Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:
“The Lord is King!”
First Baptist Richmond, October 22, 2023 The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 45:1-7; Matthew 22:15-22
They said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Jesus taught what Jesus learned, and one of the things he learned was that Caesar is not Lord. He may have learned it while he was still a boy, going to that little synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath, “as was his custom” (Luke 4:16). We know that they had the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in that synagogue, and in their regular cycle of readings there must have been days when someone stood to read and opened that scroll to the place where it said, “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,” which is the beginning of our Old Testament lesson for today.
Even as a boy Jesus would have known who Cyrus was. Everybody in Israel knew who Cyrus was. He was their hero! He was the one who had delivered them from their exile in Babylon after he became King of Persia. I once described it like this: “For fifty years the exiles had been saying, ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.’ And then one day they heard the sound of the Persian army marching toward Babylon, and when they looked up they saw a multitude of soldiers advancing: their shields and helmets gleaming in the afternoon sun; their swords flashing like lightning; their
chariots rolling like thunder. They smashed through the defenses of the city as if they were made of paper. The Book of Daniel claims that Babylon fell in a single night and when the sun came up the next morning Cyrus, King of Persia, was in charge. With one royal edict he set God’s people free and allowed them to return to Jerusalem.”i
No wonder he was their hero, and yet Isaiah makes it clear that without God’s help Cyrus would have been nothing. Listen again to these verses from today’s reading: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him—and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Isaiah is saying that Caesar is not Lord. Cyrus was the King of Persia, he was the emperor of that particular empire, he was its “Caesar,” and yet, without God, he would have been nothing. God danced him across the stage of history like a puppet on a string, he used him to accomplish his own purposes, he called Cyrus his anointed one, his messiah, but Cyrus was anointed for one purpose and one purpose only: to set God’s people free. Once he had done that, and once he had sent them home with enough resources to rebuild their ruined city and restore its ravaged temple, God had no further use for him. Cyrus wasn’t Lord. As God reminds us in verse 5 of today’s reading, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.”
Jesus would have heard those words when he was still a boy, sitting in that
synagogue in Nazareth. He would have weighed those words against the Roman emperor’s claim to be divine, because that’s what the emperor claimed. After the Persians conquered the Babylonians someone else conquered them—the Greeks. And after the Greeks it was the Romans. The first of the Roman emperors, Augustus, began to think more highly of himself than he ought to think. Not only did he brag about his many military victories, but he claimed to be a god, and his subjects revered him as such.
When Augustus died in A.D. 14 and his son-in-law, Tiberius, took the throne, he had coins minted that bore his own image and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” In other words, Tiberius claimed to be the Son of God. Can you imagine how Jesus looked at those coins as a teenager, knowing who he was and knowing—because he had grown up going to the synagogue—that Caesar was not Lord? If God was going to use Tiberius at all he would use him like a puppet on a string to accomplish his own purposes.
And so we come to this morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 22. Jesus is in the temple precincts. He has silenced the chief priests and elders with three pointed parables. And now the Pharisees, his old enemies, come to him with a question about paying taxes to Caesar. But again, this is no innocent question. It’s not that the Pharisees are unfamiliar with the tax laws. As Matthew points out, they are “plotting” to “entrap” him in what he says. In fact, the next few verses of Matthew 22 read like instructions for how to build a Jesus trap;
1. Send your disciples to question Jesus rather than going yourself. That way you won’t be implicated if things go wrong.
2. Send some Herodians along with them. They don’t really get along with each other but the Herodians are big supporters of the Roman government
and they may prove useful if Jesus says it isn’t lawful to pay Roman taxes.
3. Put the Herodians on one side of Jesus and your disciples on the other, like the jaws of a trap, ready to snap shut if he gives the wrong answer.
4. Butter him up. Call him “Teacher” as if you were really interested in learning something. Remind him that he’s a straight shooter who always tells the truth, that he doesn’t care what people think and isn’t afraid of anyone. That way, he won’t pull any punches; he’ll tell you exactly what’s on his mind.
5. And then ask the question, and ask it like this: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Because it’s a yes or no question, and either answer will get him in trouble. If he says no, the Herodians can jump him, since he’s not supporting Rome, but if he says yes your disciples can jump him, since he’s not supporting Israel. Either way, you will have him in your trap.
But as my friend Annie Campbell says to people who think she’s only a retired school teacher or the wife of an Episcopal priest: “You didn’t see me coming.” The Pharisees and the Herodians didn’t see Jesus coming. They thought he was some itinerant prophet from Galilee, but Matthew tells us he was “aware of their malice” and said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.”
And someone held out a denarius.
We need to pause right there for a moment so you can appreciate the “hypocrisy” Jesus refers to. We didn’t use it in worship but two weeks ago one of the lectionary readings was from Exodus 20: the Ten Commandments. If you are familiar with them you may remember that the first one is, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and the second one is, “You shall not make for yourself an
idol” (or, in the King James Version, a “graven image”). Well, we didn’t use it in worship either, but the next week’s reading was from Exodus 32, where Aaron makes a golden calf, a graven image, and tells the people, “These are your gods, O Israel!” And the people bow down to worship. They couldn’t keep the Ten Commandments for twelve chapters! But the Pharisees in today’s Gospel lesson are no better. There they are, in the temple with Jesus, and when he asks for a coin they hand him a denarius with Caesar’s graven image on it and an inscription claiming that he is the Son of God. The first two commandments are broken again, but this time right there in the temple!
Jesus calls attention to it, in a way that must have been terribly embarrassing to people who claimed that they followed the Law of Moses to the letter: He said, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” He didn’t say “blasphemous inscription,” but that’s what it was, and that’s what it would be for any ordinary mortal to claim that he was the Son of God. If you know anything about Tiberius you know that he was far from divine, and yet there was his image, and there was that claim. The Pharisees must have hung their heads when they acknowledged that both the graven image and the blasphemous inscription belonged to Caesar, whose coin had somehow ended up in the holiest place in Israel. “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus said, “and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, Matthew says, “they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”
On my first reading of this text last week I ended up thinking about what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. And since the Pharisees were talking about taxes I did a quick search on the Internet. One site suggested that the average American pays 13.3 percent in income tax. You may pay more than that
because you are clearly above average, but let’s use that number as an example. I thought, “Well, there you go: 13.3 percent of your annual income goes to Caesar and, if you follow the teaching of Leviticus 27:30, ten percent of your annual income goes to God. That makes a total of 23.3 percent, leaving 76.7 percent for you.” For some people it really is that simple: they do the math, they write the checks, and then they go to bed with a clean conscience. But other people, like me, get stuck on the question, “What really does belong to Caesar, and what really does belong to God?” And maybe, “Why does the government get 13.3 percent while God, who gave me my life and every good thing that is in it, gets only 10 percent?”
But then I looked at the text again, and saw the word lawful in the Pharisees’ question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” I realized that the Pharisees lived in a world where there were two different laws: the Law of Rome and the Law of Moses. Of the two, the Law of Moses was much more important to them. The scribes would go through the Scriptures with a fine-toothed comb, trying to ferret out every commandment, and then the Pharisees would try to follow every one that they found, with a commitment some would call “Pharisaical.” But when it came time to pay their taxes they had to pay them, just as we do. They wondered: “Is that in the Law of Moses? Is there anything that might get us off the hook?” Jesus’ response makes it clear that you can pay your taxes without breaking the Law of Moses, but there are some times when it is not so clear.
When I teach the newcomers class I talk about Baptist history, and say the Baptists got their start, in part, because the government was asking them to do something they didn’t think was right. It was asking them to baptize their babies.
This was at a time when the Church of England was the state-sponsored church, and the way the English government kept track of its citizens was through its baptismal records. Every baby born in England was required to be baptized, and when it was, its name was written into the books. But the people who would become Baptists couldn’t find any evidence of infant baptism in the Bible. They wondered why the government was making them do something that didn’t seem biblical. They got to that place where they felt that they couldn’t keep God’s law and the government’s law so they pulled out of the Church of England and ultimately came to this country in search of religious liberty. They could no longer tolerate the government-sponsored baptism of their babies.
Think about that before you sign up to be a Christian Nationalist. Do you really want the government telling you what to believe and how to behave? No. Caesar is not Lord. Don’t fall for that foolishness. Our Baptist forebears were willing to die for religious liberty. Paul would say, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). And that’s why we can be grateful to live in a country where the Constitution itself promises that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (First Amendment). A country like that you can feel good about supporting with your taxes. You can give to Caesar what is Caesar’s without feeling any qualms, and you can also give to God what is God’s.
In this country we have the freedom to do that. All we have to do, really, is figure out what “that” is. Jesus held up a coin and asked the Pharisees, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s” they said. But he might have asked them, “When you hold up your life for inspection, whose image is on it and
whose inscription?” And even those Pharisees would have said, “God’s.” Because they knew their Bible. They knew that we human beings are made in God’s image. Everything we are and everything we have belongs to him. “Then give it to him,” Jesus might have said. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s because it’s not yours anyway. Come to that place where you care so little about his filthy money that you can throw it on the street. But give to God what is God’s, because that’s not yours either. It’s his. You are his. You belong to him. Give yourself gratefully, generously, because he’s worth everything you can give. He is King! He is Lord! And Caesar?
—Jim Somerville © 2023