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 that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax 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 image is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "So give back 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. Matthew 22:15-22 (NIV) Read the whole chapter.
Well, if you haven't heard, there's a national election coming up in about 16 days. It's been in the news a little bit. And I thought I probably need to give you your 2020 voting guide. Just kidding, that's not my place. That's not what this pulpit is for. But we are going to talk about what does it mean to be citizens in a political realm and people of God who in many ways have citizenship in two kingdoms: this earthly kingdom of the United States in which we find ourselves residents. But also the kingdom of God in which we are not only called by welcomed and invited to be a part of. So what do we do? And how do we understand what this means? Because it's not easy. We see all of the things going on on the national level and even some of the local ones. Of all of the ads and the signs in the yards. I'm sure many of you have probably already been out and voted. But it still is a complicated situation we find ourselves in. I thought what better Sunday to talk about it than when the lectionary gives us this text about paying taxes.
To begin with we need to understand that this particular passage is not going to give us a definitive clear-cut theology of politics and how to live in a political world. But it is going to give us some glimpses and insights. So we're going to take a look at it but we need to understand the context of this first. First off, voting and elections aren't the same as paying taxes. In fact, the opportunity and the privilege that we have to be able to vote for our government is something that would have been completely foreign to Jesus' audience. They're talking about an emperor, the Caesar, the one who had forcefully taken over their land with his armies and demanded taxes from them. Voting was not an option they had let alone any choice. But more than that Jesus is being confronted by the religious officials of that land.
It's easy sometimes for people to say, 'Well you know what, Jesus had nothing to do with politics. Jesus stayed away from that.' But the truth of it is, Jesus did address politics. In fact, the things that Jesus said and did were such a threat to the powers that were that they conspired and conducted a state-sanctioned execution that we call the crucifixion. His words, his actions, his ministry, the following that he had was so controversial, so antagonistic to the powers that be that they wanted to put an end to it. We see in the text this morning them already conspiring and working to find a way to give them a reason to silence this man. So it says that the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him. They were scheming. They were plotting. They were trying to figure out a way to get this guy in so much hot water that the authorities would have no choice but to arrest him.
And what's more, it says that they went with the Herodians. Now the Pharisees were the religious leaders of Israel. The Herodians would have been a part of the entourage that followed King Herod, who was the king of the Jewish people. Yet, he was a puppet for the Roman Empire. He did nothing without their permission and really had very little authority or power that they had not granted him. Now the Pharisees did not like the Romans. These were foreign invaders bringing their ways, their will, their religions into their country. They didn't like them. The Herodians, well, they might not have liked the Romans, they were willing to play the Roman game. So they were kind of co-conspirators with the Romans. So the Pharisees and the Herodians really were not tight. They were not on the same page. And yet, they both had such an issue with Jesus that they plotted together.
So they came up with this question that they thought was going to put Jesus in a bind, that he was going to have to pick and choose. So they offer all of these flattering words and say, 'You're such a great teacher. You're so truthful, honest, and stuff. So we want to ask you a question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?' Now the thing about this question is that they didn't ask is it lawful for us to not pay it. They weren't talking about the Jewish law. They weren't talking about the law of Moses. They were talking about Roman law, which was contradictory in of itself for them to ask it the way they did. Is it lawful to pay taxes or not? Well, the Romans are calling for the tax, so clearly it's lawful. They want your money. How do you support an army? How do you support an empire? You collect the taxes from the people.
Well, Jesus doesn't bite on the bait that they've put forth. In fact, Jesus challenges them and says, 'Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Does anybody have a coin? Tell me whose picture is on that? Whose inscription is on here.' Now a denarius would have been the common coin of the day. At that time Tiberius would have been the Emperor who was in power. So more than likely, the majority of those coins in circulation would have had his image on it and would have had an inscription that said, 'Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus high priest for the Roman people, the Emperor.' The Caesar was lifted up as if he were a god. So Jesus doesn't answer their question but rather asks a question back, 'Whose picture is this? Whose inscription?' And they say, 'Well, it's the Emperor.' And Jesus gives that response, 'Give therefore to the Emperor the things that are the Emperors and to God the things that are God's.'
As we consider Jesus' response, it's easy to say, 'Well yeah those coins are the Emperors because they have his picture on them. He stamped them with his name and his picture so they must belong to him.' Some people would look at this say, 'You know what, Jesus is being evasive. He's dodging their question. And it must be because you know political things don't matter to him.' But another way to look at it is that Jesus is pushing them a little further and saying, 'You know what there are bigger things at stake here.' Jesus did not avoid politics but they were not the first and foremost thing on his mind. He did not bring up this question, this group of Pharisees and Herodians did. They came to him and pushed him with this question. Jesus asked different questions. Jesus asked questions like, 'What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their soul?' Jesus asked questions that really challenge people to think differently about their life in this world we live in than these kinds of questions about, 'Well should we pay our taxes or not?' So Jesus wanted to reorient their values and their priorities. He says, 'Whose picture is on this?'
So what do we take away from this? We live in a different world. And yet we all know that there are values and priorities and things that are of importance to us. We all experience it on a daily basis. There are things of the Emperors that belong to the Emperor. We're citizens of this United States. We pay our taxes. We have things that are obligations we have because of our citizenship here where we live. But Jesus says we're also citizens somewhere else. And so what is it that we're to render unto God? To me, the obvious answer is that if we go back to Genesis, to that story of creation. Whose image do we bear? We bear the image of God. Male and female He created them. In the image of God, we are all created. So what do we owe to God? Well, we bear his image, and so our very lives are owed to God. So all that we have and all that we are is an ode to God. Whose inscription is upon us? You may remember the movie "Toy Story", with the little cowboy, Woody, who had his boy that he belonged to. His name written in sharpie on the bottom of his boot said 'Andy'. That was a source of pride for Woody. That gave his life meaning, as a toy in a cartoon, but he valued it because it defined who he was.
Friends, the name of God has been ascribed upon our lives as well. Through the waters of baptism, through those waters, God has declared that we are his beloved children. So that inscription that we have upon our lives is 'Child of God'. So we bear God's image and we bear that name that's been inscribed upon us. So while we have obligations and commitments in this earthly kingdom, we owe all the more to God in Heaven who not only has created us but has blessed us, redeemed us, and called us his own. We are his children.
There are many governments around this world. There are many like ours that would be defined, or classified, as a Christian nation because it's a predominant religion. But we also need to be mindful of the fact that you and I, as Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, sin and fall short of God's glory. We're not perfect. We strive to be the best that we can be. We long to be that person that God has called us to be. But we stumble. We falter. But thankfully, we have a God who is forgiving and merciful. For a nation to call itself Christian, sadly, there is no nation that is 100% Christian. In following all of those teachings, statutes, values, and morals that Jesus taught and proclaimed, just as we stumble and fall short, every nation that claims to be a Christian nation still stumbles and falls short.
This is why we need to be mindful of the fact that when Jesus says, 'Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's,' that these nations, ours or any other, are not our saviors. We've come to expect much from our government through the services provided: health care, education, defense systems, judicial oversight. all of those things that come with governments are necessary for an orderly world. But none of those will truly save us. Because that's only something that God has done through His son Jesus. While we may love our country, we also have a Savior who loved us and deserves our greatest love.
Now, in the United Methodist Church, we do have statements about politics. Often, you've probably heard the expression that there are things you shouldn't talk about around the dinner table: politics, religion, and money. These Pharisees and Herodians managed to touch on all three of those in this one question that they ask of Jesus. I've maybe taken the bait and ventured into it this morning as well. But the thing is as United Methodists, we have our social principle statements about the political world. From our social principles it says, "While our allegiance to God takes precedence over our alliance to any state, we acknowledge the vital function of government. We acknowledge the vital function of government as a principle vehicle for the ordering of society. Because we know ourselves to be responsible to God for social and political life, we declare the following relative to governments." There are a number of statements that are issued in there. If you're interested in seeing those, you can find them here. You'll find this statement and others but particularly under one of those is a statement about political responsibility. It says, "The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens. The church should continually exert a strong ethical influence upon the state, supporting policies and programs deemed to be just and opposing policies and programs that are unjust."
Our denomination, the United Methodist Church, says we need to be involved in this process. We also need to understand what that role is. This pulpit, this chancel, this platform is not a place to lift up and endorse a particular candidate or a particular party. But we are called as citizens of a Heavenly kingdom to have a voice and to speak out and say, 'You know what, I don't think this policy is a good one. I don't think that this action that our government is taking, or is proposing taking, is one that is right. So we're called to speak up and to speak out. We're encouraged to exercise that right that we have to vote.
Now many of you have probably discovered that in life when you want God's definitive answer on what you should do and how you should act, God often doesn't give you the clear-cut answer you'd hoped for. That if you were standing in that polling booth and looking at the list of candidates saying, 'Okay God, which one is it?' You might as well play eeny-meeny-miny-moe or flip a coin because God is not going to give you a clear-cut definitive answer. And even when you are certain and think that this is the best choice I can make, well sometimes we're wrong. Sometimes those names on those ballots are people that we think have the best intentions and the best plan in place and they stumble and fall short. They disappoint us. They leave us wanting something different. But we do the best that we can. We pray for God's guidance. We use our own judgment. We make a choice much like the decision that we put before Jesus. Of, alright which is it: do we pay the taxes or don't we? Jesus never came down on one side. He said, 'Whose picture is on here? Well, give to Caesar what is Caesars. Give to God what is God's.' And that was the end of it.
It said that the people were amazed. To me, I think it was probably a mic drop moment. Where Jesus made this statement and all of them slackjawed said, 'Um, but what is Caesar's and what's God's?' But they didn't. Because they didn't want to reveal their own hearts. They didn't want to be convicted by the fact that oh maybe they were attributing things to Caesar that really didn't belong to Caesar. Or maybe they were unwilling to give to God fully what was God's. It says they all left and went away. That question was left hanging. Which is which? We have choices that we get to make as citizens of this country when we go to the polls. If we took a survey here, I'm sure we would be divided. I'm sure that each of you have in mind the merits and the drawbacks to any or all of the candidates that are before us. And that's okay. Part of what it means to be the body of Christ is to be able to demonstrate that we can be united, even if we're not of one mind. Even if you have one candidate in mind over the other. Even if you see value in one and not in the other. It's okay. That's the choice that you have. But I encourage you to think about how can you best honor God. Not just in casting your vote. But also in the way that you have conversations and treat those that might be different minded than you.
To quote from a lyric from a song titled "Free Will" by the rock band Rush, "Sometimes not to choose, you still have made a choice." Maybe for you this year, you're not happy with any of the candidates, and choosing not to choose is an acceptable choice as well. Regardless of how things go on November 3rd, the day after, every day leading up to, and every day after that, we will still be the people of God. Regardless of who occupies the White House, regardless of what party has control of the House or the Senate, regardless of if there are however many Supreme Court Justices sitting on the bench, we will still be the people of God. Because at the end of the day, when Jesus responded to that question he said there are greater things going on here, things of greater importance, and greater significance. The governance that we have is important but as we've seen throughout history, governments come and go. Kingdoms rise and fall. But the people of God will always be the people of God. So how should you vote come November 3rd? Vote like a Christian. Make your best decision and through it, do those things that we're called to do: of loving God and loving other people, especially those that might think and vote differently than you.