Trick Questions and True Allegiance

+ A sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on October 18, 2020 +

Text: Matthew 22:15-22


It’s almost over, my friends.
We’re just over two weeks away from finishing perhaps the longest, most polarizing election season ever.
By now, millions of people have already voted and, here in King County, our ballots were mailed out last week.
And by the way, if you haven’t registered to vote yet, there’s still time to make your voice heard—and I really hope that you do.
But, regardless of the result, I think many of us are eagerly looking forward to the end of political ads, campaign phone calls and text messages, and the seeming ever-presence of this election in our collective lives.

I think one of the most exhausting things about the election cycle is watching politicians, candidates, supporters try to trap their opponent into saying something wrong.
It happens in debates, in interviews, in congressional hearings, and more.
And what’s so frustrating is that this is rarely in an effort to find the truth, to serve the public interest, but instead it’s an attempt to smear the other wide.
Trying to make them sound as bad as possible by finding a soundbite to run on countless television ads, a damaging quote to blanket social media and fundraising efforts.
Doing whatever possible to gain a few points while amping up sensationalism and division.

In many ways, that seems to be what’s happening in today’s gospel reading as well.
This is the fourth week in a row where the gospel takes place in the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem.
It’s the day after Jesus triumphantly entered the city and went to the Temple to throw out the moneychangers and salesmen.
And for the past three Sundays, Jesus has been answering the religious authorities’ question about his authority to do these things by telling parables.
And enraged by his responses, the Pharisees are doing whatever they can to entrap Jesus and use his words to reveal him as a threat to the status quo so he could be stopped.

So today they form a rather strange, and presumably temporary, alliance with a group called the Herodians.
Because these groups would not have gotten along under normal circumstances.
You see, in many ways the Pharisees were not all that different than Jesus—they were advocating for reforms in the religion of the day to bring it back to a more pure religion and a better following of God’s intentions for their people.
They were serious about their faith and despised the foreign interference in politics and religion by their Roman occupiers.
And while not much is known for sure about these Herodians, their name tells us that they would have been supporters of Herod, the puppet king of the Romans and at least tacit supporter of the military occupation.
These groups should not have been on the same side of pretty much anything.
But in what seems to be a kind of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” calculation, they come together to trap their mutual opponent, Jesus.

And so, in the middle of the Temple courtyard, they very publicly ask Jesus a dangerous question.
‘Ok, Jesus,’ they say, ‘if you’re so smart and righteous, tell us what you think: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?’
And to be clear, while we may debate tax policy in this country and wrangle over it as an election issue, these taxes were going directly to the Roman occupation.
These taxes were literally an oppressed people being forced to pay for the upkeep of their oppressors.
The Pharisees and Herodians are sure they have Jesus trapped—there’s really no good answer they can see.
If Jesus says that it’s ok to pay the taxes, the Pharisees will feign outrage: ‘You see? He doesn’t follow God purely, he’s in bed with the Romans!”
If Jesus says it’s not ok to pay the taxes, the Herodians would crow: ‘This man is a revolutionary! He’s dangerous to us and the Empire! If we listen to him, the Romans will come to crush his insurrection and destroy us all.’
No matter Jesus’ answer, one side or the other would have their soundbite.
They’d have the quote that would surely bring down Jesus.

 Denarius (18 AD – 35 AD) of Tiberius (Roman emperor (Emperor 14 AD – 37 AD). Obverse: TI[berivs] CAESAR DIVI AVG[vsti] F[ilivs] AVGVSTS (Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus) Reverse: PONTIF[ex] MAXIM[us]. Photo by DrusMAX on Wikipedia. Shared under CC BY-SA 3.0

But Jesus, sees through their plot.
“Show me the coin used for the tax,” he says.
And they brought him a denarius.
Jesus then asks, “Who’s head is this, and who’s title.”
And they reply that it’s the emperor’s.
Indeed, scholars tell us that this coin would have been stamped with the image of the Emperor Tiberius and would have born the proclamation “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus.”
In other words, the coins declared that the Emperor is the son of a god.
It was the image of a foreign tyrant who was actively oppressing these people and claiming to be divine.

After seeing the coin, Jesus answers the trick question in a different way.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” he says, “and to God the things that are God’s.”
It’s a truly remarkable answer, isn’t it?
He refuses to give his opponents the soundbite they’re looking for and simultaneously trivializes not only the emperor’s taxes, but his claim of divinity.
It’s as if he’s saying, ‘Give the emperor his little coins, but they have no real value other than his attachment to them. They will mean nothing when his empire falls and even less in the Kingdom of Heaven. After all, those coins may bear the image of the emperor, but remember that you bear the image of God, that you have been stamped with that divine proclamation and you belong to God—the God who created you and the whole cosmos. The God who has laid claim on your life and who is sovereign of all creation. And when the empires and rulers of this world fall, as surely they will, God will still be God, you will still bear God’s face, you will still belong to God. So give Caesar his coins, but then work on giving your whole life to God.’

Well, that obviously was not the soundbite the Pharisees and Herodians were looking for.
Jesus refused to argue over loyalty to this earthly empire and called instead for allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven­—a reign not based on oppression, but love; whose ruler does not depend on military might but exemplifies servant leadership and self-giving compassion.
That deeper than partisanships and alliances, stronger than empires and rulers, more fundamental than allegiances and loyalties, we have a fundamental identity as a child of God, made in the image of God, claimed by God.
And our creation in God’s divine image is not a self-serve claim designed to bolster our own legitimacy, it’s a God-given gift, a proclamation of love.
But it’s also a weighty responsibility calling us to see ourselves, our bodies, our lives as God’s own and to use them according to God’s will.
Because each and every person we met, from the beggar on the street, to our partisan opponent, to Caesar Tiberius himself, possesses that same identity as well.

How different would our political environment look if that were our lens?
If we weren’t concerned about trapping our opponents with trick questions.
If we cared less about scoring points than caring for our neighbors.
If our loyalty wasn’t to parties or leaders or countries, but to God and the Reign of Heaven.
Using our lives, using our money, and yes, using our vote to serve all of humanity and the whole creation.
To seeing God’s image in people across the political spectrum.
To spreading the love of God for all people, following the example of our Lord Jesus?

Commentator Debie Thomas writes, “Christians have spilled much ink over America’s current political situation. Every argument and counterargument has been made ad nauseam, and as far as I can tell, no one has the heart to listen to our opponents with genuine curiosity or compassion anymore. But maybe this is exactly the place where Jesus’ teaching becomes the sharpest and most relevant. As an image-bearer of a loving, forgiving, and gracious God, maybe what I owe God in this hour is the very grace and generosity [God] extends to me and to all of us.”[1]

As we race to the end of this election cycle, candidates and parties will continue to try to trap each other, making their final pleas for your votes.
Maybe we will be all too willing to join along, convincing ourselves that our preferred candidate is the only right choice and refusing to listen to the other side.
But if we declare our allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven above all else, if we strive give to God the things that are God’s, we will be challenged by Jesus to reframe our views, reassess our priorities to better love and serve our fellow children of God.

Thomas goes on to write, “Figuring out my taxes is the easy part. What’s much harder is living out my political convictions with a Christlike humility, with a compassion that embraces my political other as a brother or sister [or sibling]. But if I really belong to God, if I really am fashioned in God’s image, then I need to practice my faith and my politics in ways that reflect who God is…remembering that the God whose image I bear is a God of endless and sacrificial love.”[2]

Tyrants and rulers come and go.
Empires and countries rise and fall.
But we have been made in the divine imagine of God.
Our ultimate citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven that will never pass away.
Our highest allegiance is to the Sovereign of all creation who has taken claim of our lives and who has called us to love and care for our neighbors—reminding us that each and every person we meet is made in God’s image and loved by God just as much as we are.
This is a loyalty beyond party, beyond nationality, beyond election cycles and soundbites, it’s deep within ourselves, imbedded in our humanity—an indelible link to every single person and the whole creation.
And it’s a challenge from our Lord Jesus to reshape our lives according to this identity, to reform our politics according to this allegiance, to give our entire self to God because we belong to God.

[1] Thomas, Debie. “What Belongs to God” on Journeys with Jesus, October 11, 2020.

[2] Ibid.

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