Today's Gospel is a continuation of the teachings of Jesus a few days before He died on the cross for our sins. So far, we have heard the high priests and elders challenge Jesus' authority. When their challenge failed, Jesus began teaching in parables. Many of the parables exposed the corruption and hypocrisy among the religious leaders of that day. He was damaging their reputation … exposing their hypocrisy. Rather than repent and amend their sinful ways, they decided that they had to take Jesus down a notch or two. Today, we heard that the Pharisees sent a delegation to do just that.
The delegation was a strange mixture of two opposing viewpoints. Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, … (Matthew 22:15-16) In order to understand how strange this delegation is, we need to review a few cultural details. The reading mentions the Herodians. Herodians were people who supported the Herod family as rulers over Israel. The Herods were puppet kings of the Roman empire. They were not Jewish. They were Gentiles. Since the Herodians were big fans of the Herod family, they were also big fans of Roman rule. After all, it was the Romans who kept the Herods in power.
Then there were the Pharisees. We've met them before. One of the things we know about the Pharisees is that they tried very hard to keep the law of Moses. Well, the law of Moses said, "You may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother." (Deuteronomy 17:15) Herod's rule was in direct contradiction to this passage in Deuteronomy.
Ordinarily the Pharisees and the Herodians were enemies. That is the reason that the delegation who came to Jesus that day was so strange. The fact that these two groups worked together to attack Jesus tells you something about how much they both hated Jesus.
So we've got two groups of people who are planning to entangle Jesus in His words. The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians came to Jesus saying, "Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" (Matthew 22:16-17) The strategy is obvious. First you compliment a person to give him a false sense of security. Then you hit him with a "got-cha'" question.
The question was designed to put Jesus between a rock and a hard place. Remember that they are in the temple surrounded by Passover pilgrims. Many of those Passover pilgrims hate the Roman occupation. If Jesus answered, "Yes, it is lawful to pay tax," then the people who hated the Roman occupation would hate Him too. If He answered no, then the Herodians would report Him to the Romans and get Him arrested. If He did not answer, then the crowd would label Him as a coward. The Herodians and the Pharisees thought they had Jesus in a no-win situation.
Those of you who have taken a course in logic should recognize that there is a false dichotomy in this question. A false dichotomy asks a question as though there are only two possible answers even though there may be more possibilities. The disciples of the Pharisees tried to convince Jesus that there were only two answers: "Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar," or "No, it is not." They didn't think that Jesus could come up with any other answers. They thought they had Jesus trapped.
Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? (Matthew 22:18) Jesus saw through their plan immediately. It was obvious that they were trying to trap Him. Everyone who heard the question knew that they were trying to trap Jesus, but Jesus could look at their heart and see the malice they had toward Him.
Although it was a trap, Jesus answered their question anyway. Show me the coin for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. 20And Jesus said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" 21They said, "Caesar's." Then he said to them, "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:19-21) Jesus exposed the false dichotomy. He came up with a third answer.
Jesus understood something that they did not. God is in control of both civil authority and religious authority. The physical kingdom of power and the spiritual kingdom of grace are not an "either / or," but a "both / and" situation. In the Old Testament Reading for today, Isaiah pointed out that Cyrus, the pagan king of Persia, despite all outward appearances, was God's instrument. The Lord used him to work out history for the ultimate good of his people. Likewise, when Pilate boasts of his authority either to punish Jesus or to let him go, Jesus answered him, "You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin." (John 19:11)
When Jesus said, "Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's," he was telling us that Caesar and all government is God's instrument at work in the physical world. Obeying the laws of the land and participating in our democracy are a part of our obedience to God.
Now, while it is all well and good to learn that we are to be faithful to the government that God has placed over us, there is more to learn from this reading. The delegation of Pharisees and Herodians tried to trap Jesus with a false dichotomy. What false dichotomies do the forces of evil use against you? Very often our own sinful flesh presents with the false dichotomy of false belief and despair.
False belief looks at God's law in a superficial way and says, "Hey, I can do that." False belief says things like: "I lead a pretty good life. I've never murdered anyone or robbed a bank or anything like that. I'm faithful to my wife. I spend time with my kids. Yeah, I think there's a pretty good chance that I'll end up in heaven." This is the false belief of self-righteousness. This is the false belief that we often associate with the Pharisees. The law is doable, and I am doing it. When you trust your own ability to do good, that is a belief that is false. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)
The other part of the false dichotomy is despair. Here we find some very honest people. They have looked at God's law thoroughly and deeply. They fully understand that they cannot keep it. An interview with these people would find thoughts such as, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks. I am just too old to be saved." "No matter how hard I try, it just isn't good enough." "After all I have done, there is no way that God will let me into heaven." This is despair. The Biblical poster child for despair is Judas who hanged himself after he betrayed Jesus. These are people who believe that their sin is stronger than God's forgiveness.
The two parts of this false dichotomy have something in common. They both depend on self. False belief lies and says, "I am good enough to get into heaven." Despair says, "I am not good enough to get into heaven." Every time we look to self, we get pulled into one of these two choices. Even those who say, "I will do my best and God will do the rest," have chosen false belief. If all I think about is what I can do for myself, then these are the only two possibilities.
In today's Gospel, Jesus answered with a third way. In a similar way, He breaks into our lives to offer us a third way. Those who live in despair are right about one thing: We can't live the perfect life needed for eternal salvation, but Jesus did. He lived a perfect, sinless life. A few days after the events in today's Gospel, He died a sacrificial death on the cross. The following Sunday, He rose from the dead. Forty days after that, He ascended into heaven. He did all the things that we confess in the creed and did them all for us. He provided a third way … a way that leads to eternal life.
In today's Gospel [Jesus] … said, "Therefore render … to God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:21) With His sacrificial death, Jesus rendered to God the payment for the sin of the world … that is every sin … for every person who has ever lived … for every person who lives now … and for every person who will ever live until the end of time. He has paid for your sin. He has paid for my sin. All our sins are paid in full.
The Pharisees and the Herodians in today's Gospel tried to make Jesus irrelevant by asking a trick question. When that didn't work, they gave up on subtlety. They decided that the only way to remove Jesus from the scene was to remove Him from this life - to kill Him. During the next few days they carried out their plan and arranged to have Jesus crucified. When Jesus was dead, the powers of sin, death, and the devil thought they had won. They didn't understand that the death of Jesus is His greatest victory.
It is by this victory that we receive forgiveness, life, and salvation. It is by this victory that even though we die, we shall rise again. For Jesus Himself did not remain in the grave, but became the first fruits of those who rise from the dead. His resurrection is the assurance that the work He did on the cross is the ultimate victory - the assurance that false belief and despair are our only choices, but Jesus has given Himself as a third choice that leads to everlasting life.
The coin in today's Gospel had an image. On the cross Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews is the image of the invisible God. In that image you see what the God of the universe has done to make you his own! He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32) Amen
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