St Michael & All Angels

Sharing God's Love

Reading and Reflection

Sunday 18 October  Trinity 19 

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.(NIV)

Reflection from our Vicar, Rev'd Nicky Harvey

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. 

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is in the temple and things are hotting up between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees want to regain the upper hand, to put Jesus in his place. After all, he is just a carpenter from Nazareth. The crowds seemed to love him though, and that made him dangerous. The Pharisees weren’t necessarily bad people. They were worried for their nation, their families, themselves and it didn’t pay to cause trouble when you were ruled by Rome. This troublemaker needed stopping before he brought disaster on them all.

So, the Pharisees, religious purists, teamed up with the Herodians, supporters of King Herod, and they came to Jesus with a deadly question, which would put him in an impossible position. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor, or not?” If he said yes, he’d fall foul of the nationalists who wanted independence from Rome. If he said no, he’d be in trouble with the Romans. One or other of these groups would get him into hot water, whatever he said. Surely he couldn’t win.

Jesus’ response, though, was simply to ask for a coin, the kind of coin they would have paid that Roman tax with. And they produced one, with no trouble at all and Jesus says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. 

 What is Jesus saying? Firstly, perhaps, he’s reminding his questioners – and us – that we all have to live in the world as it is. There isn’t a way to opt out. Throughout human history people have tried to separate themselves from the complexities of life. They’ve withdrawn to the desert, formed idealistic communities, refused to participate in government, and shunned those who’ve disagreed with them. It is not just religious people who’ve done this. Political purists can be every bit as exclusive as religious ones.

In the end all these separatist ideological experiments tend to run into the same difficulties. It’s all very well to draw a line in the sand, to say “this far and no further”. But where should we draw it, and how firmly. Radical groups always split – and often keep splitting – over the issue of how pure is pure, how separate is separate, how different do we have to be.

“Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s” says Jesus. “However much you might want to have nothing to do with Rome,” says Jesus, “that is not an option. Rome is part of your reality, for good and ill, part of the world God has set you in. Pretending it isn’t won’t change anything.”

Then Jesus goes on. As well as telling us to “give the Emperor what is the Emperor’s”, he also tells us to “Give to God what is God’s”. That is the sting in the tail. Because what is God’s? To put it simply everything is God’s. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” say Psalm 24. Ultimately, wherever our human loyalties and investments are, God’s claim on us goes beyond them and takes priority over them. And that means, whether we like it or not, there will almost certainly be a time when the demands of the world around us and the demands of our faith will come into conflict. There will be no easy, painless way out of that conflict. Jesus knows this, but he seems not to be afraid of it, and that, I think, is what really amazes these Pharisees and Herodians.

They are not amazed because Jesus’ response is clever. I think they are amazed because it isn’t. He isn’t trying to make them look stupid or win some sort of word game with them. He isn’t trying to wriggle off the hook they are dangling in front of him. If he was, this provocative answer was a strange way of doing it.  In fact, within a couple of days of this encounter he will be arrested and crucified. His ministry was always going to end like that, and he knew it. The Roman and Jewish authorities were never going to tolerate the challenge he confronted them with.

The courage that Jesus shows here as he faces death comes from his deep awareness that, indeed, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” That includes him, as it does all of us. We are held in God’s hands. We are ultimately safe, whatever the world does to us. Jesus knew that and he trusted it, and that meant that when the demands of love came up against the demands of the authorities in his world, he was able to keep his feet on the path he knew was right.  

This story is not about a coin trick that turns the tables on some cunning opponents. It doesn’t give us clever answers to the dilemmas we face as we negotiate our way through the complexities of life. It is a story about courage. The courage that comes from knowing deep down in our hearts that we belong to God, that we bear his image, that we are named, known and loved by him. If we can grasp that, no power on earth can ultimately destroy us.