Wisdom in person 4 - Luke 20:20-26
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A vicar friend of mine was telling how his church decided to take a Gospel opportunity afforded by Mel Gibson’s film, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ when it came out a few years ago. They decided to get hold of a number of tracts which had been specially produced to explain the real meaning behind Christ’s passion to give out at the local cinema. So one evening a young girl from the church together with one of the church wardens took a wad of these tracts in their hands and headed off. The young girl stood outside one exit to the cinema while the warden stood outside the other. And as the crowds began to leave the cinema, the warden enthusiastically gave a tract to as many people as would take one with the accompanying words, ‘You will find this really helpful explaining the film you have just seen.’ Well, within next to no time he had got rid of his 50 or so tracts and he set off to see how his colleague was doing. When he arrived he noticed she still had all her tracts in her hand. ‘Why haven’t you given them away’ he asked. ‘Well’ she replied with a puzzled look on her face, ‘the film hasn’t yet finished.’ Then the church warden realised he had given out his tracts to people who had just watched ‘Scooby Doo 2’!
Well, I guess that there are many morals you can draw from that story, not least the importance of making sure that you have the right material for the right situation. And when it comes to the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ you cannot help but be struck by the way he always had the right words to say whatever the situation. Sometimes because we are so taken up with Jesus being the God who became man, we underestimate what it meant for God to be a man. For someone who had very little formal education has it never occurred to you how incredibly intelligent Jesus was- how wise? This Galilean mender of chairs and hanger of doors was often pitted against some of the greatest minds of his day and each time it was they, not he, who came off worse for wear in any argument. One person who has been struck be this phenomenon is the Christian philosopher Dallas Willard who says this: “Jesus is Lord’ can mean little in practice for anyone who has to hesitate before saying ‘Jesus is smart.’ He is not just nice, but brilliant.” Jesus was the brightest man ever to walk this planet and this comes out in a number of ways not least by the way he outmanoeuvred and outwitted his exceptionally clever opponents. And we are going to be looking at a breathtaking instance of that tonight as he deals with the religiously smart and politically savvy people who decide to gang up on him in Luke 20:20 and this deviously clever question about paying taxes to Caesar, which, as we shall see, is not about paying taxes at all.
So do turn with me to Luke 20 if you have not done so already as we prepare to be both challenged and inspired by what Jesus says.
First, we have a devious entrapment, vv 20-21, ‘Keeping a close watch on him, they (that is, the Pharisees, Chief Priests and Herodians) sent spies, who pretended to be honest. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. 21So the spies questioned him: "Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 22Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
Now what is that all about? Is it that some want to know whether Jesus would approve of tax dodgers and the like? Well, there are two things we have got to get to grips with if we are going to get to the question behind the question; the first is the immediate context of Jesus ministry and the second is the wider context of the discontentment with paying taxes to the Romans at the time. You have to ask, why have spies been sent to Jesus in the first place to try and trip him up? What was the motivation? The motivation for the religious and political elite to get out their knives has been given earlier in this chapter and in the previous chapter. You see, Jesus had just ridden into Jerusalem in an undisguised claim to be Israel’s King; we call it ‘Palm Sunday.’ In 19:38 the people had been singing, ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord’ and that is a very special phrase rarely used in the Bible but which speaks of God’s special King who comes on a rescue mission for his people. But Jesus goes beyond that because in v 44 he says that Jerusalem is going to end up being destroyed in judgement because, ‘you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.’ Do you see the equation? In Jesus’ coming was God’s coming. This is underscored further by Jesus clearing out of the temple because the last prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi, said that ‘Suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple…. And be like a refiner’s fire or launderer’s soap.’ Well, here he is. And then Jesus tells a parable about an owner of a vineyard whose tenants have effectively declared independence and the shear arrogance of their rebellion against the rightful owner reaches its climax in the killing of the owner’s son. And it didn’t take the religious leaders two seconds to realize who Jesus was talking about- the vineyard is Israel, the owner is God- Yahweh, Jesus is claiming to be his Son and they are the wicked tenants. No wonder they decide to get rid of him! Now they may be wicked but they are not stupid because they realize that a full frontal assault on Jesus won’t work at the moment because he has the popular support of the people, verse 19, and so they try to find a way of either causing that support to dwindle or getting the Roman authorities to do their dirty work for them, hence the trap.
So what was the big deal about paying taxes to Caesar? It all began when Judea, which is the area centred on Jerusalem, became a Roman province. The Emperor, Caesar Augustus made a decree that all the Roman world should be taxed. This tax was called the “census,” and it was owed by each person. The administration of this very tax may have been the reason that Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem to be enrolled. You can imagine that Jewish people fiercely disliked the tax. Most people are not keen on paying taxes at the best of times, but worse still is the payment of taxes to a foreign occupying power; and the residents of Judea were no exception, which is where Jesus is now. Galilee where he came from was under a different regime and didn’t have to pay Roman taxes using Roman money, but Judea was different. But there was more to it than that, for there were good theological reasons why some Jews were not enamoured at the thought of paying foreign taxes using this foreign money. You see, the Roman coins were stamped with the image of the current Roman emperor. In Jesus’ day, the image of Emperor Tiberius appeared on the denarius, along with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus- the chief high priest” Since the coin identified Tiberius as the son of a divine father, then Tiberius on these coins was making a not-so-subtle claim that he, too, was divine. And so to a good Jew, the combination of the image and the inscription on the coin was a double whammy of idolatry and blasphemy. So the question in the minds of some would be: Is Jesus a good Jew or not- i.e. Will he disapprove of paying the tax? Is Jesus a good citizen or not i.e. Would he pay the tax? And the question they put to Jesus turns on this either/or choice which forms the two horns of the dilemma.
Now notice how these folk approach Jesus in verse 21, "Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” This is not just a matter of buttering up to Jesus with a bit of flattery; it is putting him in a position where he is being forced to answer the question in front of the crowd. You see, if he doesn’t answer, then his integrity will be questioned, this résumé which has just been given would be suspect, silence would mean that he does show partiality and is not concerned with ‘teaching what is right in accordance with God’s truth’. So Jesus is put on the spot.
And the spot get’s hotter with the question in v22, ‘Is it right (literally ‘lawful’) for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" That is, is it in accordance with God’s law, does he consider it right for us to pay foreign taxes using theologically dodgy money? And you can imagine Jesus’ opponents looking on with a smirk on their faces and their arms folded across their chests waiting to see how Jesus would get out of this one- which as far as they were concerned he couldn’t. If he said, ‘Yes, of course, pay the tax’, then he would court unpopularity with the people not only because he would be seen as siding with the Romans but going against years of Jewish teaching and indeed the second of the Ten commandments, ‘You shall not make for yourself any image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath.’ And remember there is an image of the Emperor on the coin. So to go for that option would mean popular support melting away like snow in the full glare of the morning sun. The conclusion people would have drawn would have been that he couldn’t be God’s King, for God’s Messiah would not support blasphemy. On the other hand to answer , ‘No’, which is presumably what his opponents were hoping to hear according to verse 20, would bring down the wrath of the Roman authorities as he would be condemned as a political rabble rouser.
But Jesus is not fazed for a moment, in a heartbeat he gives an answer, hence a disturbing reply, vv 23-25, ‘He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24"Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?" 25"Caesar's," they replied. He said to them, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."’
So what does Jesus mean by giving this answer? Well, in the various commentaries I have come across six possible explanations which I won’t bore you with; I will just give you what I think is the 7th one.
Notice two little details. The first is in v24. Jesus says, ‘Show me a denarius.’ Who is he saying that to? Well, these people who have arrived to trap him and they are the one’s which produce the coin, not Jesus. In other words, for all their ‘holier than thou’ pious rhetoric about whether a Jew should use such coins- they at least possess them, so they can’t be that bothered, they have already been compromised carrying around these blasphemous pieces of metal in their pockets.
The second detail is at the end of v 26, ‘Astonished by his answer, they became silent.’ They were bowled over by what he had said, totally ‘gob smacked’ as we would say. But why? It couldn’t have simply been that they were impressed by the rather clever way he had sidestepped their trap. The response is much too over the top for that-they are stunned!
A good translation of v 25 would be, "The thing that Caesar has made, give to Caesar; the thing that God has made, give to God." (Randall Buth). There are two parts to Jesus reply, and as we shall see it is the second part especially which causes his opponents to go into Harpo Marx mode- dumb.
Jesus is not sidestepping the challenging question. By answering a question with another question, Jesus is engaging in typical rabbinic rhetoric, because the question he raises and the answer given was expected to have OT texts behind it to support it, the texts are unspoken but alluded to. So what OT texts might these be?
The first would be Exodus 20:2 as we have already seen and the second commandment prohibiting against idolatry. So I don’t think Jesus was being nonchalant about the coins and all that they represent- Caesar’s arrogant claim to divinity, the dethroning God and the blatant idolatry which goes with it. Yes, the Bible does blast such stupid thinking. So by saying ‘The thing that Caesar has made, give it to Caesar’ Jesus could be being more than a little contemptuous along the lines, ‘Sure it is a pretty offensive thing that, and certainly an offensive claim is being made- but what else would you expect from a pagan, let him have the filthy thing back if he wants it, after all he made it- good riddance to bad rubbish.’
The text behind the second part of the answer ‘the thing God has made give to God’ would be Genesis 1:26-27, ‘Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ Yes, the coins might bear Caesar’s image, the false god, but who bears the image of the one true God? The answer is: we do-human beings. So if Caesar demands his thing back because he made it, how much more does God demand back what he has made, namely us and the whole of our lives? Where do we stand in relation to God on that front? That is the big issue. Now the fact that Jesus’ audience would have picked up on this connection is illustrated by a story about Rabbi Hillel the Elder (c. 70 B.C.-c. 10 A.D.), the most prominent Pharisaic teacher of the generation before Jesus. In this story, Hillel announces to his disciples that he is going to perform a "mitzvah"—-i.e., do a good deed to obey a commandment or fulfil God's will. His disciples ask what he plans to do, and he replies that he is going to take a bath. When his disciples wonder how taking a bath can be classed as a "mitzvah," Hillel explains that the Romans made sure that their idols were kept clean and polished. How much more, then, should we take care of ourselves, since we bear the image of the one true God? Do you see?
Now this would have hit the Jews like a kick in the teeth. They knew their Scripture and Psalm 96:7-10, ‘Give unto Yahweh, you families of the peoples, give unto Yahweh glory and strength. Give unto Yahweh the glory due to his name; bring an offering and come into his courts. O worship Yahweh in the beauty of holiness, tremble before him, all the earth, say among the heathen, Yahweh is King.’ It’s all right for these Jewish leaders to look down their noses at the out and out paganism of Caesar and his dethroning of God, but they are guilty of the very same thing. They are not only made in God’s image and belong to him like everyone else, but they claim to be Yahweh’s special people who belong to him, and yet what are they planning to do? They want to get rid of Yahweh as their King by getting rid of his Messiah Son who is standing right in front of them. As the apostle Paul later tells us Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’ who is due all allegiance, love, honour and worship, unlike Caesar. And so if they are to give to God’s what is God’s then they must give Jesus their lives, not to do so puts them in the category of the wicked tenants. That is why they are struck dumb. All that Jesus has been saying and doing up to this juncture, especially the parable about the wicked tenants, point to this- rendering to God what is God’s means a total surrender of lives to Jesus who is God. Do you see here that Jesus is an absolute genius in how he deals with us?
Which brings us to the demanding response.
It is astonishing how many of us think that we can catch Jesus out by our questions. Sometimes they appear rather clever and witty, ‘If Jesus is God and God is all powerful, then can he make a stone so large that he can’t move it?’ The fact that logical impossibilities like that are not real possibilities and so don’t apply to anyone, not least God, escapes the amateur philosopher. But perhaps we feel we can trip him up with other questions: what of those who have never heard the Gospel? Why is there so much suffering? What about our free will? As if the all knowing one hasn’t thought of those things or hasn’t a satisfactory answer? And that we think he is answerable to us anyhow is the height of presumption. But what is really behind our questions? Is it not for most of us a desire to keep Jesus at arms length, to be able to hang on to our idols which we feel give us power and independence, not least the idol of money? Some folk honestly believe that when they appear before God on the judgement day he will be in the dock and be forced to answer their questions. That is such a dangerous idea. When we see him our reaction will be like those in this story- silence- a very long silence which will stretch into the eternal silence of outer darkness. Yes, Jesus was the smartest person who ever lived, but he came not to answer our questions but to redeem our situation. He came to expose the hollow lives we tend to live without our Maker and mark out the ruin to which we are heading so we can act before it is too late. And tonight this same Lord Jesus is saying to you, as he said to these people- Give to God the thing he has made-that is you, body, mind and soul. Stop allowing yourself to be fooled and held in the grip of idols which displace God in your life-and this is a danger for the Christian as for the none Christian. And it may be tonight that God is speaking to your heart and saying there is one area in particular you have no yet surrendered to him, an ambition, a relationship, a resentment, your income- that needs to get sorted. But unlike Caesar Jesus is not a tyrannical ruler, he is God’s own Son who here is going to a cross for you and me, and he calls us to lay down are arms and surrender to his love.
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