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.” Matthew 22:21
Before we get into what these well-known and well-worn words might mean, I want to set the stage for you. I want, as always, to give you some context.
Let’s start with the basic plot of Matthew. As I said in last week’s sermon, the author of Matthew was a Jewish man, and his community was Jewish, just as Jesus was a Jew and his first disciples were all Jewish. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the first Christians continued to see themselves as Jewish and preached good news about Jesus amongst their own people. Remember, just like today with the many groups of Jewish people—orthodox, reformed, ultra-orthodox, Hasidic, conservative, and so on—there were many different groups within Judaism in Jesus’ day too. There were Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and following Jesus’ death and resurrection there were Jewish followers of Jesus too.
These Jewish followers of Jesus at first seemed like just another group within Judaism. However, in the urban areas of the Eastern Roman empire, like Antioch in Syria (likely the home of Matthew’s Jewish-Christian community), Gentiles, or non-Jews became attracted to this Jesus way of life and wanted to join this new community. We see this in Paul’s letters, and we see the controversy this caused within the Jewish-Christian community.
In 66-70 A.D., the Jewish Revolt against the Romans occurred, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the leveling of the Temple. The Romans, as empires are wont to do when challenged, came down hard on the Jewish people, sending many into exile and doing everything they could to show everyone who was in charge.
Many of the different religious, cultural, and political groups in pre-war Israel simply disappeared. A tax was levied on every Jewish man above the age of 14 and every Jewish woman above the age of 12. It was not really a new tax. Instead, it was the same tax that Jewish people had paid to the Jewish Temple. The emperor Vespasian had co-opted it in order to fund the rebuilding of the Temple of Jupiter, the God the Romans said had been victorious over Judea’s God. This wasn’t just any tax; this was a tax of humiliation and conquest. It was a tax of idolatry. And Vespasian also minted a new coin. This coin had on it a picture of a bound woman and the inscription “Judea prisoner.”
In an attempt to provide cohesion and a renewed identity, some rabbis gathered in the mid-80’s to find a new focus for their faith with the loss of Jerusalem and the Temple. They decided to center their faith on the law and the synagogue, giving rise to the Rabbinic tradition which has kept Judaism alive around the world for another 2000 years. However, they also saw the growing Christian communities, with their success among the Gentiles, as a threat. So, they included the “blessing against the heretics” in the synagogue liturgy. This was a prayer for the destruction of the Roman Empire and the cursing of heretics and nosrim, which is thought to refer to the “Nazarenes,’ or Christians. From now on, Jewish-Christians would find it increasingly difficult to worship with other Jews without cursing themselves, and the parting of the ways between the synagogue and the church took place around the end of the first century or beginning of the second century.
Now we begin to understand the basic plot of Matthew’s gospel: conflict between the Teacher of Israel and Israel’s leaders. The main character is Jesus who is the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. Jesus sets out on a mission to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven to his people, the people of Israel. The Jewish leaders become increasingly resistant to his teaching and respond with growing hostility. Meanwhile, the disciples, those who chose to follow Jesus, are called to understand, and have faith in Jesus the Teacher who is teaching them how to be a new community which will include Gentiles. This new community will live as if God’s kingdom has come on earth, even though they are still waiting for its full realization.
Our gospel passage for today is part of a series of stories about Jesus’ conflict with the leaders of Israel. In chapter 21 of Mattew the chief priests and the elders question Jesus’ authority. They want to arrest Jesus, but they fear the crowds of people who regard Jesus as a prophet. Today we heard the story of the attempts of the Pharisees in cahoots with the Herodians, not normally a group they would have linked themselves with, to entrap Jesus. Next the Sadducees will attempt to trip him up and then the Pharisees try again.
But let’s focus on the conflict in our reading for today. The Pharisees are smart. We must give them that. As you now know, the tax to which they are referring is not just any tax. This isn’t a matter of socialists, verses, democrats, verses, republicans, verses libertarians and varying philosophies of taxation. This tax is abhorrent, and it is meant to be. It is a constant reminder of the subjugated status of Jewish people, and it is being used for idolatrous purposes. And to pay it they must use an idolatrous coin that has both an image of the emperor claiming to be the Son of God and an image that represents a subjugated Judea. If Jesus says they should pay it, the people will be outraged. If Jesus says they should not he will be arrested for treason. I am sure that both the Pharisees and Herodians thought they had got him good this time.
Now before I go any further, I want to stress that Jesus’ answer to them is clearly not an attempt to play both ends against the middle in order to save his own hide. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel (chapter 20) he already told us that he knows he will be arrested and crucified by the Romans. Jesus’ goal is to show the leaders and us that he is the one with true authority, he is the true teacher and to teach us something about what it means to live in the in-between-time. The time when God’s kingdom is breaking into this world but has not yet been fully realized. And what he shows us throughout the Gospel of Matthew is that to live as faithful followers of Jesus in this in-between-time is to invite those the world puts on the margins into our community and to voluntarily live on the margins ourselves if that we are normally in the center of the world and its systems.
We know well that we all exist in a world that is far from perfect. We only have to turn on the news to understand this. Very frequently we have no choice but to participate in this world. If I don’t use the bills and coins, or their abstract equivalent cards and checks, bills and coins that bear the images of slave owners and the perpetrator of the genocidal trail of tears, I will starve to death and not have a roof over my head. I must pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s in order to survive, and so do you. Jesus was no fool. He knew this. Completely retreating from and opting out of the world as it is is not an option for the vast majority of people, even if I sometimes fantasize about doing just that. And the fact that Jesus and the Pharisees are standing in the Temple and when he asks one of the followers of the Pharisees to give him one of the detested and idolatrous coins he does, shows that for all their religious rhetoric, the Pharisees could not opt out either.
So then, if we recognize that the systems of the world are frequently at odds with the ways of God, what are we to do? We could try violent revolution. But Matthew is well aware how that went when the Jewish people tried to revolt, and it is not Jesus’ way, and therefore not God’s way. We could give up and simply do everything we can to put ourselves in the center of the world’s systems, Christianity certainly has done this in many times and places throughout the last two millennia. Or we could live in the systems of the world when we have no other choice while also voluntarily choosing the margins, choosing to live at odds with these systems whenever we can. We can live as participants in the wider society, but in tension with the dominant values and structures of the wider world.
And what might that look like? Well, it could look like giving up some of the privileges the systems of the world might give to you. I have a friend who turned down a rather good promotion because he realized there was a person of color who was really more qualified than he was and that he had received a leg up because he was white. Or maybe you voluntarily choose not to take a second vacation this year, or even a first one, because you recognize that just because you can fly doesn’t mean that you should, because every flight contributes to climate change. Or perhaps when you next go to vote you consider the issues in front of you and the candidates for whom you are voting not from the perspective of what will benefit you, but from the perspective of those who live on the margins of our world. Maybe you will begin considering God and God’s kingdom as you make all the various decisions that make up your life, even if that means spending more time on the margins than you are used to doing and makes you look just a little bit weird to the rest of the world.
The systems of this world will always seek to own us, to sway us, and to capture our hearts. And there will be times when we have no choice but to participate in these systems, systems that frequently do not operate in ways that align with God’s vision for this world. We don’t have a lot of control over that. But that does not mean that we have no control and that we have no choice. With Jesus, God’s kingdom, God’s dream, broke into this world and continues to break into this world. We have no choice but to live in this world, the only reality we have been given broken as it is, but that doesn’t mean we have to live for this world. As we gather together for worship, prayer, and study, as we immerse ourselves in scripture, we can begin to understand what it means to live for God while living in the world, and though this living for God may place is on the margins of this world rather than in the center, we can begin to be a part of God’s kingdom, God’s dream breaking into this broken world right here and right now. We can begin to orient ourselves to and be shaped by the true center, the only center that matters, God. Amen.