[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, yesterday morning.]
Chapman University is a Christian college which, every October, conducts a poll among Americans about their fears. The pollsters list about seventy items and ask people if they’re afraid of them.
Items on the list this year included things like sharks (25.4% said they were either very afraid or somewhat afraid of them), heights (28.2%), and being unemployed (30.7%).
What’s interesting to me is how people’s fears shift from year to year.
For example, last year, 2016, the biggest fear was of government corruption at 60.6%; this year, 2017, the biggest fear also is of corruption, but the number’s 74.5%.
Last year, 35.5% of the people were afraid of Obamacare; this year, 55.3% say they’re afraid of Trumpcare.
Last year, 41% of the people said they were afraid of terrorist attacks; in 2017, a slightly smaller number, 38% said they were afraid of terrorist attacks.
Shifting fears are very common, I think. If I were to ask a random sampling from among the people here this morning what they were afraid of or worrying about five years ago, my guess is that most people, at the least, would have to spend some time thinking about the question.
Although we’re all prone to it, fear isn’t a useful emotion. Fear obscures the truth and paralyzes our good judgment. And fear, really, is the opposite of faith.
The reason, you know, that Jesus had enemies who wanted Him dead is that they were afraid.
Some were afraid of Him because He threatened their authority.
Others feared Him because they thought that His movement would incite the Roman conquerors under whose thumb first century Judea lived to come down hard on the people.
The Romans feared Jesus because they didn’t want the conquered Jews to give them trouble.
Today’s gospel lesson, like the lessons over the past several weeks, recounts an interaction involving Jesus and His opponents that took place on the Monday after the first Palm Sunday. Over these Sundays, we’ve listened as Jesus has told a series of pointed parables to the chief priests and the elders who had come to challenge Him. In them, Jesus indicted them for their failure to welcome and believe in the Messiah and Savior they claimed to have been waiting for, now standing before them.
By the time Jesus finished the last Holy Monday parable, which we considered last week, the chief priests' and elders' fear had melded with hatred (as it often does) and hardened into a firm resolve to kill the Savior of the world.
After the chief priests and the elders retreat from their dialog with Jesus in the temple’s Gentile courts, another group of people decide to “have a go” at Jesus.
By their questioning, this new group hopes to turn the bumpkins who had welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem as the Christ and Savior on Palm Sunday, against Jesus, giving a pretext for having Jesus executed.
Take a look at our gospel lesson, please, Matthew 22:15-22. Verse 15: “Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 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 others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’”
The Pharisees were Judaism’s strictest and most widespread sect. They advocated a kind of “salvation by good works” theology. The Pharisees thought of themselves as good, righteous, upright people. They were so confident in their goodness, righteousness, and uprightness before God, in fact, that they spent a lot of time telling their fellow Jews what they needed to do in order to be as good and righteous and upright as they were.
Pharisee underlings were sent to approach Jesus for this challenge, accompanied by unlikely allies: the Herodians. The Herodians were part of the puppet government of King Herod. That government worked hand-in-glove with the Romans. Ordinarily, the Pharisees and the Herodians would have nothing to do with each other. The Herodians would view the Pharisees as religious fanatics while the Pharisees would view the Herodians as unrighteous, unfaithful sellouts. (Fear and hatred sometimes make strange bedfellows.)
But because both groups were afraid of Jesus, they posed this trap of a question.
Why was it such a trap to ask Jesus if good Jews should pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?
The imperial tax levied on Judea by Rome was hated. Their hatred for the tax went way beyond the usual human resentment of taxes.
Rome had conquered Judea, then charged Judeans annually for the privilege of being conquered.
About twenty years earlier, there had been a Jewish rebellion, which the Romans put down brutally, crucifying many people, their crucified bodies lining the roads to serve as examples to anybody who thought of rebelling against Rome.
Jesus’ fellow Jews had begrudgingly paid the tax ever since. They knew that anyone who spoke against it might get crucified themselves. On the other hand, if one of God’s people said anything remotely good about or accepting of the tax, the people would turn against that person. The Pharisees and Herodians thought they had Jesus squarely pinched between a rock and a hard place.
But Jesus refused to get sucked into a political debate.
His answer, though disarming, wasn’t meant to be clever or to avoid trouble.
After all, Jesus knew that, no matter what He said, in four days He would be crucified anyway.
Jesus gives the answer that He gives for two reasons. First, it’s the truth. Second, Jesus has little interest in politics. Jesus has no interest in getting involved with politics. He’s not a Roman, Herodian, Pharisee, Sadducee, Republican, Democrat, socialist, libertarian, or nativist. Jesus is the King and Savior of all creation Who plays for eternal stakes. As He would later tell Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
So what does Jesus say? Verse 18: “But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?”
The term hypocrites is definitely not a compliment. The word in English is a transliteration of the Greek word it translates, hypocrites. This is a compound word in the Greek which literally means to have different thoughts or judgments or to be a different person from the thoughts, judgments, or persons we portray to the world. It was also the word used for actors. Jesus knows that these guys are trying to play Him and they call Him out for it. He sees that they're trying to trap Him.
The word translated as trap here is a tense of the Greek verb peirazo. And that’s a really big deal because peirazo means not only trap, but test or tempt.
It’s the very word used to describe what the devil did to Jesus in the wilderness. The devil there tried to tempt Jesus away from His mission. Playing on the fear of death that every mortal human being has--and Jesus was true God AND true man, remember--the devil offered to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world without Jesus having to go to the cross. Had Jesus not gone to the cross, of course, there would be no way He could offer us life with God; He would have caved into fear--and sin--just like the rest of the human race.
Now, the hypocrites standing before Jesus are trying to tempt Him into saving His own skin by saying a few false words. It seems like such a little thing, a tiny compromise. But Jesus would have none of it. Jesus knew that even little compromises with sin and the will of God ruin everything, not just for Him and His mission in the world, but for us too. These supposedly "little compromises" and sins will eternally destroy us if we aren't diligent in following Christ and diligent in repenting and turning to Christ when we do fall for them.
Verse 19: “‘Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’”
A denarius, the amount of the Roman conqueror’s poll tax, was about what a laborer might earn in a day.
Each denarius or dinar bore an image and inscribed words. The image was of Caesar and the words about Caesar were: “Son of God.”
Any good Jew who believed in the God revealed to His people knew that to say that someone was “Son of God” was to say that they were God. In fact, people like the Pharisees and Herodians were filled with fear when Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God and when others had proclaimed that of Him. Yet here they were, a denarius with its blasphemy, in their pockets, the coin they evidently were using to make their purchases and pay their own taxes all the time. (They were hypocrites!)
Verse 21: “‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.”
It’s Caesar’s image on the coin, Jesus is saying, so give Caesar his money.
But you know what?
Someone else’s image is imprinted on every human being, on you and me.
Genesis 1:27 says that, “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them…”
In this world, we may have to pay taxes to Caesar. But we’re to give our lives to the One Whose imprint is on us as human beings, the One Who made us, the One Who was enfleshed and died for us to give us life with God that never ends.
It’s those who surrender to and follow Jesus who are set free not just from sin and death, and everything that causes us to fear in this world.
Pay your taxes, Jesus is saying. Pay down your debts. Honor your spouse. Take care of your kids. Obey the speed limits. Help your neighbor.
And in the midst of it all, everywhere you go and in everything you do, follow Jesus.
We can do this with confidence and joy because the most this world can do to you and me is take away our earthly lives.
But we follow a crucified and risen Savior Who promises: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
Jesus' message for us this morning is this:
Don’t be afraid. Sure, give to Caesar what’s Caesar’s. But give to God what belongs to God: yourself, your whole self. Just like God gave His whole self to you on the cross.
Don’t be afraid. Follow Jesus. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]