“Giving to Caesar” (Matt 22:15-22 & Psalm 96)

Well this morning’s address has the title “Giving to Caesar” but I would like to focus in on “Giving to God.”

Firstly, how would you set about luring someone into a trap, what sort of bait would you use?

Well, I dare say that you’ve all had one of “those” telephone calls, the ones that tell you that they have noticed that there has been suspicious activity in your bank account, or that your Amazon account is being suspended. They usually end by telling you to press 1 immediately to speak to a representative, someone who will cleverly extract personal information from you without you even realising that you have given it away.

Or maybe, in this digital age, you have received an e-mail telling you that you have been given an unexpected Tax Rebate or an amazing “FREE” gift and all YOU have to do is press the link at the bottom of the screen. But the link does nothing more than allow a fraudster to monitor every key that you press.

If you are tempted into the trap, even if you close that e-mail, reboot your machine, and then sign into your bank to check that no harm has been done, you are still at risk giving away your account details, and even your password. You may well find that all is well for now but the next time you log into your account you are likely to discover that your bank balance is far lower than it should be.

Sadly, that is the world as it is today but in the age before computers and telephones how would you have gone about tempting someone into a trap, what sort of bait would you have used?

Well the Pharisees desperately wanted to clip Jesus’ wings, they wanted to publicly humiliate him and bring him down a peg or two, like he had done to them, so, according to Matthew, they joined forces with the Herodians, these were a group of Hellenistic Jews who were supportive of King Herod but hostile to Jesus. For good measure the Pharisees sent along some of their own followers (in St Mark’s Gospel it says that they actually went themselves) to try to put Jesus off his guard initially by using sugar coated praise and false admiration?

“We know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth [they said] and you aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.”

Matt 22:16

The Pharisees knew that for certain, they considered themselves near the top of the social ladder and they had tried to tackle Jesus several times before this gathering, but they had always come away from those encounters with blooded noses. Jesus had always outsmarted them. But this time, much like Baldrick, they had a cunning plan which couldn’t possibly fail.

The Jewish people hated the Romans but, more than that, they hated the Roman Poll-Tax! Surely there was not a man, woman or child in the whole of Israel who would stand and speak in its defence.

This tax, which was levied on all subject peoples, was a tax that the Roman citizens themselves were exempt from. That included everyone from Pilate all the way down to the lowliest foot soldier who probably didn’t have two brass dinarii to rub together, but that exemption didn’t apply to the Jewish people, not even the poorest of the poor. Each of them had to pay a tax simply for breathing, every living citizen had to pay tax, but there was more to it than that, they also had to pay taxes on their livestock, their land, their oil, olives, wine, beer, fish, in fact on all their property, and they hated it! Many couldn’t afford to pay and fundamentally, it wasn’t fair.

So, having softened Jesus up with fancy words, and no doubt well within earshot of a crowd of citizens who would be totally enraged by anyone who supported the tax, they moved in for the kill!

“Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the poll-tax to Caesar or not?”

Matt 22:17

Game, set and match! Now just sit back and watch the fireworks start. Surely they’d got him this time, he couldn’t possibly wriggle out of this one.
The people had been awaiting their Messiah for years, someone who would lead an army to kick the Romans out of Israel. If he was leader he would say that everyone should refuse to pay wouldn’t he? But if he did that the Roman soldiers would come and arrest him take him away. The Pharisees couldn’t wait.

The crowd were becoming more and more sure that this man called Jesus was their Messiah, but they had failed to grasp that he wasn’t there to fight an earthly battle against the Roman Empire, he was there to lead them in a spiritual battle that would reconnect them to God.

Jesus reached out, and taking a simple Roman coin, he separated their spiritual debts from their earthly dues with the words:

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Matt 22:21b

In other words, don’t try to involve me in your petty politics because I am here to talk and teach about something that is even more important.
The Pharisees had had the wind taken out of their sails yet again so they left the scene to lick their wounds before they could be set upon by the crowd. But they were leaving the crowd, (and us!), to wonder what on earth Jesus was on about.

“Give back to God what is God’s.”

What was he referring to? Let’s have a look at Psalm 96 to see if we can put a little bit of flesh onto that skeletal statement.

Psalm 96 is a psalm which declares the Glory of God to the whole world. It speaks to God’s chosen people, but it also reaches out to all of the nations on the earth and indeed the whole of creation.

Through it we are told that the Lord is most worthy of praise and to be feared above all other gods, who after all are nothing more than idols.
That isn’t fear in terms of standing before him quaking in our boots but rather that we should stand in awe and be amazed by his magnitude and greatness.

We are told that all people and all nations should ascribe to the Lord glory and strength and that we should attend his courts and bring an offering, and what better offering than ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice.

We should come together to worship him in the splendour of his holiness and tremble at his greatness because he alone reigns and will judge the people with equity and faithfulness.

And all of that summarises how we should give back to God that which is God’s. By offering Honour, Glory, Praise, and ourselves, and by telling others of his greatness, not just in here on Sundays, but out there, in the world, during the rest of the week too so that all creation can rejoice before our Lord when he comes to judge the earth.

If you delve further into the pages of your Bible you will find countless examples of people offering praise and thanksgiving even in times of real hardship, and so let me close with a couple verses from the Book of Revelation.

“Whenever the living creatures give glory, honour and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
‘You are worthy, our Lord and God,to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things,and by your will they were created and have their being.’”

Revelation 4:9-11

Those 24 Elders are representative of the redeemed human race of which we are striving to be members. So let us pray:

Father and Creator of all things;
You are worthy,to receive glory and honour and power.
We praise you and we thank you for calling us to be your people,
for choosing us to give you glory.
Cleanse our hearts and our lives
and guide us by your Holy Spirit
that we may follow in the paths of Jesus.
All glory and praise are yours, Father,
For ever and ever. Amen

Alan Dowen