Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

by Crossings

To Whom Do We Pay Tribute?
Matthew 22:15-22
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 24-Sunday between October 16 and 22 Inclusive)
analysis by Michael Hoy

15The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

DIAGNOSIS: The Legal Tribute

Step 1-Initial Diagnosis: Malicious
Herodians were supporters of the empire of Herod the Great, preceding Rome, but understandably quite politically concerned about the Roman occupation. The Pharisees were more quietist, resented Rome’s presence, but could live with it as long as Rome didn’t interfere with their religious practice. These two groups, or their representatives come to Jesus, “buttering-him-up” with pious niceties, but all of which Jesus “sees through” to the heart of their malicious intent, and to the heart of the legal agenda: “Is it lawful?” Our own dealings can be quite spurious, containing deeper agendas, even passive-aggressive attempts to legally bury someone else. Indeed, such agendas may be even more malicious than we realize — even malicious to ourselves in the final analysis.

Step 2-Advanced Diagnosis: Hypocrites
Jesus’ diagnosis leads him to call such malicious legalists “hypocrites.” A “hypocrite” is defined at “one who engages in the practice of professing beliefs that one does not hold or possess.” The hypocrisy of these legal emissaries becomes evident in that they produce the coin about which they expect no one should technically have in their possession, under their strict legal agenda, a coin bearing the image and likeness and stamp of “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus.” They betray that their own hearts are not about professing belief in the God that they supposedly want to honor.

Step 3-Final Diagnosis: Dispossessed
One might imagine a long pause before Jesus turns to the malicious hypocrites with the counter offer to “give to God the things that are God’s.” That is what they had failed to do. And for that, the final harm that will befall them (and us) in this legal tribute agenda is that we will be dispossessed by God, cast aside.

PROGNOSIS: The Evangelical Tribute

Step 4-Initial Prognosis: Repossessed
However, “giving to God the things that are God’s” is also the reason that Jesus the Christ came into their, and into our, midst to regain us under the likeness and image of his child-like state, and to stamp us as those who have been marked by the cross — not abandoned to the darkness of our folly (and God’s judgment), but brought into the light of his crucified wisdom that makes us righteous, repossessed, under new ownership.

Step 5-Advanced Prognosis: Genuine faith
The new markings we bear in Christ are able to make us a people who profess faith in being among those who are God’s — named by baptized names, children of God! Faith makes us the real divine emissaries, those who may rise above the clutter of “things” to embrace the living and true God. Through faith, one is not subject to the entrapment of the worldly legal agenda, and may embrace the love of Jesus as authority enough to be free in the world.

Step 6- Final Prognosis: The difference of deference
Through faith, we may begin to exercise a different kind of deference — an honoring and esteeming and claiming of people who are locked in the dungeons of being without any kind of deference, subjected only to the malicious legal agendas of our world. This text has often been appropriated, some may even say misappropriated, to depict a dichotomy of relations between church and state. But Christians do not dichotomize. They invest themselves into the world, maybe even using the things of Caesar, but especially the things that are Christ’s, for godly purposes, for giving to God the things that are God’s — the world in every corner, nook, and cranny.


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