Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Our text for this morning is the Gospel Reading from Matthew 22. This text immediately follows our Gospel Reading from last week, The Parable of the Wedding Feast. And, let’s be honest, this is a fairly well-known text, at least Jesus’ line “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Though, I’m not sure that the context surrounding this line is all that well-known. This is a shame because not knowing the context of this statement causes us to mis-hear what Jesus is actually saying. Some people assume (wrongly, I might add) that this text is primarily about politics. It’s not. There’s something deeper going on. The issue at hand in this text is identity – whose are you? And what does that mean for how you live your life? Let me give you an example to illustrate the importance of identity.
2. I’ll be honest, I’m not a big movie guy. It doesn’t matter how interesting the movie is, they just put me to sleep. When I was a kid though, I liked them much more than I do now. That’s probably why the movies I like the most tend to be children’s movies. Growing up, one of my favorite movies was Toy Story. I mean the original Toy Story, not all of these sequels, which are more garbage than anything… If you aren’t familiar with Toy Story, I’ll explain the premise briefly, although you really should stop living under a rock… The movie is set in the home of a kid named Andy. And Andy has a bunch of toys, but these toys are actually alive—they can move and talk and do things. Andy doesn’t know they’re alive—they’re just normal toys when he’s there, but when he’s out of the room, they talk to each other and do things. The main character of the story is Sheriff Woody. Woody is the leader of all the toys, and he is Andy’s favorite toy—the two are best friends. They do everything together—Andy always plays with Woody, he sleeps with Woody, and he takes Woody almost everywhere he goes. Woody is so special to Andy, that he’s written his name on the bottom of Woody’s boot. In Woody, we see this interesting picture of the owner’s image having been inscribed on what belongs to him. Later in the story, there’s this new toy in town who Andy starts to pay more attention to than Woody. Woody naturally get jealous, especially after he had to spend a night in the toybox away from Andy because Andy would rather sleep with the new toy. In the morning, Woody comes out of the toybox and looks longingly at Andy’s name written on his boot. Despite what’s happening with the new toy, Woody remembers that he belongs to Andy because his owner’s image is inscribed on him.
3. It’s with this in mind that I want to turn to our reading for today. Notice how carefully Matthew introduces this story. He notes the ill intentions of the Pharisees. They “take counsel” or “plot” to trap Jesus in his words. Then, they sent people to say to him, Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances (Matthew 22:16). Okay, pause for a second. By now we know how the Pharisees feel about Jesus—they don’t like him. So, do you think their words are genuine? No, not even a chance! These words are dripping with sarcasm and double meaning. So, whatever happens next, Matthew is preparing his readers to anticipate how Jesus will respond to their treachery, not to give them a serious answer to their inquiry.
4. With this in mind, we come to the question. They ask, Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? (Matthew 22:17). It’s difficult to judge the Pharisee’s exact motive for asking this question, but two things are clear: 1) They don’t genuinely want to know what Jesus thinks—they’re trying to trap him. 2) Jesus sees right through their schemes. In fact, Matthew continues, But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?” (Matthew 22:18). Now, to fully appreciate how Jesus responds beyond this, we need to make sure we understand exactly what the Pharisees are asking. The question is, Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? In other words, they’re asking, “Is it in accordance with God’s will to pay taxes?” Now, we don’t know a whole lot about the Pharisees, but one thing that the New Testament makes clear is that they were, so to speak, fairly legalistic. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that they come pretending to care about what God’s law required. But what the Pharisees really believed is that it was God’s will to oppose and hinder and ultimately destroy Jesus.
5. So, knowing this, Jesus says, “Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription [literally: whose image] is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away (Matthew 22:19-22). Why do these men leave marveling? It’s not because Jesus answered their question. He didn’t. He said nothing about God’s will in regard to paying taxes. In fact, his lack of an answer on this subject seems to indicate that focusing primarily politics and taxes is missing the point. So, why do these men leave marveling? Probably because they didn’t just recognize they whose image was on that coin. They knew their Bible well enough to recognize whose image was on each one of them. Jesus’ point is God has inscribed his image on his children. He did so to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1, and he does so to all human beings after them. Therefore, Jesus says, “Render to God the things that bear his image” (i.e. You).
6. My friends, you, too, bear God’s image—and in a very special way. You bear God’s image in a way that far exceeds the image given to humanity in the Garden of Eden. You have had the image of the crucified Lord Jesus inscribed on you in your baptism. And so, let these words of Jesus be a warning to you as well. Don’t allow yourself to become like the Pharisees—so wrapped up in secondary concerns that you forget about following Jesus. In your baptism, Christ claimed you as his own. You have had the sign of the cross inscribed both upon your forehead and upon your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Jesus Christ the crucified. You belong to him. So, render to God what belongs to God by submitted to Jesus in all areas of your life because he has inscribed his image on you.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.