Saturday 7 July 2012

Show me the money (Matthew 22:15-22)

“I pay what I have to and not a penny more.”

Jimmy Carr has been the subject of recent headlines revealing the celebrity as a member of “a legal but aggressive tax avoidance scheme” (BBC News, 20 June 2012). Prime Minister David Cameron condemned Mr Carr’s actions as “morally wrong”, while Treasury Chief Secretary, Danny Alexander equated rich tax dodgers with benefit cheats. Having said that, pop star, Lily Allen considers them a “hundred times worse”. Mr Carr has since issued statements publicly apologising for his tax affairs and says he is no longer a part of such schemes.

What is interesting to note is how each condemnation spoken out against Mr Carr was essentially that of moral outrage. He was wrong. Not legally, but morally. It is not that he couldn’t do what he did - the scheme he took part in was within the limits of the law - but that he shouldn’t have done what he did. At a gig held soon after the debacle in the press, Jimmy said this:

“I’ve not broken the law. I’ve not done anything illegal. But morally, morally...”

In today’s passage, Jesus is asked a seemingly innocuous question on the subject of paying tax. Yet the nature of that question is neither economic nor legal, but ethical and moral. “Is it right,” they ask Jesus, “to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” To which Jesus answers both practically and ethically, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” But then he adds, “And to God what is God’s.” What Jesus does is give a theological answer.

In other words, what is the bible’s perspective? What is God’s? I think the answer may very well surprise you. The account ends with Jesus’ hearers described as being “amazed” with his response.

I want us to see three things from today’s passage:

(1) The question of the cunning
(2) The coin of the king
(3) The king without a coin

1. The question of the cunning

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.
Matthew 22:15

The masterminds behind this encounter are a bunch called the Pharisees. These are the guys who score 100% at bible quiz. They turn up every week with pressed shirt and tie. Their hair is combed-down and centre-parted. Think, Ned Flanders from the Simpsons. “Okedy-Dokety!”

Now it is all too easy to make fun of the Pharisees. Especially in Sunday School, where we tell stories like this to the kids and teach them that the moral of the story is, “Don’t be a Pharisee! They are the bad guys.” And what I want to say to you today is: That is not the moral of the story. No, the moral of the story is this: All of us are Pharisees. All of us, have had at one time or another, arguments with our teachers, friends and colleagues; after which we stayed up all night, doing what? Thinking of a comeback, that’s what! Haven’t you ever done that? Some guy in school ticks you off and says something nasty about you and you replay that scene over and over again in your head. “Oooh, I should have said that! If only I had done that!”

That is how the story begins in verse 15. “The Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap (Jesus) in his words.” What has happened is, Jesus has been speaking out against the Pharisees since Chapter 21. Yet, each and every time, they’re stuck for words. Jesus keeps hammering them again and again; for being religious, for being proud and for being plain stuck-up. At one point, Jesus even says to the Pharisees, “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). To get how offensive that was, it is like Jesus pointing to drag queen and drug pushers and saying to the members of the Rotary Club, “They’re in but you guys are out!”

What is so pathetic about this is how the Pharisees - these top theological minds - actually have to leave the room just to formulate an answer to give to Jesus. They couldn’t come up with a decent comeback on the spot! Instead, they had to have a committee meeting. And there was just one item on the agenda at this meeting: Think of a way to humiliate Jesus. “They laid plans to trap him in his words.”

And before we move one bit further, I just want to say: This is what all of us do. When a mistake is pointed out to us; when our authority has been challenged, our first reaction is not to ask ourselves, “Was there any truth in that?” No, we want to humiliate our accuser. We pour all our energies into damage control. It doesn’t matter if the problem was serious. Doesn’t matter whether person was being truthful. Doesn’t even matter if it’s God.

What is worse is we think that Jesus is the same like us. That’s the whole reasoning behind the Pharisees’ cunning plan. The Pharisees think that Jesus is playing a power game; that he’s all about ego, because that’s what everyone is about - being popular and looking good in front of the crowd. Look at what they do next.

They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “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. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Matthew 22:16-17

Some say that the Pharisees were being cowardly, sending in their disciples instead of approaching Jesus themselves. I suspect, though, that this was all part of the plan. They wanted Jesus to think that the younger low-level grassroot leaders were abandoning the party. Hence, the over-the-top display of respect for Jesus, calling him “Teacher”, showering him with praise for his frank views on the religious establishment and his no-holds-barred analysis on the spiritual state of the nation. They say to him, “You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are.” In other words, what they were saying was, “Jesus, you don’t give face!” (In Chinese, “Lei Mo Pei Miin”) “You are someone who speaks his mind regardless of the consequences.”

But it’s just smokescreen; a setup for the real question they had been sent there to ask. “Tell us then, is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

To fully understand how sinister this question was, look back to verse 16, and notice that there was another group of representatives sent with this delegation. They are called the Herodians; supporters of a man named King Herod. You see, this was a political rally. The Herodians were campaigning for their guy, King Herod, to be recognised as the head of state of their nation, Israel. At this point of time in history, the Romans were in charge. Rome had invaded and taken over the country, leaving a sizeable military presence in the capital city (which is why the gospels has Jesus bumping into Roman centurions and Roman soldiers everywhere he went). However, to appease the locals, they also appointed Herod as kind of a local MP in charge of the northern region of Galilee. In the eyes of the Jewish people, he was the rightful ruler and King as Herod was descended from royal blood.

Now, this debate between Jesus and the religious leaders was taking place smack centre of this political turmoil. The encounter took place in Jerusalem, the city of the King, but where Herod's jurisdiction was not recognised. Instead Romans troops were stationed in Jerusalem enforcing military rule under a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The Herodians wanted the Romans out and their guy recognised as the true king. Aside from being political, the Herodians also saw their cause as deeply religious. They believed that God’s kingdom could only be ruled under God’s king.

So, when they ask Jesus, “Is it right to pay tax?” the question had nothing to do with money. It was a question to determine which government had the authority to rule over them. Was it Caesar or Herod? In fact, the tax in question was not income tax, that is, the percentage off your monthly paycheck that went to the Treasury. This was something called a poll tax. It was a minimal sum - just one coin, if you look ahead to verse 19 - that everyone had to pay, regardless of whether you were a slave or a businessman. Everyone could afford to pay this sum, but again, it wasn’t the amount of money that was being disputed. It was who the money was being paid to. The poll tax was tribute compulsory for each and every individual to pay up to Caesar as a sign of their allegiance to the Roman government. Hence the question, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

It was a question designed to trap Jesus in his words. What was Jesus going to say? All this while, Jesus has been speaking out against the religious establishment; all this while, Jesus had been preaching about the new Kingdom of Heaven that was soon approaching; would he now speak out against the Roman government? It would certainly be the answer the Herodians were looking forward to. But then again, Jesus would essentially be inciting rebellion against the Romans. Remember that this was happening in Jerusalem, one week before the Passover, the biggest religious festival of the entire Jewish calendar. I wonder if many a faithful Jew was itching for Jesus to give the word to take up arms against their oppressors.

But if instead Jesus said, “Yes, you ought to pay your taxes to Caesar,” he would be branded a Roman sympathizer and a traitor of the Jewish people.

You have to hand it to the Pharisees, it was a cunning question. Answer “Yes”, and Jesus would have lost the support of his countrymen. Answer “No”, and Jesus risked being arrested by the Roman authorities.

But Jesus knew what they were up to. And what he said next was, “Show me the money!”

2. The coin of the king

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
Matthew 22:18-20

If you take out a one pound coin, you are going to have on one side, the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. (The design on the other side changes every year - you have emblems representing the UK, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England.) In fact, every coin produced since the 17th century has had the image of the monarch’s head on it. Interestingly, the direction the each head faces, changes from each successive ruler, which is why Elizabeth II is always facing to the right.

Similarly, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “Show me the money,” and what they produce is a coin with the portrait - literally, the word the bible uses here is image - of Caesar. Caesar was the king and this was the coin of the king. It reminded everyone who used this coin that they were subjects of this king.

As we have already seen, this was a problem for the Jews, especially for the Herodians who wanted their own king to be ruler of the land. But the problem ran deeper still. Aside from asking what image was on the coin, Jesus said, “And whose inscription?” Written on the side of the image of Caesar were the words, “Son of God” (Latin: Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus)  and on the back, “High Priest” (Pontifex Maximus). You can see why this was deeply offensive to Jews. Caesar was proclaiming himself more than just a ruler, but that he was descended directly from God and the chief mediator between God and man.

“Whose image and whose inscription is this?” Jesus asked. They replied, “Caesar’s.” Now notice that Jesus doesn’t simply say, “What image is on this coin, or what is written on this coin.” He says, “Whose.” Meaning, who does this coin belong to? Whose kingdom is this coin talking about? And everyone, including the Pharisees’ disciples, including the Herodians themselves reply, “It belongs to Caesar.” Now, look at how Jesus concludes in verse 21.

Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Matthew 22:21

“Give it back to him.” Some translations use the word “render”: “Render to Caesar.” To render means to return. You are returning something that belongs to that someone else. “This is the king’s coin,” Jesus is saying. “Give it back to him.”

In effect, Jesus is saying to bible-believing, God-fearing Jews, then - and by implication, to us Christians today - that we owe our tax to our king, that we owe, even our allegiance to our government. When you pay taxes, you shouldn’t go, “Sigh, I’m losing all this money I have worked so hard for. I wonder how much of it I claim back through deductions.” Rather, the Christian who knows that there is no authority except that which God has established (Romans 13:1), will say, “I owe this money. I want to pay this money.” Especially when we live under a government that is doing its job, protecting its citizens and providing for its citizens, but more so, because God establishes his authority through all governments to ensure order and justice. It doesn’t mean that the government has to be Christian - it certainly wasn’t when Romans 13 was written. And it doesn’t mean that the government is above God - there is a second part to the answer that Jesus gives. Look again at verse 21.

Jesus adds, “And render to God what is God’s.” What is that you owe God? That is a much harder question to answer, especially for those of us who don’t think we owe anyone anything. But the truth is, we do. We owe our government what is due to our governments - our obedience to the law of the land, our taxes to support the governing of the land, our allegiance to the leaders and rulers set over the land. It is important to highlight that the bible does not negate our responsibilities due to the state, to our parents, to our community, once we become Christians. This has implications on the way we pay our taxes, but also in other areas to do with national service, honouring our parents, respecting the cultures within our community, even those which differ or are even against the Christian faith. We do all this not in spite of, but out of our submission to God’s ultimate authority. That’s the first half of Jesus’ question, “Render to Caesar, what is Caesar’s,” and it is actually the easier bit. The second half of the question is tougher to answer. How do we render to God what is God’s? What is it ultimately that we owe to God?

You see, for the Pharisees and Herodians, they would have answered that question by saying, “We owe God our money.” And we hear that sometimes in a church settings. I listened to a sermon recently from a pastor who said that our worship to God - the praises we sing and the prayers that we offer up - are currency that needs to be backed up. The same way that any national currency needs to be backed up by reserves of gold in the bank, to ensure that the currency isn’t devalued, so our worship to God might become worthless and hollow unless it is backed up by our giving.

I must say that there is some truth in that statement. Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” (Matthew 6:21). Or as the private detectives on TV would say, “Follow the money.” Money leaves a trail of clues. Our spending of our money reveals where our true treasure is. Our spending of our money reveals what we truly worship.

Yet, Jesus is saying something quite different from the pastor’s illustration to back up your worship with your money. Because that’s what the Pharisees and Herodians were saying, “We shouldn’t worship Caesar, we ought to worship God, instead with our money.” But that’s not the answer Jesus was looking for. What is it that we owe God?

The clue lies with the money, or rather, something that is on the money. You see, the coin belongs to Caesar, why? Because it has Caesar’s image and Caesar’s writing on it. How then can we tell what belongs to God? It is something that has God’s image and God’s handwriting printed on it. That’s you and me. God created us in his image. That’s Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image... male and female he created them.” But more than that, if you are a Christian, God has written his laws on your heart. Hebrews 8:10, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts” (quoting Ezekiel 11:20). What belongs to God? What do we need to return to God that belongs to God? It is our whole lives.

“Render to God what is God’s.” You belong to God. “Have you given yourself to him?” Jesus is asking. When someone looks at your life, do they see Jesus? When God looks at your heart, does he see his Word, his laws? His writing?

The word, “coin” simply means to stamp something with a mark. It is a term taken from the printing industry. All coins have a mark and an image. When Jesus said to them, “Show me the coin,” what they showed him was the mark and image of Caesar that said this coin belonged to an earthly king, Caesar. Now Jesus is saying, “In the same way, you are coins of the true King.” All of us have markings that say we don’t belong to ourselves. All of us have markings that tell us we were made by someone else. All of us bear the image of God that remind us our lives belong to Him, and the question is, do you see that? Have you given back to God what is God’s?

“Do you see the coin of the King?” Jesus is asking. But finally, Jesus says, “Do you see the king without a coin?”

3. The king without a coin

Did you notice that when Jesus wanted to illustrate his point about the coin, he didn’t have one? This isn’t the only time it has happened. Back in Matthew Chapter 17, someone comes up to Peter and asks, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” and Peter says, “Duh! Oh course, he does.” But then, in the next scene, he says to Jesus, “Erm, Jesus, did you remember to pay this week’s offering yet?” And what Jesus does is tell Peter to go fishing in the lake, and that the first fish he catches will have the coin he needs to pay the tax!

So here, when Jesus needed another coin for his illustration, he said, “Can someone lend me one please?” It must have been embarrassing for his disciples, to travel around the country with their esteemed leader, whom many were hoping would be the mighty Messiah, who didn’t have enough money on him to pay for lunch. And yet, many believed him to the true king. What kind of king was this? A different king. Jesus was a king without a coin.

The Herodians and the Pharisees were looking for a king like Caesar - a king with power, prestige and influence. They were looking for a king whose picture was stamped on all the currency, who controlled the wealth of the country, who commanded all the troops. Jesus came with no money, no prestige and no recognition. And yet, the bible contends, he is the true Son of God. Jesus is the true High Priest. What kind of king is he? Jesus is a king who sacrifices his wealth to enter into poverty. He is a priest who sacrifices his own life to pay for our sins.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:9

You see, you and I couldn’t possibly afford the price tag on our lives. We can’t render to God what is God’s because even after we have given up our entire lives, we would still fall short. What God has done is paid the price on our behalf. On the cross, Jesus takes our debt of sin exchanges it with his wealth. Though he was rich, the bible says, for our sakes he became poor, so that through his poverty - not through his wealth, but through his humility; through his sacrifice - we might become rich.

Do you see Jesus in his poverty? That is the kind of king he is - gentle, generous, gracious. That is the true image of God, seen not in power but in humility; seen not on a coin, but displayed for us most fully on a cross.

This is the gospel, that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus has paid. Other religions talk about what we need to do and what we need to pay in order for us to be accepted by God. The gospel says God has footed the bill. God has rendered to God what is God’s. On the cross, the Son of God took upon himself the full punishment of our sin, erasing our record of debt to God, and transferred all his glory, all his blessing and his righteousness into our account. Other religions talk about what we need to pay, only the gospel says God has paid for our sins through Jesus Christ.

What the gospel invites us to do is to come to Jesus not with our wealth but with our poverty, not with our righteousness but our sins, not with power but in weakness and receive from him forgiveness, love and eternal life. To come to the king without a coin and to be reconciled with God at the cross.

No comments: