Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
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When we read and interpret Scripture, we need to be careful not to impose upon the text our modern understandings of the world. If we don’t heed this advice, we can easily “read-into” the Word of God ideas and notions foreign to those who heard these stories for the first time.
Today’s selection from the Gospel of Matthew is often misunderstood. It’s been wrongly used to argue that Jesus advocated for the separation of church and state. Such a notion would have entirely been foreign to Jesus and his contemporaries. Faith and everyday life were never two separate spheres.
Furthermore, it may be tempting to read this passage and assume it is about hypocrisy. Certainly Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites, but to understand why they’re hypocrites, we have to appreciate what is not being said in the text. There are subtle clues in this passage that indicate this story is less about hypocrisy and more about idolatry.
To understand why, we need to consider the religious-cultural practices of Jesus’ day.
First, a word about the context. The Pharisees’ confrontation of Jesus in the Temple precincts would’ve put Jesus into a very precarious and volatile situation. What we now know as Israel was at Jesus’ time a land occupied by the Romans. The Roman occupation was a painful experience for the people of the day. The people suffered greatly under the Romans. Moreover, the people endured one occupation after another for many years. With the exception of a brief period of independence during the Maccabean revolution, Israel was not a nation united or free for a long time. Additionally, the Roman occupiers were ruthless towards those who threatened their authority. By some accounts, the roads leading into Jerusalem were lined with persons crucified for their disloyalty to the emperor; it was a clear message to all who passed by not to undermine the Roman authority. Finally, the Roman occupation raised a profound theological question for the people: if God swore an oath to their father Abraham that they should be a great nation and live in the promised land, why are they now living under these ruthless oppressors? Certainly some must’ve wondered what they did wrong to deserve God’s punishment and wrath.
Despite the Roman brutality, there were many revolutionary groups motivated by deep religious convictions. Unfortunately for the very pious, the religious authorities sought the favour of the Roman authorities as a way to preserve their authority. Rather wisely, the Romans granted the religious leaders certain rights as a way to maintain stability within the region. As expected, many of the religious authorities did all they could to quell or repress any sign of rebellion.
Jesus, in other words, was caught in the middle of a rather fraught and tumultuous political situation. Further complicating matters for Jesus was his followers’ expectation that Jesus was a messiah much in the way King David was centuries earlier. Despite Jesus’ repeated statements that he came not to build an earthly kingdom but a heavenly one, the people’s hope for a political messiah meant many wanted to see Jesus liberate Israel from the Roman occupiers and free the people from the burdens of their oppressors.
Fearful of what Jesus may do, the religious leaders present a question to him knowing full well that Jesus would be in trouble no matter how he would answer. If Jesus says it would be lawful to pay taxes, he would upset his followers who yearned for Jesus to liberate them from the oppressive taxes. Even worse, Jesus would in effect indicate that he is not the promised messiah so long hoped for by the people. Yet if Jesus would answer not to pay taxes, he could be accused as a traitor and give the Roman authorities good reason to execute him. (Ultimately, Jesus would be crucified by the Roman authorities as a political rebel.)
Needless to say, the Pharisees’ question wasn’t meant to encourage dialogue but to trap Jesus and give them cause to hand him over to the Romans. Matthew, however, shows Jesus as being much more clever and astute. He wittingly asks the religious authorities to show him the coin that was used to pay the tax. Of course, the religious authorities handed Jesus the coin. By doing so, the leaders unknowingly admitted to breaking not just one of the Ten Commandments but two, namely the second and the third commandments. For those of you who remember your Sunday school lessons, what were the second and third commandments? “Thou shalt not have any other gods before me” and “thou shalt not make any graven image.” By presenting the coin to Jesus in the Temple precincts, the Pharisees revealed their true allegiance to the emperor and bore an image of the emperor in one of the most sacred places in Jewish life.
Jewish law at the time prohibited anyone from entering into the Temple precincts with coins bearing the Roman emperor’s image. The people knew the Romans considered the emperor as a divine. To have the coin on their person in the Temple would’ve been an act of blasphemy. Yet the Pharisees had the coin and presented it to Jesus!
Matthew doesn’t explicitly have Jesus point this out. Instead, Jesus does so in an ever so subtle and clever way: “give unto the emperor the things that are his, and give unto God what is God’s.” In modern terms, Jesus would accuse the authorities of not giving God his due in God’s very house. Furthermore, they’ve committed one of the worst sins a Jewish person could conceive: they’ve committed idolatry.
The religious authorities instantly loss all ground in their deceptive debate with Jesus. Not only had Jesus undermined their authority, he revealed who their true masters were. The Pharisees weren’t simply hypocrites, they were unfaithful to God and God’s law.
Now you might wonder why Matthew included this scene in his account of Jesus. Admittedly, Matthew’s Gospel was written well after the fall of the Temple in 70 AD during a period of great animosity between the early Christian and the Jewish authorities. Jews believed the Temple was destroyed as an act of punishment for the Christians’ infidelity to God by claiming Jesus as Messiah and Lord. In response, Christians accused the Jewish leaders of infidelity. Thus in later gospels, such as the Gospels of Matthew and John, the Jewish authorities are presented as corrupt and wicked leaders.
However, does this undermine the fundamental point? Not at all. In fact, I think it raises a serious question for us today: what are our idols? As much as we like to think of ourselves as faithful disciples of Jesus and dedicated servants of God, we can unwittingly, like the religious leaders in our story today, put our hope and trust in other idols.
While I don’t intend to list all the possibilities, I invite you to reflect and consider this over the next few days. Do you entirely place your confidence and hope in the Lord, or might your heart be more inclined to trust in other things? To truly consider this, we need to give this some honest thought. I often ask this question of myself. While I desire and yearn to trust and believe in God with all my heart and soul, there are times in my life where I allow my fears and anxieties to get the better of me. And when I do, I foolishly deceive myself into thinking I have control over all things. At such times I place my confidence not in God, but in myself which inevitably always turns out badly for me. In truth, I have no control over what happens in this world; I can only turn and trust in the Lord.
So I ask you again: what idols do you have in your life? This question is not to make you feel bad. Rather, I hope it is an opportunity for you and I to once again consider God’s true place in our hearts and minds. Amen.