It was into such strong pre-existing expectations and assumptions that Jesus brought a message that turned it all upside down. He engaged with people in a way that no one thought a “king” would or should. He connected with people that others callously pushed aside or ignored. He challenged the religious leaders - the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees and others who were educated in the Law of the Torah, or the first five books of the bible that contained the history of God’s people. These learned men were the interpreters of God’s law to the Jewish people.
Jesus presented a new message. A message of new life - a new way to treat one another and live in community; a way that involved self-sacrifice and servanthood rather than punishment and servitude. He preached compassion, unity, and peace rather than vengeance, disparity, and chaos. He embodied God’s mercy and grace rather than God’s wrath and judgment stating he was the fulfillment of the law.
It is easy to see how those in power and authority didn’t like what Jesus taught. It is easy to see why those who established religious practices and taught the religious rules based on the old Levitical Law (Old Testament) didn’t like what he stood for and promoted. It is easy to see why they wanted him silenced and why they put great effort into disrupting his plan. It is easy to see why they wanted to put an end to his divine agenda. They could not grasp that he was the fulfillment of the very law they were so desperately clinging to.
The primary way they tried to disrupt Jesus’ purpose was by publically challenging him with difficult, political topics, and emotionally charged issues. Multiple times throughout Jesus’ ministry, those in authority found ways to publicly put Jesus on the spot with the sole intent of embarrassing, shaming, or catching him saying or doing something that was against the law of the governing body.
Jesus comes on the scene saying he, and he alone, is the fulfillment of God’s law and that he came to give life and life abundant, therefore the strict rules, regulations, practices, and elite hierarchy put in place by the Jewish leaders was not God’s way. The Pharisees could not lose control and so they devised a plan. If they could get Jesus to say the people of God should not have to pay taxes to Caesar he would be reported and arrested by Roman authority. If they could get Jesus to say the people of God should pay taxes regardless, his followers and growing popularity will turn against him. Either way, they win and retain their power and authority.
Jesus turns their question from a sociopolitical issue - who has political power and governing authority, to a theological one; What does God require of human beings? Who by the way are made in and carry within them not the image of Caesar, but the image of God (NIB 673).
According to Bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, Jesus did three things with his answer:
- It is as if Jesus says ‘give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, yes pay the tax but without the sting of saying yes you must submit to the Romans as your masters.”
- His words echo a long standing Jewish slogan, “pay the Gentiles back in their own coin.” Jesus is reminding these “learned” men of a long ago rally cry from their own people - but all the Roman authorities hear is “pay your taxes.”
- The command to give God what belongs to God is the most brilliant piece of this whole puzzle. Could it mean that Jesus was saying because humans bear God’s image, that all humans owe themselves, their lives, to God and should give those lives back, as one might give a coin back to Caesar? Did he mean, standing there in the Temple courtyards, that the sacrificial system, which was supposed to be the way of giving God his due, needed to be superseded by a more complete worship? Did he mean - against normal revolutionaries - that if you really gave your whole self to God you would discover that using violence to fight violence, using evil to fight evil, simply wouldn't do?
If this text is about anything, it is about discipleship - learning, seeking, and knowing how to live life more and more like Jesus. It is about realizing that the Kingdom of God goes beyond the either/or questions and answers we so desperately seek. It goes beyond our compulsion or need to arrange, color code, file, alphabetize, and categorize all the hard parts of life so that we can feel like we are in control. The text, like many of Jesus’ teachings, challenges us to think beyond the either/or and walk through the both/and discoveries that come when we fully give ourselves to the wisdom of God. This text is about how we live in and bring about the Kingdom of God here and now.
An ordinary coin. An extraordinary lesson. A deeper insight into who Jesus is, who we are to be, and a greater understanding of how God is at work in plain sight. May we all have eyes to see and ears to hear. AMEN
Pastor Jenothy Irvine