Traps and Plots – April 26, 2020

Matthew 22:15-22
April 26, 2020

During this time of “On-Line Worship,” and the delay of our Easter celebration, we’ve been taking a closer look at Holy Week.  And Holy Week began, of course, with Jesus coming into the city of Jerusalem, in that event which we now call Palm Sunday.  I’ve been talking about what happened that day, and how that added to the tension and conflict Jesus already had with the religious leadership.  And it would only get worse throughout that week.  And as we’ll see, all of that tension and conflict would culminate in the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday.

What was going on that week was a power struggle of sorts.  But it wasn’t so much a “Who’s in charge?” kind of power struggle.  It was much more complicated than that.  Yes, those religious leaders were offended.  They resented Jesus and his huge following, and how their influence was being challenged.  But they were also worried.  They feared Jesus’ popularity and the potential for Roman oppression.  They worried about what was going to happen if this went too far.

I also think they were still trying to figure this Jesus out!  We know that some of them were even supporters of Jesus!  The religious council was divided over him.  And some believed him!  But some still questioned his “authority,” like I said last week.  They didn’t know what to do about his acts of “cleansing of the temple” and healing the sick.  They didn’t know how to handle him now teaching daily in the Temple.  And they didn’t know how to answer the harsh words he would soon have about them.  All of those things made matters worse for them, and, they thought, for the nation.

So, they spent time that week trying to figure out how to diffuse the tension, how to “reign in” this Jesus.  They tried to figure out how to ease the threat he posed to the tenuous “status quo” they had with the Romans.  They knew that could end at any time!  And one of the ways they tried to lessen the influence of Jesus, was to try to trap him in his words.  They tried to make him look bad in the sight of the people.  And therefore, diminish his popularity.

They tried this in a number of ways.  And we can read about them throughout this 22nd chapter.  But the one I like the most, and the one I think takes center stage, is this one we read today where they asked him about paying taxes to Caesar.  Despite their failed attempts before, they thought they had him this time!  And notice, this wasn’t just an “off the cuff” attempt.  Matthew tells us that they “took counsel on how to entangle him in his talk.”  In other words, they got together, and they brainstormed.

“How can we do this?  How can we trap this Jesus?  We need to make him look bad!  Anybody got any ideas?”  I can see them asking that.  And then someone came up with the killer plan!  “I know!  Taxes!”  “We can get him on taxes!”  “Let’s ask him, ‘Should we be paying taxes to Rome?”  They knew the people hated that!

But notice they didn’t just ask that!  They asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”  In other words, “Are we following the law – the Torah?  Are we being good Jews if we submit to this Roman occupation and pay their taxes?  This wasn’t a just matter of “Do you like paying taxes to Rome?”  They brought the whole question of the Roman occupation into this.  And they made it a matter of religious law!  (That was their “big thing,” anyway!)

Well, as I said, they thought they had him!  They thought this was a “Catch 22.”  They thought they had him in the proverbial “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t” scenario!  This is like asking someone, “Have you stopped cheating on your income tax?”  You can’t say, “Yes,” because it means you were, and you can’t say, “No,” because it means you still are.  In this case, if Jesus said, “No.  We shouldn’t pat the tax,” then the Romans would take care of him.  Because that was treasonous.  That was rebellious.  They were in charge and they didn’t tolerate people standing up to them.  Problem solved!  But, if he said, “Yes, it is right to pay Roman taxes,” there would go his popularity.  Because the people would turn against him!  This was foolproof!

If you remember, last week, Jesus had put them in a similar situation.  He got them on a similar kind of question.  And they didn’t like it!  So, in a way, this was also their revenge!  Do you remember?  He asked, “Where did John the Baptist get his authority?”  That was their “Catch 22.”  If they answered that John’s authority was “from heaven,” Jesus would say, “Why didn’t you believe him?”  And if they said, it was “not from heaven,” then they would take a hit in the people’s eyes.  Because the people believed John to be a prophet!  Well, now they thought they had Jesus in the same place!

So, what happened?  This is classic!  If you’ve never heard this before, listen now how Jesus so shrewdly gets out of this trap!  “Give me a coin!” he said.  And someone did.  “Whose picture is on this coin?”  “Caesar’s” they said.  “Ok then!” Jesus said.  “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render to God the things that are Gods.”

That was a great answer!  And it silenced them!  And at the same time, he gave us a good lesson.  Because if you think about it, we’re in this, too!  We all have in our lives things we need to “Render to our own Caesar,” don’t we?  Think about our “Tax Day.”  It’s been moved around this year because of the covid virus.  But that’s one way we “Render” to our “Caesar.”  And there are many others.  We have lots of bills to pay and things to take care of in this life.  We live our lives in the context of this world, and we have many “worldly” obligations – some of which might seem like rendering to a Caesar – like the Hebrew people under their Roman occupation.  But others are just part of the “routine” of life.

I don’t think we have a problem with “participating” in our world.  That is, unless perhaps our problem is an “over-preoccupation” with the world!  That is, unless we think only about the “Rendering unto to Caesar” part of this, and nothing else.  That’s what Jesus was getting at here.  He would have us think about the “Rendering unto God” part.  And even if we are aware of it, too often that part gets forgotten – especially if we are preoccupied with Caesar!

Think of it this way.  It’s one thing to “have things.”  It’s another for those “things” to “have us.”  It’s one thing to have “possessions.”  It’s another thing when they begin to “possess us!”  And that happens all too often in our world and in our lives!  We are sometimes so preoccupied with the world and all its demands on us – and the word “demand” is appropriate! – because the world demands much of us.  And too often we are so preoccupied with the “things” of the world, that we forget the “things” of God!

So here in this “verbal battle” with the Pharisees, Jesus manages to weave in a wonderful lesson – which I’ve found he usually does!  As we think about it, as we think about what it is that we “render to God,” we might even remember Jesus’ words from his Sermon on the Mount, from some three years prior.  There he said, “Store up for yourselves” – literally ‘Treasure up’ for yourselves – “treasures in heaven.”  And then this!  “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also!”

That means more than just “rendering” or “giving things up” to God, doesn’t it?  You see, neither in that sermon “on the Mount,” nor in this passage for today, does Jesus say it’s either one or the other!  He doesn’t say, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s OR render unto God…”  He says “AND.”  He recognizes both in our lives.  He doesn’t say we shouldn’t have treasures on earth.  What does he say?  He says, “do not treasure them.”  He says that it’s a matter of priorities.  He says it’s a matter of life orientation.  He says it’s a matter of the heart!  Jesus always seems to make everything a matter of the heart!

So how does that all work for you?  Do you have a good sense of balance between rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto God?  Do you make God’s kingdom a priority?  Is your heart’s “treasure” in heaven or on earth?

I’ve been thinking, that maybe the “social distancing” we’ve been going through, is giving us cause to think more about matters of the heart.  Maybe, with a lot of the “regular things” removed from us for a time, we have the opportunity to think about what is it that means the most to us?  Maybe that’s a good thing that can come out of this.  What is important to us in this life?  What do we “make time for?”  What do we truly “treasure?”  Maybe in these “unusual” days we have the opportunity to find a little more clarity about that part of our lives that we “render unto God.”  Maybe this is a chance to think about how important his kingdom is to us!

So, I invite you to take some time to think about that this week.  Think about what’s really important in this life.  Think about what you hold to be the most dear to you.  Think about what it means when Jesus calls us to be “in the world,” but not “of the world,”  Hear Jesus saying to us, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s!”


Eternal God, help us to see the world as you see it.  Teach us the balance we need between the things of Caesar and the things of God.   Help us to see each other like you see us.  Help us to love like Jesus loved when he lived among us.  Help us to see your kingdom in our midst.  Help us to look to you and to know your joy, no matter what the circumstances of our lives.  For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.