Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, 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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Last Sunday I spoke about the Gospel passage, referencing the other readings for illustration.
The Gospel reading included the oft used phrase, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (which was translated in the readings as, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”). This saying from Jesus comes after He was questioned by some disciples of the Pharisees using flattery to try and get Him to blaspheme or to speak ill of the Emperor (who demanded allegiance).
The question to Jesus was about paying tribute to the Emperor.
In those days, paying tribute to the Emperor could be seen as an act of worship. If Jesus said yes to their question, he would be going against the commandment to have “No other God’s before me.” If He said no to their question, then it could be interpreted as an act of sedition against Rome (after all, he was a rebel at heart).
The emperor at the time, Tiberius, saw himself as divine and worthy of worship. The coin to which Jesus refers to in the Gospel reading (denarius) had an image of the Emperor as a god, which would have gone against not having any false idols. The Emperor thought of himself as the giver of peace and provision, divinely appointed to rule.
So the question, although it was asked with some flattery and deference, was intended to ruin Jesus. It was asking Him to place Himself against all authorities (either God’s or the Emperor’s). He chose to put it back on questioners and call them into account with His answer: Give the Emperor the things that are due him. Give God that which is rightfully His.
Which begs the question, what things are God’s and what things are the Emperor’s?
First, the Emperor.
Tiberius demanded as much as he wanted and could get out of his subjects.
He was cruel.
He was abusively lavish, living off of the backs of those who were forced to pay tribute to him with their tributes. By having their images etched on currency and proclaiming themselves divine, rulers created a type of propaganda to further their rule over the land. The commanded fear over those they ruled.
This forced fear in dealings within the community.
Even the Jewish community had an unholy alliance with Rome and used the propaganda to their favor (for a look at this, go back and look at the interactions after Jesus’ arrest as the plead before the different Roman rulers).
What was actually the Emperor’s.
The coins he created.
And although he claimed much more, he really was owed nothing more.
His authority was, ultimately from God.
What is God’s?
For Jesus, the answer is everything.
For a good Jew, it was everything.
For followers of Jesus, everything.
For others, it was and still is whatever they are willing to give to God or credit God for.
On Sunday, I specifically stated four things: grace, mercy, community and worship (these things were found in the readings).
Ultimately, though, it comes down to worship. It was the issue in the question posed to Jesus: Are you going to worship the Emperor or God?
And, again, ultimately, it is the question for us:
Are we going to worship the Emperor or God?
But you say, “We don’t have an emperor.”
We are not ruled by the Romans.
Yes. But we are ruled.
And the net result of the rule has been and continues to be, unfortunately, fear and worship.
“You’re stretching that a little, aren’t you?”, you say.
Which subject do you want to talk about?
Fires and fire policy in California?
The November elections?
On any of these topics, both fear and worship are present.
Fear in the way the information is blasted out to us.
Fear in the way “experts” are employed by the right and the left.
Worship in the way we are asked to trust those in charge.
Now, am I speaking out against those in leadership and saying we shouldn’t follow them?
I am, however, saying that we must be careful to not approach the worship of those who are in leadership (that includes your priest too, by the way).
Let me give a current example. If we feel like the November elections will make or break our lives, we should check ourselves.
Am I saying that voting isn’t important?
Am I saying that your choice doesn’t matter?
Am I saying it doesn’t make a difference?
But, what I am saying is that if you are betting on the State to provide your wellness over the Creator of the universe, then this is making a god out of the State.
And the State will always disappoint.
The State doesn’t change hearts.
It just makes demands.
And requires allegiance.
Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And, He kinda meant it.
What we worship directs our intentions and our actions.
Look at the example from the epistle reading this past Sunday:
“We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead-- Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
The church in Thessalonica was a missionary endeavor of the apostle Paul and his companions. They had preached salvation through the work of Jesus to these people.
And the people had responded.
How did Paul and his companions know?
- Their stepping out in faith to worship God and not the idols that inundated their culture.
- Their laboring in love for God to live a changed life.
- Their certain hope that God would one day redeem all things as they labored on earth.
They were a changed people who looked to change people.
The impact of their faith had a positive impact on those around them (so much so that Paul said he and his companions had no need to come back to share the Gospel with anyone there because they were already doing so).
Their worship was set on the only One worthy of their worship.
All this made them stand out.
And changed their hearts.
And changed their lives.
And changed the lives of those around them.
Brothers and sisters:
Many things and people will call for our worship in this life.
There is only One worthy of our worship.
This is the living God who loves us and cares for us.
This is the God who parted the Red Sea.
And fed his people daily for forty years in a hostile environment.
And called Lazarus from the grave.
And calls us His children.
And tells us to not worry about the earthly things but to seek Him in worship.
This is the God who provides and protects and prevails.Let us worship Him.