Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Once upon a time there were two groups of people. Both groups had a lot of power and they struggled against each other constantly. People got tired of hearing each of them complain about the other because it seemed nothing ever changed.
One group of people was very protective of their country, very interested in national security- if you will. They were also concerned with the lives of the people around them- what people did both in public and in private. This group was considered deeply religious, even though their religious focus sometimes kept them from seeing the forest for the trees.
The second group of people was known for aligning themselves with foreign powers. Their idea of peace came through sacrificing authority to leaders far away. This group was a great supporter of taxation. Even though they weren’t always seen as religious, they developed an interest in religious leaders and issues when it became politically expedient.
I’m sure we all know to which groups I am referring. I am, of course, speaking about the Pharisees and the Herodians. Representatives of these two groups tried to corner Jesus in the gospel passage we read from Matthew today. The Pharisees want Jesus to say paying taxes is lawful. If he does, then they will say he is disloyal to God, seeking to put Caesar above the Creator. The Pharisees are the first group: concerned about their home territory, the lives of people and worshipping God.
The Herodians, then, are the second group. They see Rome as making continued life in Palestine possible. They have been zealous tax collectors. If Jesus says that paying taxes is unlawful, they will know that he opposes Rome and they can denounce him as a traitor to Caesar.
The Pharisees and the Herodians despised each other, but we can see them teaming up here because it is in their interest to trap Jesus. If they appear together, he has to pick the side of one or the other. So they say, “Teacher, we know you are honest and no person seems to be able to influence you. So, let’s hear your opinion… should we pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
Jesus asks them for a coin, which they manage to produce, though it was illegal to have Roman money inside the temple. (That’s why there were moneychangers in the courtyard.) When they show it to him, the coin with the picture of Caesar and the words declaring Caesar, a son of the gods and a high priest… when they show this coin, Jesus, famously, says: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render unto God, the things that are God’s.”
When both parties hear this, they are amazed and they walk away from him. Why was this such an amazing teaching? Is it because Jesus was slippery and confound both groups? Because he could play their game better than they could? Or could it be that he gave an answer to a question they didn’t ask. They asked the wrong question, but he gave the right answer.
Jesus’ words pointed to the reality that both the Pharisees and Herodians knew. Regardless of who is emperor, the level of taxation, the state of the city… they, both Pharisees and Herodians, belong to God. Whatever they have, coins, property, food, clothes… all that they have, all that they are, all that they can be… is God’s.
This is the hinge of history. It’s never about what we can do, to whom we give our taxes, how we vote, or what we accomplish. In the end, we will always come back to the knowledge that God has been at work in our lives and that all we have is because of God.
So, if God is in control… why do we have to do anything? If God’s will is accomplished through the work of the Holy Spirit, why should we worry about it? Because the kingdom of God is at hand- our hands. God works through us for the good of the world. And we are called to be aware of that work… alert to it… active in it.
You see, God is not up for election. Ever. But when we put anything ahead of God… then we’ve voted. Like the Pharisees, we may think that some details are more important than the larger picture of God’s love for the world. Like the Herodians, we may be willing to offer our souls for the protection of our bodies, our physical safety. Daily, we cast our ballots through things done and left undone… and we forget the One to whom we belong.
And we don’t belong to God in the sense of being God’s possessions or even as creatures of God, whom he now ignores. Isaiah reminds us that God calls us by our name. Even beyond that, God gives us a surname, even before we know who God is. God pursues us and claims us. Through Jesus Christ, the holy Triune God has shared granted us all a last name. We are the people of God. That goes beyond being a Seymour… (other last names).
In a season of constantly being asked about our allegiance, our belonging, our preferences, the gospel passage calls us to remember Whose name we truly have, in Whose group we really belong, Whose mark we have truly received and Whose word we truly believe.
We vote, we pay taxes, we help organizations, we tithe to the church, but in the end… we belong to God. And in the end, belonging to God is not about bumper stickers or ballots, about tithing two percent or ten percent, about church or about state. Belonging to God is about remembering Who has the power- the power to forgive, the power to heal, the power to change and the power to make all things new.
Everyone wants to be on the side that wins. We cannot allow the world to trap us into categories that are too small, like Pharisee or Herodian. Through the living Word of God, we receive faith to believe that our God is the winner, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He has triumphed over princes and principalities, emperors and empires, death and the grave. Nothing can separate us from the love of the God who has given us His own name, through his Son.
While we might be running the race on the winning team, we are not yet to the finish line. When Jesus says, “Render unto God the things that are God’s”- we are challenged. Casting a vote for God, claiming the family name we’ve been given, requires nothing less than everything we have and everything that we are.
God’s everything includes sending the Son into the world that we might believe and have eternal life. God’s everything includes forgiving our shortcomings and offering us a fresh start daily. God’s everything includes sending the Holy Spirit into the world to guide us and all people. God’s everything includes, literally,…everything.
Today’s gospel challenges us to remember just that. That what we think of as going to the government, to the church, or what we keep for ourselves- it all belongs to God. And whether Pharisee or Herodian, whether sick or well, whether rich or poor, whether grieving or rejoicing, whether giving or withholding, we belong to God. We belong to God. Amen.