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10.19.14 What Good Are Taxes? Matthew 22:15-22 Sermon Summary

by on October 20, 2014

Calendar - Tax Day Circled

This is one of Jesus’ most powerful sound bites. And like all sound bites, it is easy to misunderstand.

Summary Points

  • When the alliance of religion and politics tries to trap Jesus
  • The dangers of trying to keep religion and politics separate
  • The proper relationship between religion and politics
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

It was a trick question designed to alienate Jesus from the popular masses. By popular masses, of course we mean the poor and overtaxed. His stunning one-liner response covers questions regarding taxes and church and state, but so much more also.

It came from the Pharisees and Herodians, an interesting alignment of both the religious elite and political players. Their opening approach is characteristic of the manipulation you might expect from such a partnership: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

If Jesus says no, he is treasonous; if he says yes, he alienates the populace. His memorable escape? “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”

Some people are tempted to hear a simple “yes” with this answer—pay your taxes. If it is this simple, then it seems there are two kingdoms—an earthly one and a heavenly one. We remember that Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray that they eventually become one: “Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.”

If this is the case, then the two kingdoms are separate. So we are to pay our taxes in the earthly kingdom, and worship God in the heavenly one. We find other applications of this “two separate kingdoms” mentality throughout Christian history. For example, slaves, submit to your owners in the earthly kingdom, and worship God in your slave communities. Or politicians, get the job done by whatever means throughout the week, and worship God on Sunday. Or patriots, support war, and worship God. Or you rich, pay a higher income tax, and worship God. Or you poor, be content with your wages, and worship God.

The “two kingdom” perspective works out pretty well for the politically powerful and the religious elite. Both get what they want. And if you’re part of both groups, you get a double benefit!

But Jesus’ answer isn’t a simple “yes,” and the Pharisees and Herodians knew it. That’s why they were stunned into silence and retreat. Today we also shouldn’t hear a simple “yes” with all the troubling implications that accompany it.

Remember Jesus requests to see a coin. There were two coins in circulation at Jesus’ time: the imperial coin and one allowed by Rome for use among Jews. The imperial coin included an inscription and image of Caesar. Pious Jews wouldn’t carry imperial coins, because they wouldn’t carry something with a graven image. But when Jesus asks for a coin, the Pharisees produced an imperial coin.

Jesus publically asks, “Whose inscription and image is this?” And already the debate is won. The coin is inscribed, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus” and it has Caesar’s image. Jesus doesn’t have to say it, because the crowd would already have been scandalized by the coin, but he does anyway: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Clearly the point isn’t a simple, “yes, pay taxes.” Instead, this episode asks an uncomfortable, revealing question: Are you giving to God what is God’s? Are your priorities right? In the conflict between spiritual values and material ones, which set wins?

For Jesus, the coin belongs to Caesar because it bears Caesar’s image. But we belong to God because we bear God’s image. So the question is, Are we giving ourselves, our whole selves, to God? Of course we are not. So the question narrows to, What are we holding back?

Jesus’ answer, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” reminds us of a truth his audience would already have known: All things belong to God. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” In all things, we are stewards in this life—everything belongs to God and we are merely taking care of them for a time.

So Jesus is instructing us to good and faithful stewardship of all things: Our time—including Sunday morning; our strength—including what it takes to serve others; our financial resources—including our charitable offerings. And including our taxes.

This is the good of taxes: We are forced to remember that what we call our own, is not our own. Every paycheck and every April 15 reminds us we belong to the United States. And every Sunday, every sacrifice of time and resources reminds us that we belong to God.

Jesus refused to allow the politically powerful and religious elite to co-opt his message of God’s reign in this world. He refuses to allow us to compartmentalize his Lordship in our lives. When we withhold from him areas of our lives we think belong to us, he wants to deliver us from the tyranny of trying to be our own lords. For wherever we do not have Jesus as Lord in our lives, we do not have him as Savior there either. So give to God, the things that are God’s.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • In what ways have you been living with a “two kingdom” mentality, as if there were parts of your life that don’t belong to God? How can you better bring God into those parts of your life?
  • Metaphorically speaking, are you carrying “imperial coins,” getting things done using dishonest or less honorable means? How might you align your life with the values of God’s kingdom?
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