, you know some people say that Rob Bell doesn’t believe in hell—which put hi in this weird spot of being too Christian for most folks outside the evangelical world and too liberal for folks within the evangelical world. And the men kind of looked at each other until one of them said to him, Well, I thought being a Christian just meant you had to believe in Jesus.
Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, he told them, and Give to God the things that are God.
Remember to whom you belong and what’s finally important. Order your life accordingly, being the person you were created to be for a world that’s in such desperate need of nothing less. Amen.
 The Last Week, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, p.61-65
 Ibid., 63
 Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, 26-27