Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost Matthew 22:15-22 10/18/2020

It’s a trap.

          As we continue to walk with Jesus through the last week of his life in the Gospel of Matthew, we continue to see the authorities try to trick him and trap him. They want to make him say something that will allow them to arrest him, to take him into custody, to get him off the streets.

And if I want to cut to the chase, I could tell you how it turns out: Jesus denounces the trap, then raises a rabbinical counter-question. And in doing so, he shows me and you that, among other things, we can refuse to play the game. When the world aims to trap us, with the help of God, you can, and I can, sometimes resolve the situation by choosing not to make false distinctions.

The truth that Jesus proclaims, in his solution to their question, is that everything, ultimately, belongs to God; and that within that framework, we honor God by living honorably in the world. We honor God when we live honorably in the world.

          Matthew keeps telling us that the authorities wanted to arrest Jesus, hesitating only because Jesus was viewed as a prophet. It could backfire. And so today’s Gospel lesson is a trap. The Tribute Episode, as it is known, is recounted, almost word for word, in Matthew, in Luke, and in Mark.

          In fact, “render unto Caesar” has made it into popular conversation as a shorthand, usually about paying taxes. But that’s not the point of this passage. The questioners begin with false, and dangerous, flattery: “Master,” or Teacher, or Rabbi, “we know that you are a true speaker and teach the way of God in truth.”

This opening statement is a challenge to Jesus’ rabbinic authority, a question on a point of law. You see, the Pharisees believe that they are the only authoritative interpreters of Jewish law. If that’s the case, then this statement isn’t a way to establish professional courtesy; it’s an opening chess move.

One, you’re not a real rabbi and have assumed the title under false pretenses; two, because “you teach the way of God in accordance with truth,” base your answer in Scripture.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus says no, they can denounce him for disloyalty to Caesar. If Jesus says yes, the crowd, who has just cheered his entry into Jerusalem, will be seriously alienated. Either answer gets Jesus killed.

The Pharisees are daring Jesus to enter the fray of first-century Judeo-Roman politics.

It’s a trap!

And Jesus calls them hypocrites, his strongest insult, and says: “Show me the money.” Literally. “Show me the coin used for the tax.”

There’s really no need for him to demand a show and tell. Which means that it’s a signal that Jesus, like any good chess player, knows where he’s going with this.

And they show him a denarius, about a day’s wage for a laborer, a tenth of an ounce of silver. The emperor used this coin to pay his soldiers, his officials, and his suppliers. It bore the image of his head on the front, and a statement on the back that said that the emperor was the son of Caesar Augustus – that is, that he was the son of a god.

There was no reason at all for Jesus to ask to see the coin. He knows what it looks like; they know what it looks like; everyone knows what it looks like. It’s a little like saying, “Show me a quarter,” before asking, “Whose head is on it?” That he asks signals a recognizable pattern.

Jewish students know it. You know it and I know it if we’ve ever watched an episode of Matlock or Perry Mason or Law & Order.

An outsider poses a hostile question to a rabbi. The rabbi responds with a counter-question. By answering, the outsider becomes vulnerable to attack. And the rabbi uses that answer to refute the hostile question.

Checkmate.

In the translation we hear today, Jesus asks, “Whose head is on this, and whose title?” An older and more helpful translation reads, “Whose image is on this, and whose inscription?”

With this question, Jesus points to the commandment that prohibits worship of anyone or anything but God – and the commandment against graven images.

The title, or inscription, on the coin identifies Tiberius as the son of a god, his predecessor, Caesar Augustus. This inscription goes against the Shema, which is: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God – the Lord alone. The Shema instructs people of faith to bind these words on their foreheads and metaphorically inscribe them on their hearts.

Just by asking, “Whose image is on this, and whose inscription,” Jesus is meeting the challenge by behaving as a true rabbi – and by basing his judgment in Scripture. He answers a question with a question – one designed to show what the real issue is. And he then renders his judgment with an argument based in Scripture.

All things rightfully belong to God, to whom the Pharisees, and Jesus, and Jesus’ followers, owe allegiance, love, and worship. Economically, the land is God’s, and the Jewish people are to dedicate the first fruits to God, just as with our offerings we return to God what he gave to us. By calling attention to the image and inscription on the denarius, Jesus is showing his audience that the emperor claims that all people and things belong to Rome – and to an emperor who demands allegiance and worship.

Jesus has pointed out the false distinction that belongs to the way of the world, and he renders a judgment that shows his listeners, and that shows me, and that shows you, how to live in the world without letting the world consume our hearts and our minds and our souls.

The truth that Jesus proclaims, in his solution to their question, is that everything, ultimately, belongs to God; and that within that framework, we honor God by living honorably in the world. We honor God when we live honorably in the world.

So: We are to love God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul. We are to pay what we owe, not just in taxes but also with giving God our first fruits, returning to God what God has first given us. We are to remember that God has created us, that it is because of God that we are here to draw breath on this day. live honorably in the world: loving our neighbors the way we love ourselves.