For the second week in a row, we are faced with a challenging passage of Scripture that gives us another difficult encounter between Jesus and the religious and political authorities of the day. Much like the passage that we looked at last week, of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, this encounter makes us uncomfortable. It is not the story, itself, that makes us comfortable. It is the context of the encounter that is uncomfortable. Jesus, here, seems to be addressing a very political situation.
Many of us like to believe Jesus rose above the politics of the day. There is some truth to that. Jesus is no partisan, but that does not mean Jesus refrained from discussing the social and political situation of his time. He routinely engages the political, cultural, and societal issues that faced the people to explain the greater truth of what it means to follow the Lord.
This encounter from Matthew 22:15-22 is no different. We meet up with Jesus in the middle of a busy day of conflicts and challenges from the religious and political elites. This particular confrontation takes place on the Tuesday of Holy or Passion Week. These direct confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders where highlighted by the fact that Jesus routinely called out their hypocrisy that centered on what they taught and how they lived.
As we approach this passage, we will find that it is much like previous encounters between Jesus and the religious elites. It is also filled with political overtones. Jesus is cornered by those who both opposed and supported the Roman Empire’s rule over Jerusalem. They want to ask him a question that was being asked by all corners of society. A question posed in the middle of the Temple court. What is legal to pay the Roman tax?
It was a difficult question for Jesus to be asked. Answer it wrongly and Jesus risked increased religious challenges and putting at risk his entire ministry and purpose. It was a trap question, however Jesus agrees to answer the question. The way he does, though, gives us something to ponder what it means to follow Jesus today.
To understand the conflict we need to unpack the background and the players involved. As we said, Jesus is in the Temple Court where he has been teaching and challenging the religious elites of the day. Two particular groups, the Pharisees and Herodians, approach Jesus after having come together to seek a way to work together to end Jesus’ ministry. It was not common for these two groups to work together. They did not support each other. The Pharisees represented a religious group that accepted Roman occupation, even though they were opposed to their continued rule over Jerusalem. The Herodians were a political group that supported the Roman Empire in Jerusalem. These two groups came together, because they wanted to end Jesus’ ministry by either denouncing his teachings or by claiming Jesus to be a political revolutionary.
The confrontation begins as Jesus is teaching in the Temple court. They send their followers to the Temple to ask Jesus a question that would be difficult for anyone to answer. Was it lawful to pay the Roman tax? The tax in question was one that was contentious for many people, because it reminded them that they were under Roman authority. The tax was one that Rome required the people to pay to support the Empire’s efforts.
It was a tax where there seemed to be no middle ground. Everyone was on a certain side, either supporting it or denouncing it. The Pharisees and Herodians sought to trap Jesus by getting him to take a side in the argument. If Jesus sides too closely with those who argued that paying the tax was wrong based on religious opposition, then Rome could argue he was a political revolutionary. On the other hand, if Jesus sides with the Roman Empire he would risk all of his support. It was an impossible question to answer, they thought.
Jesus was aware of the trap. He allows the Pharisees and Herodians to lay out their question through sarcastic comments and the posing of the questions. From there he begins to unpack their true motive and offer a deeper truth in the process. He starts by calling the two groups hypocrites. The reason Jesus calls them hypocrites is that while he did not have the appropriate coin, the religious and political leaders did. The coin, a denarius, would have been considered illegal to have in the Temple court according to the religious laws, because it was a graven image due to what was on the coin. They had already made up their mind on paying the tax.
After receiving the coin Jesus asks them what image is found on the coin. They quickly responded it was Caesar’s image. That wasn’t all that was on the coin. A denarius also included an inscription that described the Caesar as a high priest. So, not only was this a graven image, but it was a coin that would claim Caesar as divine.
How does Jesus respond? He looks over the coin and gives them two responses. First, he tells them to “give to Caesar what is Caesar.” This is an interesting response from Jesus. He walks away from those who would seek to forcibly challenge Rome’s authority, by saying if Rome is the government then pay what is being asked. One could pay the tax, even with what the coin said, without losing one’s conscience, because they had a responsibility to the government.
Jesus wasn’t finished. The second part of his response is one that probably struck closer to home and likely left the groups amazed. He says we are to “give to God what is God’s.” What does Jesus mean by this? The meaning is found in the question Jesus asks about the coin. Remember Jesus asks them about the image found on the coin. With this second response, Jesus calls to mind the very essence of creation. In Genesis 1:27, God prepares to create humanity on creation’s “sixth day.” The Lord says humanity would be made in the Lord’s image. In other words, each of us have the image of God defining who we are.
Let’s unpack that for a moment. The image of God is the Lord’s very character. As we read throughout Scripture, we see God’s character is defined by such ideas as love, holiness, justice, grace, peace, joy, and hope. The very things that describe God throughout Scripture flow out of the very nature of who God is. That is God’s image for all to see and to encounter. So, note what God says in Genesis 1:27. We were made in God’s image to reflect the very character of God. Through our faith in the Lord, we are called to be a reflections of God’s image by how we live and how we interact with the world around us. We are called to be people who are marked by the image of God and who share the very character of God in our lives with others.
Giving to God what is God’s, then, is about us. It is about each of us giving to God our entire lives. If we are marked in God’s image then everything about us belongs to God. What God wants is for us to give our entire lives to the Lord and live our lives completely in response to the saving grace of God’s love. It is about being completely devoted to the Lord in all things, and to have our lives defined entirely by our faith in God and our desire to grow closer to the Lord every day. What God desires is for our entire lives, everything about us, to be framed by the Lord’s teaching, love, and grace.
Sadly, this is not how we want to live our lives every day. The life we often live is one that only gives to God what we feel comfortable giving. Many of us live lives where we separate God from our lives. We say God exists over here on Sunday mornings for one hour, but God is not to have any involvement in the rest of our lives. We want God for our salvation, but we do not want God to be involved in every aspect of our daily lives.
This is the point where Jesus’ words become challenging for us today. God desires for us to give of ourselves completely over to the Lord, and to allow God’s desires to affect and inform everything about us. There is not a part of our lives where God does not want to lead us and guide us into what it means to being a deeper follower of the Lord. Nothing about us is exempt from God’s desires. All of us is to be given to God. Our entire lives, and everything about us, is to be given over to the Lord and lived in response to the Lord’s love for us. No exceptions. No exclusions.
To follow Christ means to completely surrender our entire lives over to the Lord. It is not easy. Nothing rewarding is ever meant to be easy. Yet, when we give ourselves completely over to the Lord we will find that God’s grace and direction can be found in every situation, in every moment, and through every cause we could ever undertake.
God desires all of us. The question is … are we willing to give to God what is God’s? Are we willing to give God our entire selves?