Preached FCCW 10-22-2017
Matthew 22:15-22 and 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
According to the laws of Newtonian physics, no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time.
Which, long before an apple ever dropped on Newton’s head, was already an established fact.
Not based on any Law of physics, but on the Law of simple common sense. The kind of common sense that the Pharisees and Herodians trusted in to rid themselves of Jesus.
In a way, these two groups had no business occupying a common cause, like discrediting Jesus.
The Herodians were sort of a political party, supporters of King Herod Antipas. Herod was a puppet king over Judea, who owed his throne to the Roman Empire. Herodians were considered collaborators with the Roman forces by most Jews, including the ultra-religious Pharisees, who considered collaboration with the Romans to be a bitter betrayal of the Israelite people.
In other words, these two groups had nothing in common, except for a common enemy – Jesus. But as the old proverb says, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” So, at least where Jesus was concerned, the Pharisees and the Herodians found common ground as “frenemies.”
One day, they approached Jesus with all kinds of flattery, fawning over his reputation for sincerity and impartiality and with a phony respect for his wisdom when it came to teaching about God. Then in the midst of their smooth talk, they slipped him the question that they hoped would be his undoing. “Tell us what you think,” they asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
In their minds, it was the perfect set-up. No matter how Jesus answered, there was no way he could not incriminate himself. If he said it was lawful to pay the tax, the people would turn against him, because the people despised paying tribute to their conquerors and in their eyes, no true Jewish messiah worth his salt would tell them to do that.
On the other hand, if he said it was not right to pay the taxes, it would be interpreted by the Romans as an act of treason, and the Romans had a zero tolerance policy for traitors.
The question was perfectly crafted to make it impossible for both the popularity of the Jewish people and the tolerance of the Roman authorities to occupy the space where Jesus stood.
Jesus knew what they were up to; the malice in their hearts. And if they thought their question was the perfect trap to catch their enemy, Jesus’ answer proved that for every rule there is an exception.
“Show me the coin used for the tax,” he said. And they did. They brought him a denarius.
A denarius was a coin that amounted to a day’s wages for a common laborer. Stamped on one side of the coin was the image of the emperor Tiberius with the Latin inscription: Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus. Because one of the perks of being a Roman emperor was that you got to refer to yourself as a deity. The other side of the coin designated Tiberius with the title of “Pontifex Maximus,” or high priest of the cult of emperor worship.
The instant someone in the Pharisee/Herodian crowd pulled a denarius out of their pocket to present to Jesus, the gig was up. Everyone within earshot of this conversation knew that the first two of the Ten Commandments, prohibited having any false gods before the one true God, or possessing graven images of false gods. Yet, there in God’s Temple, the custodians of those very commandments were carrying a coin inscribed with an image of a man who held the title of priest to a counterfeit god, and claimed to be divine himself. The fact that Jesus had to ask for a coin bearing the image of Caesar meant that neither he nor his disciples had one on them. The fact, that any of his opponents could produce one at a moment’s notice, exposed their hypocrisy. Jesus and those who opposed him could not both simultaneously occupy the space of authentic testimony about God and God’s people. A single gesture separated the genuine from the counterfeit.
Jesus lifted the coin for all to see, and asked what seemed to be an unnecessary question: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus replied matter of factly, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” With that, this became much more than a debate about whether or not to pay taxes.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.”
Since the coins used to pay the Roman tax were marked with the image and title of Tiberius, they were then, already in a sense, his property. Paying the tax was only giving him back what already bore the stamp of his ownership.
And what of giving back to God the things that are God’s? What are the things of God? Anyone there who was familiar with the scriptures would know the answer to that. Psalm 24 says plainly: The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.
If everything and everyone belongs to God, that doesn’t leave much for the emperor to legitimately claim as his own. In fact, it doesn’t leave anything. There can be only one true Lord of the earth and all that is in it. It must be one or the other – God or Caesar.
We live in a world that is always competing with God for our allegiance; competing with God for our loyalty. As citizens of this world and simultaneously, citizens of heaven, we live daily in the tension between what is demanded of us by earthly Caesars and what we owe to God. Anytime a secular power claims for itself what belongs to God, Jesus’ answer to the query of his accusers tells us that our first loyalty is to God.
Now, if an emperor claims a coin because it bears his image, then by those same rules shouldn’t God lay claim to whatever bears God’s image? But what bears the image of God? Genesis chapter one, in telling the story of creation says, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.”
Tiberius may claim to be the son of divine Augustus, but every person is the child of the King of Heaven. If you want to know what bears God’s image, all you have to do is to turn and look at the person beside you this morning. Or look in any mirror. You and I are stamped with the image of God.
Of course, the image of God in you and me might be tarnished and worn almost beyond recognition, by the ways the world has handled us. But it is still there. In fact, the point of our coming together to hear God’s word read to us and interpreted for us so that we might apply it to our lives, is so that we are reminded whose we are, who our true Lord is, and to submit ourselves to being shined up and restored to the image we are meant to bear.
So, what did Jesus mean by challenging us to give to God what belongs to God? In a world where all things are the things of God, what can we possibly give back to God that is not already God’s?
There is only one thing in the whole universe that does not belong to God until you willingly offer it to Him.
That one thing is your heart.
God has given you the freedom to hand your heart to Caesar, or to surrender it to God.
In the days of the Roman Empire, there was no internet, or Twitter, or satellite TV. For the vast majority of subjects in that far-flung empire, the closest they could ever come to meeting their emperor, was through the image of him that adorned the coins they used each day.
God came to those of his kingdom, not by an image stamped in gold or silver, but in an image formed of flesh and blood; the image of God we were given in the person of Jesus Christ.
In our world today, the only way many people can see what God is like is by the image that Christ’s brothers and sisters — yes, that means you and me — show to the world through the choices that we make to render unto God, or render unto Caesar.
Sadly, there are many ways that Jesus’ followers render to Caesar the things that are God’s. They give their hearts and souls to ideologies, actions and attitudes that bear little resemblance to what Christ stood for. And in doing so their credibility as witnesses for him is tarnished.
In the First Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul commends the Christians in that city for how they turned from idols, to serve a living and true God. He compliments them for the powerful example they had set for other churches far and wide across the Empire, through the way they had faithfully given to God what belongs to God in a world where mighty Caesars demanded that to which they had not rightful claim.
When we learn to know and trust the only Lord of all lords, and King of all kings, there will be less confusion around “who gets what” between what is owed to God and what is owed to the Caesars of our own age.
And the more you know that two Lords cannot occupy the same space at the same time, the more your life will testify to the world that only God deserves your heart.
Copyright 2017 Raymond Medeiros