Sermon / October 19th, 2014 / A Man of Integrity / Matthew 22 / Pastor Terry Defoe
Matthew's Gospel, chapter 22. Verses 15 to 17:
15The Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16“Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 17Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
New International Version (NIV)
This is our text. Please be seated.
This morning, as you’ve just heard, our sermon text is about paying taxes. Of course, taxes are always a controversial topic. Let me assure you that I'm not going to support or condemn any particular tax in my message this morning. What I am going to do is take you back to Jesus’ day and consider a controversial topic for Him and for the Jewish leaders. What my father used to tell me is true: if you want to start a spirited discussion, all you have to do is talk about politics or religion. This morning we’re going to talk about both, so hang on to your hats! I pray that God would send his Holy Spirit to bless our consideration of His Holy Word this day.
The events of our text took place during the last week of Jesus' ministry. Palm Sunday is now past and Good Friday is close at hand. Feelings are running high. Some individuals – mostly the common people – support Jesus. But others – the religious leaders mainly – find Jesus and His teachings to be deeply offensive and troubling. And so, as they sometimes did, the religious leaders approached Jesus with a trick question, one they'd apparently been thinking about for some time.
Jesus caused problems for the Jewish religious leaders for several reasons. First, they considered Him to be a false prophet, someone who misled the people. They considered themselves, on the other hand, to be the righteous "defenders of the faith." Secondly, the religious leaders were convinced that Jesus badly misinterpreted the Scriptures – God’s Holy Word. Of course, the possibility that their own interpretation might be off base apparently never crossed their minds. Thirdly, the religious leaders were uncomfortable with Jesus' growing popularity. The Sunday before the events of our text took place, the Sunday we call Palm Sunday in the Church, great crowds accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem, shouting
"Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" (Matthew 21:9, N.I.V.)
The Jewish leaders knew very well that these words referred to the coming of the Messiah. And they were absolutely convinced that Jesus didn’t fit the bill. They were convinced that the people were mistaken about Jesus. The Jewish leaders were worried that they were losing control over the people. The Pharisees considered Jesus to be a religious teacher who indulged in heresy right and left and center. As far as they were concerned, he had no authority – no right – to do what he was doing. They felt that they were doing God a favor by challenging this fellow and removing him from the scene.
Two groups of people came to see Jesus one day. One was the Pharisees, and we’ve heard about them before. The other was the "Herodians." Scholars tell us that the Herodians supported King Herod, and, thereby indirectly supported the Romans. The Pharisees, of course, were very different. They didn't like Herod, and they absolutely hated the Romans. Under normal conditions, the Pharisees would not associate with the Herodians. But, in this case, their common dislike of Jesus united them. You may have heard the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
So these two very different groups came to Jesus. And, as you’ve already heard, they flattered him. They called him “a man of integrity.” You know what integrity is – it’s a characteristic of someone who does the right thing, whether others are watching or not. These people also complemented Jesus by saying that taught the way of God truthfully. He showed no favoritism, they said, in His dealings with people.
These words, of course, dripped with sarcasm – and Jesus knew it. They were absolutely true, mind you. But the irony is striking. It was, in fact, these two groups who lacked integrity. They were hypocrites, and Jesus had told them that already. The Pharisees, for example, didn't teach the Word of God correctly. They often substituted their own opinions for God’s will. And they showed favoritism to those who agreed with them. Their words about Jesus were actually words of judgment on themselves.
After the customary niceties, comes the main event – the question of the day. Matthew 22, verse 17:
17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” (N.I.V. © 2011)
Paraphrased, the question might come across this way:
"Jesus, tell us please, can a Jew in Israel pay the imperial Roman tax, or must he fight for independence from Rome on the grounds that God alone is Israel's king?"
It’s important to remember that, by this time, the Jews had lived for many years under Roman domination. The Jews were not free, politically. The tax they spoke of represented Roman oppression and their subjection to a hated foreign power. It was a constant reminder that they were living in a land dominated by Rome. The Roman emperor collected as much tax money from the Jews as he could. And the Jews, as you would expect, grudging paid only as much as they had to.
Every year at Christmastime, we hear the story of Jesus' birth. These familiar words are found in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 2:
1 In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register. (verses 1-3, N.I.V. © 2011)
That census was the emperor’s way of determining how many people he had in his realm. And once he had determined that number, he would be able to set up an even more efficient tax-collecting system. So the tax that the Pharisees and the Herodians were asking Jesus about could very well be the same tax that had resulted from the census mentioned in Luke 2. Bible scholars tell us that all Jewish males, from the age of 14 to 65, were obligated to pay this tax. And all Jewish females, from the age of 12 to 61, paid it too. At that time, the total tax burden on the people of Israel ws estimated to be between 30 to 40%! And, we need to keep in mind that many of them also gave 10% -- a “tithe" – to the Lord!
The coin used to pay the tax was called a "denarius." One denarius was the average day’s wages back then. The coin had a Roman image and inscription, both of which were offensive to the Jews. To them, the denarius represented Roman paganism. It represented the idolatry of the Romans, and their false religion. So, to a Jew, everything about that coin was offensive to God. The image on the coin was that of the Caesar, the Roman emperor. The inscription said: "One worthy of DIVINE honor" or "Tiberius Caesar, son of the DIVINE Augustus." Also stamped on the coin were the words "Pontifex Maximus" – HIGH PRIEST.”
So we have the question:
"Jesus, should we pay taxes to Caesar, or not?
It’s a trick question. If this coin was to be tossed into the air, heads or tails, for Jesus’ adversaries it would be a matter of “Heads, I win. Tails, you lose!” If Jesus said, "Yes, I want you to pay the tax," His answer would have made him look unpatriotic, something the MESSIAH – if that's who he really was – would never be guilty of! If, on the other hand, Jesus said, "No, I don't want you to pay the tax," He would have been advocating rebellion against Rome. The Romans empire was a brutal totalitarian regime. As such, it didn’t take criticism lightly. So with their trick question, both the Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to force Jesus to say something that He would be sorry for.
Jesus’ answer reveals His frustration. Matthew 22, verse 18:
"You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?" he said. (N.I.V. © 2011)
Jesus knew very well what they were up to. You’ll notice that He called them "hypocrites." Jesus had used this word before, speaking of the Pharisees. The word in the Greek language refers to an actor in a theatre. The actor – the hupocrites – wore a mask to hide his or her real identity. By His use of the Law, Jesus had a knack for removing the masks people wore, leaving them feeling awkward, ashamed, and foolish.
Years ago, I read about a movie that was being produced. It had a Biblical theme. Apparently, one of the actors had been charged with some sort of scandalous behavior that took place while the movie was being produced. It seems that the content of the movie didn't get through to this particular actor. He was doing one thing on the movie set and something very different elsewhere. And that, of course, is hypocrisy.
What the Pharisees and Herodians had said about Jesus was indeed true. He was a man of integrity. He did tell the truth. He didn’t show favoritism. He was bold. But his boldness was always expressed in the context of sacrificial love.
19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax,” He said. (Matthew 22:19 N.I.V. © 2011)
They showed him a denarius.
“So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:21. N.I.V. © 2011)
Jesus answer caused "amazement" among his hearers. They were very impressed.
So let’s talk about Jesus’ answer:
“Give back to Caesar.”
In other words, with regard to human government – give them what is rightly theirs. And, with regard to God, give Him what He is due. Simple answer. Profound implications. Lutheran Christians talk about the doctrine of the "two kingdoms," that is, the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world – sometimes called the kingdom of the right hand and the kingdom of the left. For us, each of these kingdoms is to be kept separate from the other. Jesus, the true "King of the Jews," told his listeners that they must recognize the legitimate authority of human governments – in this case even the hated Romans – while, at the same time, reminding them of God's claim on them as well. Jesus knew that any authority that human governments have is granted to them by His Father. And His Father will someday hold them accountable for their actions.
"Give back to Caesar."
What does this mean for us today? We live in a society that questions authority – all kinds of authority, government, the church, the media. I distinctly remember a bumper sticker I once saw in Vancouver, affixed to an old Volvo. It said: "QUESTION AUTHORITY!" Many people are doing that these days. And that involves God’s authority, too.
"Give back to Caesar."
Christians understand these words differently from unbelievers. For Christians, all government authority comes from God. All governments, without exception, are accountable to God. The fall of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe in the last generation revealed what most people already knew – that they had steadfastly refused to be held accountable. They were indeed a law unto themselves. They learned accountability the hard way!
According to Jesus, governments have the authority, in certain areas of life, to require compliance. And the collection of taxes is one of those areas. “Give back to God what belongs to God,” Jesus said in our text this morning. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had said:
33 … seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33, N.I.V. © 2011)
God's people, believers in his Son, enabled by the Holy Spirit, trust him and seek to obey him. They do their best to live in the world but not of the world – not according to the world's standards of right and wrong. They seek to give God first place in their lives and hearts. Just as the Roman denarius had Caesar's "image" stamped on it, so Christians have God's "image" stamped onto their hearts.
Here’s the underlying principle: Christians submit to government authority because that authority comes from God. But our ultimate loyalty is directed to God alone. According to Jesus, both human governments and God have a claim on our lives. But government's claim is always secondary. God's claim comes first. Christians keep the kingdom of the right hand and the kingdom of the left hand separate and distinct. Earthly governments come and go, but God's kingdom is eternal.
As we travel our faith journey, we render to God, by His own enabling, a sincere and unshakeable faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. And again, as we travel that faith journey, we render to Caesar – that is, to human governments – appropriate loyalty and service. May God always enable us to live this way. Amen.
Let's Pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – Teach us to live as Christians in a non-Christian world. Enable us to balance our responsibilities to secular governments and to you. We know that Jesus is a man of integrity – a teacher of your truth. We know that He treats all people equally. May we give him our sins and receive his righteousness in return. In His name we pray. Amen.