October 18, 2020 “Marvelously Baffled and Amazed”

“Marvelously Baffled and Amazed”

Matthew 22:15-22

“Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach the way of God as it really is… So tell us what you think: Does the law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Now, for those like me who were scrambling to make the October 15th IRS extension deadline, this parable hit a little too close to home. It was the late night host Jimmie Kimmel that once said, “The IRS suggests filing early to reduce the chances that someone will steal your identity, and file before you. Honestly, if someone wants my identity so badly that they’ll file my tax return for me, go crazy. You can mow my lawn while you’re at it, too.”

So tell us what you think: Does the law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” You know, I have to give the priests and the elders credit here because this line of questioning is pretty darn clever. It was a trick question, sure and Jesus figured that out right away. You see, the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day saw the tribute tax as nothing more than pure heresy. It was considered an offering of sorts to a pagan emperor. To the officers and government of Herod, however, refusal to pay the tax was considered sedition – it was an open act of rebellion against Herod and, therefore, the entire Roman empire. What to do, what to do. “So tell us what you think,” they asked him. If Jesus had answered that the law of Moses allowed such a thing, he would have been kicked out of the temple and probably stoned to death by the Jewish people. On the other hand, if he had answered “no”, he would have been arrested and thrown in jail by the soldiers of Herod. It was a lose-lose. Of course, neither one of these things happened. Instead, in front of everyone in the temple, Jesus called them a bunch of phonies and asked to see a coin. They flipped him a common coin of the time and he asked, “Whose face is on this coin?” Whose image do you see? Who does this represent? They answered, “Caesar’s,” to which he replied, “Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Next we read, “When they heard this, they were astonished,” and they left the building.

Now, I have to ask: have you ever wondered about this part of Matthew’s story? He doesn’t tell us “The Pharisees were spitting mad, so they stormed out of the building.” He doesn’t say, “They were terribly embarrassed and left the temple with their heads hanging down.” No, Matthew reads that they were astonished – or amazed, or baffled, or surprised, or speechless, depending on which translation you choose; or, as the KJV reads, “…they marveled, and left him, and went on their way.” They marveled. At this point, I have a confession to make. For as many times as I have read this parable and possibly for as many times as I have preached on it, I have always marveled at the reply that Jesus gave to these religious scoundrels. But I’m ashamed to say that I have marveled for the wrong reason. What I mean is that to me, this has always been a delightful “gotcha” moment.

It was the ultimate come-back. What’s more, it was the kind of come-back that would take me hours to come up with, yet Jesus put an end to the trickery of these Pharisees just like that. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Amazing, astonishing. Problem is that what I wished to understand as simply a clever way to win an argument wound up as a calling – a wake up call – spoken straight to my heart.

Like I said, we just barely made the deadline to file our taxes this year and it was painful. Tax laws have changed, circumstances have changed, but we swallowed hard and sent it off. We gave to Caesar what belonged to Caesar. But about that second part? I’m not so sure. What belongs to Caesar is easy to figure out. You take all the money you have made, subtract a few things, plug it into a formula, and presto – there it is. Sometimes it’s a hard pill to swallow, but there it is.

So what belongs to God? And I’m not talking about tithing or the contributions we make to our churches or our missions or our communities. No, I’m asking the bigger question here – what belongs to God? What – or I should say, who – does our God claim as his very own? I think you know where I’m going with this. We, who are made in the likeness of God, don’t have a whole lot of room dictate what God gets and what we get to keep. Besides, Jesus was never too concerned with taxes paid or money spent. What belongs to God can’t be written on a ledger sheet or entered into QuickBooks. What God wants, what God holds the title to, is our heart. That’s what we need to offer up; and not just a piece or a portion. God wants – God deserves- the whole thing. I have a funny feeling that the Pharisees understood this all too well. But just in case they didn’t, it was later in the same day that Jesus quoted to these religious scholars from the law in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. (Matt. 22:36) Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law? they asked him. Jesus quoted the Torah saying, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

We were made in the image of God. Let that sink in for just a bit. Let it sink in, because if we can truly come to believe this, it changes everything. It changes how we give and how we live. It changes how we love and through that love we come to see the face of God all around us. I found a good description of the joy of what it is to be a follower of Christ. I don’t know who wrote it, but I’ll share it anyways.

“A Christian is: a mind through which Christ thinks, a heart through which Christ loves, a voice through which Christ speaks, and a hand through which Christ helps.”

Give to God what is God’s. Here I am, Lord. Here I am – marvelously baffled and amazed.

Amen & Shalom


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