Sunday, October 9, 2011

What Do We Owe?

Texts:    2 Chronicles 26:3-5; 16-21; Romans 13:1-7; Matthew 22:1-14
    UP WHERE I LIVE, WE HAVE A SCHOOL district per capita tax.  A poll tax.  Everyone has to pay it simply because they live in the school district.  It's $15.00 a year, no big deal.  I pay it and forget about it until the bill comes in the mail the following July.

    In occupied Israel in the days when Jesus walked this earth, paying one's poll tax was a big deal.   It raised passions and questions of freedom and worship, of bondage and loyalty.  For Jesus' enemies, it was a way to try to destroy Him and His ministry.  But for us, the events of Matthew 22:15-22 should lead us better to understand who we are under God and what we owe to the kingdom of God and to the kingdoms of this world.

     It is Monday, the day after our Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Jesus is in the Temple.  He'd been teaching the people that morning, until He was interrupted by a delegation of chief priests and elders, many of them Pharisees.  They challenged His right to do what He was doing: His royal procession into Jerusalem, His driving out the moneychangers, all of it.  In answer, Jesus confronted them with three parables, all of them passing judgement on these Jewish leaders for their failure to be ready to welcome Him as Messiah when He came.  Did that humble them and send them home to search the Scriptures and pray the Father to open their eyes to welcome their King?

    Of course not.  It made them all the more determined to find a way to get rid of Jesus, to kill Him.

    So, our passage begins, the Pharisees left His presence.  But they didn't go far.  They huddled together to make plans to trap Jesus in His words.  They'd ask Him one little question about paying the per capita tax to Rome.  However Jesus answered, they'd have grounds to arrest Him and have Him tried for  sedition, or He'd rile up the crowd so they'd spontaneously stone Him.  Cleverly, these same men didn't return to the Temple themselves.  No, they sent disciples of theirs, men they thought Jesus wouldn't know, to pretend to be earnest seekers after knowledge.  These men would flatter Jesus and then, when He was off His guard, they'd spring a question that was sure to land Him in disaster, no matter which answer He gave.

    Why is that?  Because, unlike the poll tax I pay to my area school district, the poll tax levied by Rome signified subjection to Caesar.  To a good religious Jew, that meant that Caesar was usurping the place of God.  In Exodus 30 the Israelites were each commanded to pay into the Tabernacle treasury a half-shekel "atonement money," as the NIV puts it.  The Scripture calls this a ransom for each Israelite's life, the price on his or her head, so to speak, and it symbolized that they belonged to the Lord their God and lived or died at His sovereign pleasure.  The Jews of Jesus' day still paid the Temple poll tax, but Caesar had imposed a head tax of his own, as if they belonged to him instead.

    To make things worse, Rome required that every citizen and subject of its vast empire must pay the poll tax with the imperial Roman denarius.  This was a silver coin minted out of Caesar's personal treasury.  Therefore, it belonged to him.  With it he paid his soldiers, officials, and high-ranking local collaborators, and through them, it got into circulation in the occupied territories. Most Jews were anxious to obey the Second Commandment, the one forbidding graven images, and they ordinarily used copper coins with no images of humans or beasts on them.  But the imperial denarius always bore the portrait of the reigning Caesar.  And to make things worse, it was also stamped with a motto.  The imperial denarius of Jesus' day read, "Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus."  There was this man's blasphemous claim to divinity, on the very tribute coin they were forced to use.

    What a galling affront this would be to most Jews!  The Pharisees, as the official defenders of the faith, would be opposed to Rome and all it stood for.  So would the super-patriot Zealots and their supporters.  So would the crowds that followed Jesus and wanted to make Him be their earthly king.  They wouldn't be happy if Jesus said paying the tribute money was right.  But Matthew tells us that some Herodians came along with the Pharisees to set the trap for our Lord.  These men supported the Herod family and its ties to Rome.  They favored Roman rule; after all, the Herods were kings only through Caesar's gift, not because they were proper Jewish royalty in the line of David.  The Herodians would make sure Pilate heard if this rabble-rousing rabbi from Nazareth said the Jews should refuse to pay.

    So here they all come to Jesus, talking Him up and pretending to esteem Him and His reputation.  Ironic, isn't it?  Everything they said about His character was absolutely true.  He was and is a true man, a man of integrity.  He did and does teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  Our Lord was not influenced in His judgement by who people were or what positions they held.  But the Pharisees and the Herodians don't actually believe that.  They think Jesus is a dangerous imposter who can be maneuvered into condemning Himself with His own words.  By reminding Him of who He has set Himself up to be (as they saw it), they think they'll compromise His credibility as a rabbi if He refuses to answer, or make Him go against Scripture, if He does.

    With this in their hearts, they spring the question: "Tell us then, what is your opinion?  Is it right to pay the poll tax to Caesar or not?"

    They don't understand that they're dealing with the Font of all Wisdom, the divine Son of God.  His Spirit sees clearly into their evil hearts and He retorts, "You hypocrites!  Why are you trying to trap me?" 

    Yes, they are hypocrites.  Hypocrites for coming to Him with their flattery, pretending to be eager to learn.  And hypocrites for another crucial reason, which Jesus is about to reveal.  He commands them, "Show me the coin used for paying the tax."

    Ah, yes.  The hated silver denarius, bearing the image of the blasphemous emperor and his claim to be the son of a god.  One of these Pharisees, at least, has such a coin.  In his possession.  On the sacred ground of the Lord's Temple.  So shocked they would have acted, had Jesus said outright, "Pay Caesar's poll tax."  Why, that'd mean agreeing with Caesar's claims!  But here they are, carrying and using Caesar's money, even for their everyday business.

    Like the discerning rabbi He is, Jesus asks them a question in return: "Whose portrait is this?  And whose inscription?"

    They answer, "Caesar's."

    To us, this may seem to be a simple question and a simple answer.  But to Jesus' opponents, His words couldn't help but remind them of the words of Holy Scripture.  The Greek word the NIV translates "portrait" is εικών, icon.  It's the how their Greek Bible translated the Hebrew word meaning "likeness," as in "image and likeness."  Ah! what does that remind us of?  First, the fact that people are not to make images or likenesses of God or anything alleged to be a god.  But it also reminds us, and Jesus' challengers, of Genesis, of creation, and of mankind being made in the image and likeness of God.  Whatever is made in the image and likeness of its maker, belongs to its maker.  So this coin belongs to Caesar who made it and whose image it bears.

    And Jesus confronts them about the inscription, the επιγραφή, on the coin.  Remember, it says "Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus."  It was a confession of faith in Tiberius and his adoptive father Augustus as gods.  But Israel had its own inscription, its own confession of faith, which the Lord had commanded the people to write, not on coins, but on scrolls to be affixed to their doorposts and bound onto their foreheads and hands.  It's found in Deuteronomy chapter 6, and it says,

    Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

    Whose inscription shall be heeded and obeyed?

    Jesus' opponents have presented and seen the coin.  They have admitted that the likeness and inscription on it are Caesar's.  Jesus has evoked the authority of Scripture.  With this, He delivers His response, and it utterly confounds the Pharisees and the Herodians alike.  He says, "Give--" literally, "give back"-- "to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give back to God, what is God's."

    Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report that these men were amazed and astonished.  They had failed in their purpose.  Jesus had somehow evaded their trap with a riddle of an answer, and they had to admit defeat and go away. 

    Brothers and sisters, the Pharisees and Herodians didn't approach Jesus because they cared deeply how a servant of the one true God should relate to a pagan civil authority.  But we do care.  And because we do, it's frustrating that this text doesn't actually give us clear guidance on how we are to relate to the civil government, especially to a government that seems to be growing more and more hostile to the free exercise of our Christian faith.

    What did Jesus actually say?  Many scholars write that by reminding the Pharisees that mankind is made in the image of God, by evoking the confession of "Hear, O Israel," Jesus was saying that faithful Jews-- and faithful Christians-- should not pay taxes to godless governments.  For everything belongs to God, which leaves nothing left over for Caesar.  And in fact, the chief priests made this very accusation against Jesus in His trial before Pilate (see Luke 23:2).

    But according to other scholars, Jesus has effectually said to us, "This paltry silver coin made in the image and likeness of Tiberius?  It's his, he made it, let him have it back.  Pay your earthly taxes.  Meanwhile, you, child of God, give yourself and your devotion back to your Maker who owns you."  And, as for Caesar's claims to be a god and the son of a god, God Most High Himself refers to the human rulers of the earth as "gods," as we read in Psalm 82.  Fine, says Jesus, Caesar can call himself a "god" all he wants-- as long as he administers justice and defends the right as his own High King and Emperor, the God of Israel, has given him the authority and responsibility to do.

    Which of these has Jesus said?  We can't be one hundred percent sure.  But God has not left us to go away astonished and amazed.  He has given us sure guidance in His Scriptures on how we are to relate to the civil authority.  I'll summarize these quickly, then I'll conclude.

    First of all, in Matthew Jesus shows us that the kingdom of this world is not to be confused with the kingdom of God, not in ancient Israel, not even in these United States of America.  We have duties and responsibilities we owe to both, but those duties are not the same. 

    Second, our epistle reading from Romans 13 shows us that all civil authority is under the power of Almighty God, even when that government is pagan and doesn't acknowledge the Lord God at all.  Earthly authorities are established by God to uphold the right and to put down the wrong, according to the law of human nature that our Creator has put into every one of us, believer or unbeliever.  Because earthly rulers are representatives of God, we Christians are to obey their laws and pay the duly-legislated taxes they levy, for to refuse to do so is to rebel against God.

    In our American republic, being obedient to God in the kingdom of this world means fulfilling our responsibilities under the Constitution and voting and being involved to the extent of our ability, for our rulers, under God, are responsible to us, and we get the government we deserve.

    But third, the rights of the civil authority are not absolute.  In 2 Chronicles 26 we read of King Uzziah, a ruler who started out well.  But he lost his kingly honor and authority when he went beyond what God delegated to him.  He tried to usurp the honor and duties of the priests as well, to extend his influence into the affairs of the kingdom of heaven.  When Uzziah did that, God and God's priests put him down immediately and permanently.  As a leper, he could no longer enter the Temple, he could no longer rule, and his son had to take over the government in his stead.

    It's the same with our government today.  When they presume to legislate against the clear commands of God, we must confront them, and we cannot obey.  As the apostles Peter and John said to the ruling council in Acts 4:19,

    Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God.  For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.

What they had seen and heard was Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Son of God.  The Pharisees and Herodians could not entrap Him in His words, and we cannot escape His authoritative claim on our lives.  Through Him we were made, and through His blood He has remade us anew.  Let us give back to our earthly governments what we owe them under God.  But always and for eternity, let us render back to God our hearts, our souls, our strength, and everything we are, for we bear the image and likeness of His Son, and we are His.

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