Sermon October 22 2023 Matt 22:15ff Rendering Unto Caesar Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you ever feel sorry for the Pharisees? When we're hearing Bible stories like the one we just heard from the gospel of Matthew, we're clearly not ever meant to feel sorry for the Pharisees.
In our gospels they're pretty much unilaterally presented as the embodiment of wrongness in relation to Jesus and the disciples. They're forever hamstrung by their own rigidity, obsessed with compliance with the LETTER of the law and not its spirit, they collectively represent the OLD way, the WRONG way, the imprisoned-by-traditions way.
And in passage after passage of all four of the gospels, we watch them scrabbling in their own self-righteousness, trying in vain over and over to wrestle Jesus' message to the ground and crush it permanently, stifling its virtue of freedom in the simple abundance of grace and love and kindness with demands for rectitude and propriety and rules.
We are very much not meant to feel sorry for the Pharisees in the Bible stories. Which is actually unfair. The adversarial construct really IS somewhat manufactured for narrative effect.
Because in real life, the Pharisees’ orientation toward faithfulness was actually much more nuanced. They were much more intellectually thoughtful and spiritually seeking -- and open to – the kind of refocus on the essence, the point, than they EVER were ‘rigid law-keepers’. It’s actually the Pharisees who wind up leading the pack on what’s going to become Talmudic Judaism in the first century. Most easily distilled into the aphorism of its most famous rabbi, Hillel – who said “Love God and Love your Neighbour and everything else is commentary”.
But even setting that aside, that adversarial framing of the Pharisees in the gospels that pretty much became just the first of many foundation stones of Christian anti-Semitism… When we see them here in the passage we just heard, trying AS USUAL to trip Jesus up, bring Jesus down, tie him in knots and leave him silenced –
I feel like maybe we should feel a bit sorry for them. Or at least feel a sense of kinship with them. And compassion because of it. And think about where they are.
Not just "where they are" actually – which is in the temple in Jerusalem – but "where they are" metaphorically. Like, where they are in their spirits. What they're dealing with. The context they're trying to process.
Because "where they are" metaphorically, the context they feel like they're having to navigate, in that moment when they confront Jesus in the temple – is pretty much stuck under two jurisdictions at the same time.
Literally of course, they're in the temple in Jerusalem – which is held so completely and unilaterally under GOD's jurisdiction that there's a rule that no one can even bring Roman money into the building.
Because that's why there are moneychangers outside the temple – the ones made famous especially by Jesus going after them that one time in a great temper. They're there because Roman coins that have the face of the emperor on them aren't allowed inside the temple where only God is "lord". It's totally God's jurisdiction, as it were. So people's offering literally has to be changed from Roman coins into temple coins before they can go inside.
So the Pharisees are in the temple in Jerusalem which is THAT completely and unilaterally existing under God's jurisdiction – but at the same time that temple itself sits on Roman-occupied territory. So they're just as surely in that moment literally under the Roman emperor's jurisdiction. Or "Caesar's" jurisdiction, in more traditional biblical language. Because "caesar" is just the latin word for emperor. It's where the word "kaiser" comes from in German. Or "czar" in Russian.
So under God's jurisdiction AND under Caesar's jurisdiction. That's where the Pharisees "are" literally when we see them in this passage, but also metaphorically all the time. Having to deal with and process and make sense of how to be, how to exist, how to live, under two different jurisdictions, in the same place, at the same time.
Two sets of operative principles, two sets of norms, two sets of expectations, two worldviews, both in force, both demanding allegiance or compliance -- and sometimes they conflict -- in the same place, at the same time. That's the reality of the Pharisee headspace here. It's the reality of their headspace all the time.
And honestly? If that doesn't awaken in us even a little bit of fellow-feeling and maybe some compassion for them? Because I mean, arguably, as ALSO people of faith, we're ALSO caught to some extent trying to live the values of a faithful life – under God's jurisdiction, as it were – while at the same time embedded in a world of Caesar's jurisdiction.
We ALSO have to reconcile that. And it's hard.
Not that that's the message we get from the Pharisees, mind you, in this passage. Quite the contrary, in fact -- if anything, as they line themselves up AS USUAL to trip Jesus up, bring Jesus down, tie him in knots and leave him silenced, they seem to be being their usual arrogant selves, entirely confident they're managing the whole situation perfectly, and really just on the attack.
And maybe, initially, that's what Jesus thinks too. When they come at him raring to go, fairly dripping with all their best smarminess. "Oh, do tell us, O Teacher: because we know you're always sincere and only ever speak the truth about God's way.... So do tell us. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?"
And they're not seeking information – they're clearly perfectly satisfied they've got that question worked out: it's part of how they've had to manage this reality of living under two jurisdictions. They're just trying to trip him up.
And probably, at this point, that's all Jesus can see because it's all he's really looking for. But then something unexpected happens.
Because Jesus' response to the Pharisees coming at him and confronting him... is to ask one of them for a coin. And the Pharisee gives it to him... and it's a coin with Caesar's head on it. Inside the temple. And shouldn't that have been changed at the door? Isn't there a rule about that?
It's a gotcha moment, by Jesus. But honestly -- as far as we can tell, none of the Pharisees even seem to notice they've been got! All that swaggering – navigating life under two jurisdictions? Oh, they're right on top of it. They've even drawn a great big official line at the door of the temple to make sure it's stays perfectly pure as God's House Under God's Jurisdiction. They've got this whole situation under control.
Except they really don't, do they. Jesus is standing there inside the temple holding the coin one of them just gave him inside the temple, with Caesar's head on it big as life. They don't really have this situation under control at all.
Because in fact it's really hard. To try to hold fast to the values of faith, to sustain any sense of purity, as it were, of life 'under God's jurisdiction' and following God's way. When at the same time they're also fully and completely embedded in – and under the jurisdiction of – the empire around them. It's hard.
I think Jesus felt sorry for the Pharisees in that moment. I think he looked down at the coin they'd handed him, and looked back up at all their arrogance and all their smugness and all their swagger that they were totally on top of this really hard thing -- which is holding on to faithful values that no one should go hungry and no one should be homeless and the first duty is to care for and protect the most vulnerable –
while at the same time being embedded in a world that's not only all about me first and wealth as access and wealth as security but it’s ALSO inescapably governed by systems that entrench those values --
And I think Jesus pitied them, in that moment. We often hear that famous last line like it's a directive. Even a rebuke. But I think his voice was gentler than that. I think he wanted to give them a gift. Something that would help.
Because "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God"? As though those things can be divided?
What can possibly "belong to Caesar" when even the gold this "Caesar coin" is made of was literally created by God?
We often hear that famous last line like it's a piece of advice. As though what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God can be neatly divided. When in fact, what Jesus is doing here is setting up for the Pharisees -- and for us -- a new contruct. A new perspective. In which literally nothing belongs to Caesar.
There's no hard and fast line being drawn. Not for the Pharisees and not for us two thousand years later when people try to justify rhetoric about how churches should stick to spiritual matters.
Because in the construct Jesus sets up here, EVERYTHING is a spiritual matter, everything belongs to God, because our faith is in a God who created all of it. And cares about all of it. And sustains all of it, such that it's "in God's spirit" in fact that all of it and all of us live and move and have our being.
So that last line – it isn't a piece of advice. It's the gift INTO those two theoretical jurisdictions… of one single perspective. As Jesus always reminds us "My yoke is easy and my burden is light".
So give to God what belongs to God? Everything, in fact, belongs to God. Not just our set-apart time on a Sunday morning, ensconced inside the four walls of a “temple”, but our leisure and our work, our grocery shopping and our tax paying, our chit-chat and our choices and our concerted advocacy.
What we’re being invited into is shaping ALL of it as belonging to God, as being an expression of our faith and its call and its values. Which in some ways really isn’t that radical. And if it’s hard – and sometimes it IS, we do battle within ourselves about our choices –
I think, in fact, what’s much harder is trying to sustain a separation. Because do we ever feel sorry for the Pharisees? I think Jesus does. That separation can’t be sustained… so let it go.
Give to God what belongs to God, and let it ALL belong to God. It’s not a question of what’s lawful; it’s not a piece of advice. It’s a gift. Amen.