Summary: A sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, proper 24, series A. "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesars."
23rd Sunday after Pentecost [Pr. 24] October 19, 2008, Series A”
Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, you sent your Son into our world to reveal your will for our lives and to redeem us from sin and death. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to embrace Jesus in faith, that we might truly be his disciples, and acknowledge him as our Lord and Savior. Above all, guide us in our lives, as we struggle to live with the tension of belonging to two kingdoms. This we ask in Christ’s holy name. Amen.
The air had to be thick with tension! Jesus had entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey amidst the shouts of hosannas. He had gone to the temple and drove out the moneychangers and merchants, to the dismay of the chief priests and elders. No longer could his ministry be relegated to some distant phenomenon that was taking place in the small towns and countryside in the region of Galilee. Jesus had brought his teachings and ministry into the center of Israel’s faith.
As a result, into the tension that already existed between Israel and their occupation by Rome, a polarization was quickly developing among the people in regard to Jesus. Although many of the common people viewed Jesus as a prophet, others, especially those who held positions of power and authority, viewed Jesus’ teachings and actions as subversive and inflammatory.
So, the Pharisees plotted to entrap Jesus. And the trap could not have been better staged. According to our lesson, Matthew tells us that the Pharisees took with them some Herodians. The Pharisees and the Herodians were on different sides of the issue that they planned to put before Jesus.
The Pharisees were devout Jews who strove to live by the law of Moses, and as a result of their piety of faith, they were critical of the Roman oppression, especially to the idea of paying taxes to support Caesar, since they considered him to be evil. After all, Caesar considered himself to be divine, and what pious Jew could bring himself to support through their taxes such a blasphemer.
The Herodians, on the other hand, were supporters of Herod, and tended to support Rome from whom Herod gained his authority. They were a group of Jews who had compromised their faith and piety, in order to win favors from the governing forces. Thus, the Herodians were in favor of paying taxes to Rome.
So these two groups, representing both sides in the tension that existed between Rome and Israel, come to confront Jesus. And how they tried to sweeten Jesus up for the kill. Just listen to their hypocrisy! “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.” Although all of this is true, coming from the mouths of those who set out to entrap Jesus, it’s enough to make you sick.
Then came the question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The trap had been set. If Jesus answered “No,” the Herodians, who enjoyed the benefit of Roman rule, would report him to the authorities as a traitor or seditionist. If Jesus answered “Yes,” the Pharisees would have ample fuel to discredit him among the people as a Roman sympathizer, a person unfaithful to Israel.
But Jesus saw through their ploy to entrap him, and their sickening sweet attempt at flattery. And Jesus had the wisdom to escape their trap. He asked to see the coin used to pay the tax. Jesus is handed a denarius, a small silver coin of Roman issue. As Dr. Victor Furnish points out in his commentary on our text, this coin “bore a portrait of the reigning emperor crowned with a laurel wreath, the sign of divinity. It also bore the inscription, ‘Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of the majestic God, and High Priest.’” End quote.
Can you see why the question of paying taxes to Rome was such a contentious issue at that time? Even the coin that was used to pay the tax, not only bore the image of Caesar, it also claimed him to be divine. For the Pharisees, and for the early Christians, it was viewed as paying homage to Caesar, akin to acknowledging him as divine – a denial of their faith.
Of course, the Herodians, who may not have acknowledged Caesar to be divine, overlooked the inscription, in favor of the political benefits that they received from Rome. Even though they may have professed to be children of Israel, they adapted to the ways of the world, and in the process, compromised their faith.