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Sermon on Render to Caesar

Matthew 22 Render Unto Caesar

It might help to set the scene for the passage which we have in Matthew this morning. A few days previously Jesus had turned over the tables of the money changers in the Temple, and their job was to turn Roman denarii into shekels to be used for tithes in the Temple.  Then Jesus likened the Jewish leaders to the terrible tenants of the vineyard who had killed the messengers, he told parable which made the Jewish villains and they wanted him dead. Jesus was not making friends amongst the elite in Jerusalem. So it was that we read today that they came to Jesus to trap him.  In this episode the Pharisees and Herodians who did not like each other suddenly found the truth in that a common quotation ‘a common enemy makes strange bed fellows ‘

They come to Jesus and butter him up saying

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.

Then at the end of the sweet talk comes the sting  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?

Come on Jesus yes or no?

They tell Jesus that they want to know what he thinks, but they ask him a question with a yes or no answer, a closed question. Closed question can easily be used as traps, the famous one of course is
'Have you stopped beating your wife', (yes or no)?

People ask why politicians never answer the question, well quite often it is because they are loaded questions, traps. If they wanted to know what I thought about the living wage, then they might ask
'Can you tell us what you think is important about the living wage'?

But they don't they ask instead
‘Are you in favour of the minimum wage if it means higher unemployment?

If you say ‘yes’ then they report you saying that you support higher unemployment to fund the minimum wage. If you say 'no' then they say you are against the minimum wage because it will create unemployment. 

It was this kind of verbal trap which faced Jesus. The people had no choice but to pay Caesar. You will remember that Rome had a poll tax, everybody had to go to their home town to register. If Jesus says to pay Caesar his tax, then he will be seen by the people as supporting Roman occupation. If he says not to pay the tax then they will have him arrested and handed over to the Romansd as a rebel. Judas the Galilean had started an anti tax campaign in Judea and Josephus tells us that The Romans wasted no time in effectively and brutally ending the rebellion killing the rebels. Jesus refuses to let them have him over a barrel and he answers in his own words by asking for a coin.  In doing so he turns the tables yet again, this time metaphorical tables, but just as important. The coin in question is a silver Roman “denarius” depicting the emperor’s head and bearing the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Deified Augustus. Just by having that coin, the Pharisees are breaking two of the 10 commandments,

  1. no graven images and
  2. no gods before the true God of Israel. 

It was these coins which were exchanged at the Temple for the ‘holy’ money.  The coin represents the compromise in which the Jewish people were engaged.

So Jesus says render to Caesar .....

The idea of render (apodote) is that you give back to someone what is properly their own. It is not so much giving as giving back. Of course you are then supporting all that the regime brings with it. Jesus in a sense acknowledges the contradictions in which we are engaged.To live under Roman rule was just like us today living with the contradictions and complexities and ambiguities which we face.

The answer which Jesus gives is undoubtedly a clever one, ingenious, yet is also ambiguous in some sense, we all have to make choices of which is the lesser evil. The coin was a symbol that you were a conquered people. The Romans forced the nations they conquered to use them. If you pay your taxes then your money goes to supporting what governments spend that money on. It brings to mind the Life of Brian film - ‘What have the Romans done for us?’In Jesus day it paid for occupation, but is also paid for roads and aquaducts. There are many moral quandries in which we are forced to make difficult choices.

But Render to God

Tertullian’s commentary on this text in the 4th century said that we are like a coin, and by God’s grace we are stamped with the image of God on us, and that is what gives us our true value. You and I and all creation are like God's coins, struck in his image. Of course this means that all humankind is in the likeness of God. God is present in all people.  Victor Hugo’s wrote in his famous novel Les Misérables, 

'To love another person is to see the face of God.'

So the question for us this week is this: how shall we live as if we are stamped in the divine image and likeness and everything belongs to God?

As we read further on in this Gospel of Matthew we read that we must

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart with all you soul and with all your mind love your neighbour as yourself.    To do so is what this is all about’

Caesar can have his coins but Jesus tells us that God is due far much more.