Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost
S. Pentecost 21.23
And they sent their disciples to him… saying, ‘Teacher we know you are true… and don’t care about anyone… tell us—is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ Jesus said… “Why put me to the test, hypocrites? Show me the money!”
And you thought it was Tom Cruise who first shouted out that line in “Jerry Maguire”? Yet, no! Actually, Jesus shouted it out first, though in a slightly different context, but, I think, with just as much… energy.
I think Jesus kept the denarius, too; and I’ll tell you why, because that may help us get what Jesus is actually driving at here.
My first takeaway from the Gospel today is that Jesus should not, will not be questioned by us. And if you see why that is, why he won’t be questioned by us, you’ll see why I’m (pretty) sure he kept the money.
One of the worst things about the modern age is that we treat holy things (as Luther quipped) like a cobbler treats his shoe leather—like things we can make and mold and manage to our preferred ends. We think it’s a sign of serious spiritual depth that we ask whether God really exists?, what he’s like?, what exactly Jesus’ connection with God is???, what’s in it for us if we become part of his church?, what benefits will accrue to us?, and whether we really come out ahead in the end? Endless books of apologetics are written in the modern age treating those questions as something lofty and admirable.
The Pharisees had a lot of questions like that, have been peppering Jesus with them the last several weeks in our Gospel readings, starting with the question of what right he had to drive the money changers out of the temple, because the Pharisees didn’t care about theology and liturgy much except as a way to make money and if that apple cart was upset, they would haughtily demand Jesus prove his right to do such things.
And as I said, modern people tend to think questioning Jesus, interrogating him that way, is good, right, and salutary; and so most people act more like Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees than like Xns. But this should not surprise us, as the goal of our church body (as of most American denominations 😉 the last several decades, has been to draw the unchurched into the church which ends up unchurching the church which seems a bad thing, to me, but the rulers of the modern church seem to see that as a feature not a bug, as long as the money comes rolling in, too.
You’ll recall that Jesus’ answers to their questions as to what right he had to treat God’s house like his own were in the way of parables about wicked tenants who killed their master’s servants and son, and gate crashing wedding guests who came to eat the Master’s friends rather than the provided food and that ended badly for those wicked tenants and gate crashers.
And today, the Pharisees and Herodians are at it again, trying to entangle Jesus in talk. They go political and ask Jesus “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Of course, a Lutheran “Yes” is always a good reply any either/or…
Yes! paying our taxes supports both lawful and unlawful things. God put the governing authorities in place to protect innocent life, and to help all to flourish, so that part of what Caesar does is good and lawful; but when our tax dollars go to fund endless foreign wars that seem none of our business, harm American interests, kill many innocent Xn children and civilians, while helping out some real creeps, that is not lawful or right. What did the President ask for last week? 80 billion for more killin’? Lotta killin’ in that one! There’s not much that makes me want to go on a political march; but I would grab a sign and a bullhorn to protest my tax money going for that!
Now, if the Pharisees and Co. really wanted to know if paying taxes to a tyrannical foreign government is lawful, that would be one thing. But their minds are made up on that—it’s fine as long as Caesar keeps them in a position to make money off the temple and synagogue. And, if they were really asking Jesus as LORD and God! what God’s will regarding the Roman occupation is, that would be another thing…
But the Pharisees and Herodians aren’t interested in either what is just and fair, nor in following God’s word. We are told quite clearly their purpose in peppering Jesus with questions is to trip him up. Mmmm… hoow would they do that?
Well, if Jesus says taxes to Caesar are lawful and good, the patriotic Jewish resistance (which was large among the common folks) would turn on him as a traitor. If he says paying taxes to Caesar is wrong, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians will turn him in as an insurrectionist and have him executed as an enemy of the state (and of public health 😉 Either way Jesus answers their question—in that time and context, he loses.
But they truly do not realize with whom they are dealing. This is not a mere man. Not merely a great teacher. Not even a demigod with divine powers. This is the One, True, Triune God—not to be trifled with! For, in him, all the fullness of the godhead dwells bodily. “Mr Dog, you don’t wanna catch that car! Because you’re messing with something way beyond you… and will get run right over!”
Their irreverent, sly dig: “We know you are true and don’t care about anyone…” shows the contempt, the hate, the complete unbelief behind their queries. Jesus, aware of their malice, in the best Pharisee/Rabbi style, answers their question with a question: “Why do you test me, hypocrites?” And then says (my favorite line) “Show me the money! (for the tax)”. Because the Jews had their own temple currency that didn’t have Roman inscriptions on it.
The denarius was a day’s wage for a laborer and had the current Caesar, Tiberius’ likeness on it. And the insouciant answer “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” is, of course, witty, sardonic, and brilliant. Better than the Lutheran “Yes!”. Because Caesar provides roads, orderly markets, medicine, education, clean water, and stable currency for exchange, and you benefit from these things and so should contribute to them. But; getting out from under the Roman boot and doing all that for ourselves would be a good goal, as well. Partnering with Caesar is always getting cozy with organized crime, then as now. But, like the mafia, it’s an organization hard to leave.
They marveled, left him, and went away.
Now Jesus, I think, kept the money to make his real point. Everything belongs to God! And since Jesus is God, everything belongs to him! So, that’s why I say Jesus pockets the denarius.
I think most miss the point. Jesus isn’t saying the money belongs to Caesar because he puts his picture on it, anymore than Jimmy’s coat belongs to me when I steal it, and write my name on the label. Caesar is simply a steward of God’s gifts—as we all are. If Caesar’s corrupt, evil, and against God and his church, we really should figure out how to resist and get out of that relationship, if there’s any way we can without doing greater harm to our neighbor and our country.
Because we belong to God—since he put his image and likeness on us in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Preaching, Holy Supper. We are stamped as Christ’s own! So, when Caesar acts like he owns us, or demands our unquestioning allegiance, we have to peacefully, but firmly… resist. And such resistance is not futile—as we see in Jesus’ death and resurrection which is ours in his Holy Name. Amen.