To Give Back

by | Oct 22, 2023 | Sermons

To Give Back

Scripture: Matthew 22: 15-22

In the famous words of Admiral Akbar, “It’s a trap!”

The question we might ask is a trap for who?

Welcome to our passage from Matthew this morning. As sure a trap as I’ve ever seen. It isn’t Jesus who is trying to trap us, rather the Pharisees and the Herodians are seeking to entrap Jesus.

The Pharisees and Herodians spend some time singing Jesus’ praises. How good a teacher of the law he is. How he always teaches the way of God in truth and shows no deference to anyone. They are buttering him up and then they will attempt to stick him in the frying pan.

Now to his credit Jesus knows it’s a trap, he asks them “Why are you putting me to the test?”

Loyalty to God and rejection of Empire are not mutually exclusive, Gad and Empire can exist beside each other. Note, that Jesus doesn’t take a side! Instead, he asks to see the coin and in doing so counters the trap. Jesus doesn’t take an all or nothing approach, such a point of view is naïve. The world isn’t only good or bad, there are shades of grey.

It’s clear that the line of questioning presented to Jesus is meant to discredit him. If Jesus answers yes it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then this may be viewed as a contradiction of his teachings and loyalty to God. If he answers no to paying taxes, then he can be viewed as an anti-imperial radical that is a threat to Roman occupation.

Jesus doesn’t give an all or nothing response. In fact he doesn’t answer at all, but asks his own question finding a third way. “Whose head is on the coin and what is their title?” Jesus finds an alternate route, avoid their trap and then sets his own when he tells them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” These words ring true to those who hear them. Jesus is instructing the listeners that we must live wisely within the world discerning what the will of God is for us.

We in our modern world will joke about taxes. Some will do their very best to pay as little as possible. We’ve all heard or read about tax schemes or havens designed to keep our money safe. Then there is the old adage, “The only two sure things in life are death and taxes!” However, we are hard pressed to say that paying our taxes is disloyal to God.

The idea of money and symbols is interesting. Think about the “images on our money which gives Canadian citizens a sense of what that commitment looks like. On the $20 bill, along with an image of Queen Elizabeth, there is a drawing of the monument at Vimy Ridge, commemorating Canadian sacrifice during WWI. The $5 bill has the Canada Arm (from the space station), and the $100 bill points back to the development of insulin … A new $10 bill was minted in 2018, depicting the civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond. These images project the best of what might be given back to society by the citizens of Canada, and remind us that [as followers of Christ] our contributions to this world are best measured as a gift back to God in ways that bless others, seek justice, and are marked by humility even as we make “good trouble.” (Center for the Excellence in Preaching – https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2023-10-16/matthew-2215-22-3/)

One of the tasks for us as modern readers of this passage is discerning the difference between what is of God and what is of the world. To understand that God is very much active in the world. I believe the kingdom of God to be a present reality in as much as it is a future promise. If that’s true then everything of the world can’t be evil or bad.

How do we know the difference? How do we know what belongs to God and what belongs to the world? Commentator Yung Suk Kim writes that we “must bear the fruit of [our] interpretation.” (Yung Suk Kim – https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29/commentary-on-matthew-2215-22-6)

We must think about it, think things through. One of the books I have in my study is titled Thinking Theologically. As a minister that is part of my role, to think through the present challenges in a theological manner. That is, interpreting through the lens of scripture. Whether the issue is housing or health care, education or the environment we are called to apply a scriptural lens to things. We hope that we are interpreting things correctly. Within Christianity there is a belief that the phrase ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ should be interpreted literally. That what is here now won’t exist at some point in the future and because we’ve been given dominion over the earth, environmental practices and safeguards don’t matter. Because it will all be replaced by something new, and therefore we can consume what is here without consequence.

That’s an interpretation, one I happen to disagree with.

“In the end, what Jesus teaches us is a critical interpretation of the world … and conscientious engagement in the world, based on what we believe is true.” (Yung Suk Kim – https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29/commentary-on-matthew-2215-22-6)

What we believe is true is that God loves creation. That God loves us. The trap that Jesus evades can easily become a trap for us. If we harden our hearts and enjoy the pursuits of the world over the promises we find in God.

In our passage from Matthew the disciples of the Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is lawful “to pay taxes,” using the verb did?mi (to give, including to pay). While holding the coin, Jesus alters the word in an important way, adding a preposition to it: apodid?mi (to give back). Thus, evident in the verb itself is the idea that we return what has been given to us to who it rightfully belongs to. This is part of what it means to belong to something larger than ourselves. (Center for the Excellence in Preaching – https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2023-10-16/matthew-2215-22-3/)

Jesus doesn’t just say ‘give to Caesar’ he says ‘Give back to Caesar’ and ‘Give back to God’. It’s subtle but highlights the importance of discerning how we will engage with the world. Jesus asks us to find ways to give back, to repay in kind, and spread the love. Amen.

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.

St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security. 

Kristina Nairn

Public Health Nurse, HKPR Health Unit

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