“Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle him in his talk. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the money for the tax.” And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away.”
– Matthew 22:15-22
The theme for our Advent series is Hope in the Darkness, and last week we looked at how Jesus brings hope into the lives of individuals… how He gave sight to the blind, and how He can bring light to the dark places in our lives.
This week we look at what happens in human institutions when leaders put their faith in things that are not worth putting faith in. When people trust in something other than God to fix the world’s problems, the result is always oppression and injustice. Jesus shows us how to bring hope into this particular kind of darkness.
In the Scripture reading we just heard, we see the Herodians and Pharisees teaming up against Jesus to try to discredit Him. By way of explanation, back in Jesus’ day the Herodians were political leaders and the Pharisees were religious leaders. Both of these groups are portrayed negatively in Scripture. The Herodians were supporters of King Herod, who was a Jewish puppet king in league with the Romans. In other words, Herodians were collaborators, playing along with the enemies of the Jewish people for their own personal gain.
The Pharisees – we hear a lot of bad things about them in sermons – but what is not commonly known is that they were very popular in their day. They had broad support of the people because, out of all the religious leaders of the time, they were the ones who taught the word of God correctly and stood for purity of faith and the Jewish way of life. In a way they were sort of like the TV preachers of our day: strongly in favor of God and country. Jesus criticized them, not for teaching the wrong things, but for being hypocrites… because they didn’t practice what they preached. Many times Jesus said to His followers, “do what they tell you but don’t do what they do.”
So the Herodians and the Pharisees, by nature of being who they were, usually didn’t get along with each other. But they were united in two things: one, they thought they had all the answers. For the Herodians the solutions to life’s problems were found in politics. For the Pharisees the solutions to life’s problems were found in religious practice – and by that I mean not a relationship with God but rather following a set of rules. Neither group was looking to God for answers.
And the second thing they had in common was that they hated Jesus. They thought He was dangerous. And they wanted to bring Him down. When people put their faith in things other than God, the result is always oppression and injustice.
So the Pharisees hatched a plot to trap Jesus in His words. Getting together with the Herodians they came up to Jesus while He was teaching in the temple and said: “We know you are a man of integrity and you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth…”. (Really? Then why weren’t they listening to Him?)
And they ask: “is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” From their point of view there’s no good answer to this question. If Jesus says yes, pay the tax, he will be taking the side of the Romans against His own people… but if He says no, don’t pay the tax, they can arrest Him.
Watch now as Jesus brings hope and light into a world of darkness. First, He calls them on their hypocrisy. He tells it like it is: “You hypocrites!” And then He says, “show me the coin for paying the tax. Whose likeness is this? And whose inscription?”
They answer “Caesar’s.”
And Jesus says, “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
In our day we might say, “give to Washington the things that are Washington’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The coin bears the likeness of the head of government, and therefore ultimately it belongs to the government. But we bear the likeness of God. In the very first chapter of Genesis, the first page of the Bible, God says, “let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness.” We are created in His image, and His inscription is written on our hearts. Therefore we belong to Him. We do not belong to the powers of this world that oppress and cause injustice. We belong to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
And that gives us hope in the darkness: to know that we were made for something – Someone – greater than what we see around us. The powerful people and institutions of this life are passing away — here today, gone tomorrow. But God is forever — and we are forever — when we put our trust in the babe in the manger, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. AMEN.
Homily for Candlelight Compline, Church of the Atonement, Carnegie PA, Saturday December 3 2011