The Pharisees have sat by and listened to Jesus as he has taught about the kingdom of God, and in his teaching confronted their way of living, and the basis of their power. You can imagine their seething rage growing with every word and parable Jesus spoke: as the crowd seemed to drift from listening to them to Jesus. They are terrified because Jesus threatens not only their power but identity. Thus, they want to strike back – they want to have their own victory, one that they hope will undermine Jesus and win them back the favour of the people. Not because of anything they have done or offer, but by simply shinning a negative light on Jesus.
How do you rile a crowd up? You get political! No matter the context, country, or century there will always be something political that will rile crowds up. One of the most basic political issues that will divide any crowd and raise the ire of people is taxes: no one likes them, no one wants to pay them, and no one really wants to talk about them… especially during the time of Jesus earthly ministry. Think about the political context: Thees are occupied lands and have been for generations; this tax goes all the way back to Rome to pay for the occupation. Hence, it is not an easy issue to think about or even talk about: such was the animosity towards Rome that tax collectors, (think about the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19) where considered traitors:
“These individuals were seen as turncoats, traitors to their own countrymen. Rather than fighting the Roman oppressors, the publicans were helping them—and enriching themselves at the expense of their fellow Jews.” 1
This is the context of any question around taxes. Thus, the Pharisees think they will have caught Jesus between a rock and a hard place. For them, there can be no right answer, no answer that does not leave Jesus in a difficult place. It is a contest that shows us two things: The nature of the human heart – that those who would consider themselves as religious and righteous are in these moments no more aligned to God than satan, and that there is a greater authority than anything on earth that we must all be aware of.
A Beautiful Deception (16)
I remember starting a new job (not in the church!) when someone in the office told me to be wary of a couple of people who’s words might seem attractive but often whose motives may not be as attractive. After a few months, I realised what sound advice it was, as true motives and character finally peered through the veneer of false beautiful-words. Let us be honest, we have all had those conversations with people who as they speak to us about us you would think they where eulogising us at our funeral.
Jesus is approached by Pharisees after he has been teaching about the nature of the Kingdom of God. Teaching as we have said that challenged them, a challenge they did not want to hear, and a challenge they wanted to remove; hence they approach him. As we read, we are well aware that they are the villains of the narrative – those opposed to God and Jesus. Yet, as I read their words well-spoken, I am reminded of a lesson of Scripture that often avoid or forget – Lessons around speech. This is what I love about Scripture, as we read it, we are always being taught about things useful for our life with Jesus. Thus, even as this encounter begins, we are challenged to be wise around speech.
Wisdom around Speech
” The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9 CSB.
It is the most basic lesson of Scripture as per the human condition; we are sinful, and our hearts are deceitful. Thus, if that is the state of our centre of being then, it will affect every part of our being. It will affect our speech: “The words of their mouths are wicked and deceitful; they fail to act wisely or do good.” (Psalm 36:3). James sums it up perfectly in his letter as he writes: “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8). Consider also:
“Enemies disguise themselves with their lips, but in their hearts, they harbour deceit. Though their speech is charming, do not believe them, for seven abominations fill their hearts. Their malice may be concealed by deception, but their wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.” – Proverbs 26:24-26
“Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” Romans 3:13
‘ Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.”‘ – Romans 16:18
Such speech is not rare, it is the speech of the world, and we are called to be mindful and wary of it. We must weight up the motives of all speech that demands our ears and consider what it is really asking of us, it is why Paul wrote as such: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.” (Ephesians 5:6). The world will speak to us in a way that flatters, and yet it’s flattery is often only a disguise for the ways of sin. As citizens of the heavenly kingdom, we are called to be wise to the speech of this earthly kingdom and listen only to Christ – he who is contra to the ways of the world! Thus, as the bible warns us of the deception and malice of the speech of the world we are reminded of him who “committed “no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” (1 Peter 2:22). Where the world falters, Jesus reigns and sets an example that cannot be challenged. Thus we look to him, and in the power of the Spirit seek to model our lives on him, because in him we have all that we need:
“Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. 2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, 3 now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. 1 Peter 2:1-3
In a post covid world, you would have often found me sitting in a coffee shop when writing a sermon. There was something about being amid people when writing something that was for them. I love the buzz and atmosphere of those public places, and it is something I miss desperately during these days of covid! There are coffee shops I love to work in, yet, if I was meeting you for a coffee, I would rather not go there for the same reason I love them – the noise. There are some spaces that even if the shop is empty, it is still hard to hear – the layout, materials used in the building, and the size of the space make it difficult to listen to the voice of another. However, even amid all the noise of such spaces, I can still listen to the person I am with because I know their voice, and I know where it is coming from. Today, even in a socially distant world, the one voice we must listen too can get lost amid the buzz and busyness of the Culture. We must make sure we know it to listen clearly to it, even amid the buzz of deceptively-beautiful speech from the world.
The Clash of Two Earthly Kingdoms (17-19)
Part of Christian Identity is the duality of our citizenships: That as disciples of Jesus, we are those who belong to another kingdom. Yet, the reality of that citizenship is both to come, and now, we are those who look to what is ahead but also live in the now. We are not absent to the realities of this world, and the call of our citizenship as we live. Thus, this exchange is one that is grounded very much in the contextual realities of Jesus day: taxes and occupation.
After they have buttered Jesus up with a kind and flattering words, they ask him what seems like a non-confrontational question about the legality of certain taxes. Yet it in one line with dynamite because of the political situation at the time. The Israelites were an occupied people; oppressed beaten and dejected: and, the Romans where the occupiers; brutal, oppressive and quick to suppress any perceived theirs to the stability of the rule and income. Thus it was a question that teased the grey area between the clashing two Kingdoms. The Jewish people longed to be freed from their oppression: hence any notion of messiahship was tied into military ideas and images of overthrown (not the suffering crucified servant), and friends of the occupier such as Tax collectors where disposed. On the other hand, the Roman authorities would squash with swift brutality any threat to their rule. Hence this question of taxes was not innocent, naive, or simply hypothetical – no, it was designed to attack Jesus and make him suffer. If he answers in favour of the people, then while they might love him all the more soon he would be on the Roman radar, a perceived there to the civil peace that must be dealt with: If he answered in favour of the Roman authorities then he would be akin to a tax collector, a friend of the Emperor would be dead to the people and any popularity would soon fade.
Being Ready to Answer for the Faith
This is a challenge to the kingdom way of Jesus wrought in earthly reality, the clashing kingdoms of men; it seems a question of little heavenly significance, yet, it is a challenge offered to Jesus which he uses to teach about again about the Kingdom of God. A lesson for us is perhaps that often in our witness for Jesus we will find ourselves confronted with issues that seem to have little relevance to the Christian faith: whether challenges to our ethics, morality or being. Yet, challenges they are and to ignore or avoid them is to do a disservice to King Jesus. Hence, Jesus fully aware of all that is going on, the deceit and malice in their asking, and more extensively tuned into the political, cultural and social reality to answer in the way that confronts it and points to something greater.
Thus, here in this exchange Jesus again models for our the way of the Kingdom of God; that our witness is not solely about calling people to repent of their faith and turn to save the rule of Christ. No, here we see a practical example from Jesus of what Peter wrote in 1st Peter 3:15 “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” Jesus is the perfect example of this command here, not just in the Sum of his answer but the context. Even before he gets to his teaching point he is not afraid to call out the motives of those who confront him (18b); then he is not afraid to take their question wrought in the tension of the clashing earthly kingdoms and answer in a way that may not be easy to hear but points to a greater Kingdom. Jesus confronts their motives then answers their question in a way that displays a deep understanding of the contextual reality of that time but no fear of it. As we witness to the rule and reign of God we lose something if we cannot speak to the realities of the contexts we find ourselves in; thus part of our call, responsibility and witness is to model what Jesus does here. To understand the context of our mission fields and be able to speak to the concerns, fears and tensions of those we find ourselves living among, but at the same time never be bound by such fears. Jesus confronts earthly motives, deals with an earthly problem and points to divine reality – the sovereign rule of God. In Sum, he answers the question in a way that confronts, relates and brings glory to God.
How able are we to speak into our current contexts as a church and individuals? This is not a challenge for every disciple to become the next great Christian Apologist and cultural commentator, nor it is a challenge for us all to start reading the great philosophers, yet, at the same time, we must ask the question – Why not? If our faith is all-consuming, it should shape how we see the world, and as it shapes how we see the world, it should illuminate before us some of the fallacies of the fallen nature of the world in a way that allows us to speak to them. So I ask again how are we able to answer for our faith in these days of covid, political uncertainty, identity crises and mental health. Let us take the time to ready ourselves to be here as Jesus, to answer in a way the confronts, relates and brings Glory to God.
The Fruit of Wisdom
As God works in us through the dwelling of the Spirit, he makes us wise to the ways of the world that are contra to his rule and reign. Thus, we are equipped to stand firm against the world’s Wisdom and answer in it in a way that respects but points to something beyond this world – the rule of God. True Wisdom is found in the Glory of God and glory in God, and when we speak it out, it can only aid in the cause and purpose of the Kingdom of God. Let us follow the example of Jesus and be those who are wise to the ways of the world and speak to the glory of the father.
Render unto God(20-22)
We all have something that shapes our view of the world, whether we know it or not: it might be secular ideas around humanity, it might be environmental ideas, or it might be economic ideas. Each of us has a worldview that’s foundation shapes how we interact with everything else. I wonder could you name that on which your world view is built. The Pharisees have asked Jesus their trapping question, he has rebuked their heart and motive and in the same motion beckoned for them to pass him a coin. Then, he has asked a simple logical question – “Who is on the coin?” You could perhaps see him holding it up to his face as if to make the point even plainer. The people respond: “Cesar.” Thus the lesson in all its simplicity and yet profound beauty, challenge and deep. “Render unto Cesar the things that are Cesar. and to God the things that are God.” Render meaning here to Pay: thus, Jesus says pay your taxes, but also give to God what he is owed. It is an answer that much could be said of, and perhaps there should come a time in our week when we should stop and consider what it means for us to render to Cesar the things that are his and to God that which is his. Yet, in this moment, and in the time spent thinking around this passage I found myself deeply challenged as to the direction of Jesus answer; as he took what was plainly an earthly situation and pointed to God.
For Jesus, this is not solely an issue of taxes, it is an issue of Worship unto God. Thus, in a moment, we are reminded of the foundation of the worldview of Christ is a right view of God. Jesus saw everything through the lens of his view of God and the call of God on his life. Thus he says – Yes pay your taxes! Yet, more so make sure your life renders to God all that belongs to God: which for the disciple is everything:
“Jesus replied:” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'” (Matthew 22:37)
This is where our focus must land on this passage, yes it is right to honour civic authority regardless of the political and social context, yet, more so we must make sure the motion of our life and citizenship is to render to God all that belongs to him. Much could be said about how this teaching relates to our civic duty and draws out lessons from Jeremiah 29 or Romans 13, 1 & 2 Peter – all of that is important but what is foundational here is what are we offering to God in our Worship! It is the irony of Christian life and Worship – that nothing we can bring God is worthy, yet, in response to all we have received we gratefully render all to him! A right view of God leads to a right rendering onto God because all things come from Him and all things go to Him. Jesus knew this, soon the disciples would grasp it, and for all who truly belong to the Kingdom of God, this becomes the foundation of their worldview.
The Pharisees in their answer revealed that their concern was not of heaven, but earth, Jesus, in his reply, revealed that his ultimate motive was the Glory of God. The Pharisees in their question revealed a worldview centred on human notions of power and position as they sought to undermine Jesus and reestablish their own influence; Jesus in his answer revealed a concern not primary for the powers or ways of the earthly kingdom but primarily a concern for the things of Heaven and the Glory of God. Let us make sure today as we dwell on this passage that our concern is for the Glory of God, and the establishing of his Kingdom rule here and to come, and then everything else we do flows from that as an act of Worship and rendering back to God.
Rendering Our Life Rightly Before God
There is much in these nine verses, and always there will be something we have passed over, missed or not given right focus too. Thus, it is important to take the time to dwell on the passage and allow the Holy Spirit to do his own work in our lives. Yet, as we head out into whatever is ahead for us, let us be aware of the ways of the world as people approach us with flattering speech. Furthermore, let us be willing and able to answer in a way that both confronts worldly motives, and points to God; let us be ready through understanding our context and being able and willing to speak truth to our Culture in a way out Culture understands, as we model our engaging off the example of Jesus.
Let us all consider what this passage means for our living today and now in the context that we find ourselves in. What doe did it mean for us today to render unto Cesar the things that are Cesar? At a simple level are we those who honour God by paying all that the Government owes even if we disagree with it or do we actively seek to avoid taxes. Perhaps it would be worth taking a moment and reading Jeremiah 29 – that call to seek the prosperity of the city for the Glory of God. What might that speak to us today, amid covid, chaos and rising political tensions to be a people who honour Government and seek the good of our context not for power, prestige, position or possession but as an act of worship unto God.
Finally, before all of that, let us make sure that we are rightly rendering unto God all that he is owed – everything. Let us make sure our right view of God: sovereign, ruling and over all things is the foundation of how we see and interact with the world, then as we live, love, learn and lead let us do so as a rendering unto God above all else so that others too might know the wonder of a relationship with him. Let us live in a way that as we Render unto God all that is his, people see the wonder Gospel truth that we have received already more than we could ever give.