Proper 24 • Matthew 22:15–22 • October 16, 2011
By David Schmitt
Textual Study: At the heart of this text lies an aphorism (v. 21), the saying of Jesus that the Pharisees had hoped to use to entrap him (v.15), but through which he entrapped them in their answer (“Caesar’s”) and in their fear of the crowd that marveled at him (v. 22).
Preaching the Saying: As is characteristic of aphorisms, the saying invites reflection. It tends to stop the flow of the narrative and invite the preacher to meditate on relations between church and state.
This certainly can be done with this text, joining it to other texts of Scripture (e.g., Romans 13) to clarify Christian living in the realms of church and state. To do so, one might point out the difference between those who erroneously act as if what we possess is ours from which we freely choose to give to others (the use of δίδωμι in the question, v. 17) and those who faithfully recognize that all of life, including governing authorities, is given by God, and our response is a matter of giving back in recognition of that which we have received (the use of ἀποδίδωμι in Jesus’s answer, v. 21).
Preaching the Story: But that is not the only way of reading this text. Instead, one might consider this text in the flow of the narrative. Here, Matthew invites us to enter more deeply into the saving sufferings of Christ. He reveals the tension between the spiritual bankruptcy of God’s people and the priceless love of Jesus.
The text is set in the midst of the irony of Passion week. In this time of Passover, when Israel celebrates God’s redemption, Matthew reveals God’s rejection. God has come to his temple, and his people respond to his presence not by worship but by rejection. Such rejection leads to the divine abandonment of the temple (23:38) and its ultimate destruction (24:2).
Having entered the temple (21:23), Jesus is disputing with Israel’s religious leaders in a series of controversial dialogues and inviting them to repentance through a series of withering parables. Jesus has just told the chief priests and the Pharisees that the kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to the nations (21:43). In response to this judgment of God, they seek to rid themselves of Jesus, yet fear the people who consider him a prophet. Our text records the perfect question to answer their dilemma: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (22:17). If Jesus supports paying taxes to Caesar, he risks losing favor with the crowds; if he denies paying taxes to Caesar, he risks being accused of insurrection.
Instead of revealing their ingenuity, however, this dialog reveals the spiritual bankruptcy of Israel’s leaders and of the temple itself. Ironically, the religious leaders feign interest in keeping God’s law even while they are breaking it, denying love to both God and neighbor (22:37–40). Their mouths attend to the lawfulness of paying the census tax while their hearts neglect the weightier matters, such as “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (22:23). When God comes to his temple, he finds it filled not with mercy but with malice, not with the blood of sacrifice but with all of the blood of the righteous shed upon the earth (22:35–36). It is fitting that God abandons the temple (23:38), even as he mercifully continues his mission to bring salvation to all people. The last time we are in the temple, before the death of Jesus, we see it abandoned: the religious leaders stand there, with money in their hands and questions about lawfulness in their mouths, and yet they are completely oblivious to the things of God in their midst.
In 27:1–14, the religious leaders are caught in their inability to discern what to render to Caesar or to God. They have taken Jesus, the one God gave them as Israel’s king (22:41–46), and turned him over to Caesar (27:1–2). They are then given one of Jesus’s disciples: Judas comes to them in remorse, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” These shepherds of God, now facing a sheep that has strayed, neglect matters of “justice and mercy” and reply “What is that to us?” Having turned away God and having turned away man, immediately they take counsel with what to do with the blood money and whether it was lawful to put it in the treasury (27:6–7). Here, they are not able to discern the true treasure of God—Israel’s king come to bring salvation and a person caught in sin and in need of forgiveness—even as they ironically revisit their earlier question, now trapped by matters of blood money and lawfulness before God.
The artful irony of Matthew’s retelling of the passion narrative invites reflection not only on matters of church and state but also on the reign of God come into our midst in Christ Jesus.
Suggested Outline: Text-Application
The Treasures of God
Introduction: Have you ever seen a coin displayed in a museum? It’s odd. This piece of money is taken out of its context and put inside a glass case, and it invites your attention rather than your use. Separated from the sweat of labor and the dusty exchange of the market, this coin inspires reflection on its beauty, even as we forget its value at the time of its use.
In some ways, our text this morning can operate the same way. It displays a saying of Jesus, a proverb that leads us into reflection on matters of church and state. As we ponder such matters beautifully captured in this saying, we may remain distant from what was really happening at the time of this dialog. Seeing the beauty of our Lord’s saying, we miss our Lord who was saying it and the value of his work here in the temple of God.
Text: At this time in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. God has come to visit his people. Jesus cleanses the temple of those who change money, only to reveal the person of God in the temple changing lives as the blind and the lame come to Jesus for healing (21:14). Israel, however, refuses God’s visitation, and this is only one among many dialogs between Jesus and the religious leaders that reveal their spiritual bankruptcy before God.
Pretending to care about matters of the law, they break the law, seeking to entrap Jesus in his words. Later, in response, Jesus rightly declares that they have neglected the weightier matters of God’s law. In the temple, where God desires to show forth mercy, they have practiced malice. Where God looked for faith, they have fostered rejection. Where God has given them the blood of sacrifice, they have sought the blood of the righteous, and so the air is thick with irony. The religious leaders stand in the temple, arguing about money, while the temple itself is spiritually bankrupt.
This is most clearly seen the day that they condemn Jesus to death. They repeatedly fail to render to God the things that are God’s and are left standing in the temple turning blood money over in their hands. They have taken Jesus, the king of Israel, and turned him over to Caesar. Judas then comes to them and confesses his sin. Rather than attend to matters of justice and mercy, these false shepherds of Israel turn Judas away, saying, “What is that to us?” and immediately begin to debate, in all seriousness this time, what they should do with the thirty pieces of silver, as if their faithful service to God rests upon how they treat this money, when they have condemned their Messiah and disregarded their calling to tend to God’s people and care for their souls.
While the temple and its leaders are spiritually bankrupt, the world is now rich with the mercy of God. Outside the temple, outside Jerusalem, the true king of Israel reigns from a cross. Here, the treasury of God’s mercy is now thrown open and the priceless blood of the Passover sacrifice is now shed; God comes to redeem his people. Here, we see a true king, the king of Israel, doing the work of a servant-king. Jesus had said that his rule was unlike that of the Gentiles, as he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (20:28). Through this merciful rule of Jesus, the world is forgiven and true disciples are formed.
Application: Today, we as Christ’s disciples continue to follow, rendering to God the things that are God’s: praise for the riches of salvation freely given for all people and faithful willingness to attend to matters of mercy in the daily life of the world.
Because the reign of God is eternal, the church always faces the temptation to take this gift of salvation out of the currency of daily life and place it under glass for people to come and see. Like a coin displayed in a museum, the work of God is there for people to ponder, but far away from their daily lives. The website reserveaspotinheaven.com sells tickets to heaven. While we might laugh at this website, some live as if that were the case with the church. For them, religion is a private belief about their soul’s future with little connection to the dust and sweat of this world. Every once in a while, a false prophet will arise and declare the end of the world (for example, on October 21, 2011) and people respond, coming to church to grab their coin of salvation and stand there in the world, waiting to enter the kingdom of God. Yet the reign of God is here, now, among us, and it has present as well as eternal value.
When false prophecies do not come true, Christians need to be careful about their conversation. Rather than simply despising the false prophets, we are given the chance to speak the true words of God. God’s reign is now, in your life, through Christ Jesus. God’s eternal mercy matters in the daily life of this world. Our Lord rules over all things. He has established governments for the good ordering of life and he has created the church in his mission to give life to all people. Here, God gathers us in his temple, a place of mercy not malice. Here, he forms us to be his people, known by their love for one another, their love for God, and their service in his merciful mission to a fallen world.