GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
For this Sunday we are looking at not a parable of Jesus, but a riddle of Jesus.
You could call this the riddle of Caesar and the coin.
It's the famous story of the coin that Jesus is presented with, and he is asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not, and then gives his response.
So for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year A, we are going to be looking at Matthew 22:15-22:
Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle him in his talk.
And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Hero'di-ans, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men.
Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?"
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?
Show me the money for the tax." And they brought him a coin.
And Jesus said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?"
They said, "Caesar's." Then he said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away.
You might notice that that last verse that I just read is not in the lectionary, but again I included it because it’s an important clue for us as to the audience of this particular saying, and to how they responded.
So Jesus here is once again speaking to the Pharisees, who were very prominent leaders amongst the Jewish people who were testing him.
They were trying to entrap them.
They were trying to entangle him — literally as the text says — “in his talk.”
So what does that mean?
This is the context of Jesus’ teaching, but what's the meaning of the entrapment that they're trying to engage in.
Well in this case, the trap is really simple.
They are trying to get him to give a yes or no answer to the question of whether it's lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.
And the reason that they're doing this is because either way he answers the question, yes or no, can get him in trouble.
If Jesus, for example, says “yes, it's lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” he could be accused by his fellow Jews of being a Roman sympathizer.
You might recall that there were lots of Jews in the first century A.D., especially the zealots, who were vehemently opposed to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and to the land of Israel.
They saw the Romans as pagan overlords who had no right to be there, and they also saw, for example, Jewish tax collectors as the virtual equivalent of Gentile sinners, in part because they were colluding with the occupying forces of the Roman Empire.
So if Jesus says, “oh, yes, you have to pay taxes to Caesar,” he can be accused of being a Roman sympathizer and fall out with his Jewish contemporaries, his fellow Jews.
On the other hand, if Jesus says “no, it's not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” he can then be accused by the Romans of sedition, or of rebellion against the Roman government.
So by seeking a yes or no answer, the Pharisees here are trying to get Jesus into trouble no matter what answer he gives.
But, as is always the case in the Gospels, you just can't trap Jesus.
Don't do it.
It is not a good idea, because the trap will always spring back in your own face.
You're always going to end up being trapped yourself.
And in this case, Jesus responds to the Pharisees — his famous response — “show me the coin for the tax.”
It is an extremely powerful answer to their question.
But again, we need a little bit of Roman context here.
What's going on in this?
When Jesus says “show me the denarius for the tax,” he's referring to particular kind of coin.
The denarius was a small coin that would be stamped with the profile of the face of the Emperor.
What’s cool about this is that we actually have coins that have survived from the period of Jesus' life.
From around A.D. 14 - A.D. 37, the Emperor, the Caesar, was named Tiberius, and he produced many of these coins that were stamped with his profile.
On these coins was an inscription — this is really interesting and you can actually find pictures of this on the internet today — which read “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.”
Now think about that for a second.
When they hand Jesus the coin, it not only has the face, the graven image, of the Roman Emperor — that alone might've caused some problems with Jews because in the Old Testament book of Exodus 20:4 there was a law against any graven images and yet here is a graven image of the Emperor on the coin — but even more, underneath the graven image of Tiberius Caesar, the Roman Emperor at the time of Jesus, it not only called him Caesar, it not only called him the Emperor, it called him the son of God; because his father Augustus was regarded as divine by the Romans.
You might not realize this, but this is really important.
In the first century A.D., the two previous emperors, Julius Caesar and Augustus, had both been divinized.
They were both elevated to the status of gods by the Roman Empire.
You can see this if you read Suetonius’ famous biographies of the Emperor, it is called the Lives of the Caesars.
When he gets to Julius Caesar and to Augustus, he calls them the life of the Deified Julius and the Deified Augustus, the Divine Julius and the Divine Augustus.
So in essence, what the coin that they would've handed to Jesus would've had on it was an image of Caesar who was claiming to be the son of God.
Now in that context, think about the political and the theological ramifications of the tax that was being paid to Caesar.
And so what Jesus does is something — I want to say it is brilliant, but because he is the son of God that sounds a little understated — really ingenious.
He takes the coin with all of that written on it and he says “well whose likeness and inscription is on this?”
And they say “Caesars.”
And we know that's true, it would've had the inscription and the profile of Tiberius on the coin.
And then he says to them “render therefore to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and to God the things that belong to God.”
Now most of us recognize here that Jesus is, in a very shrewd way, giving permission to pay the tax to Caesar.
He is saying that the money can go to Caesar, it can be paid lawfully to Caesar.
And frequently people will use this as an example for teaching and enjoining Christians to be dutiful to the state.
In other words, that they need to give the state what is due to the state, and that they should pay taxes and be contributing members of society.
And that is a part of what Jesus is getting at, but that is not really the heart of what Jesus is getting at.
If you look at it, there's a double meaning here in Jesus's words, because when he says that the likeness is on the coin and the inscription, the Greek word there is eikōn
It means likeness, and we get the English word icon from this.
So when he says there that the icon of Caesar means that the coin belongs to Caesar, he's allowing for the lawfulness of paying taxes to the Emperor.
But, by taking this image, this language, of likeness, Jesus is also alluding to another occurrence of that word in the book of Genesis.
You might remember in the Old Testament, in Genesis 1:26-27, God, when he makes man and woman, he says that he made man and woman in the “image and the likeness of God.”
The Greek translation of the Old Testament there is the same word, eikōn.
So it says that man and woman were made in the eikōn
of God. They are literally icons of the creator.
They bear the image and the likeness of God.
So there's a double meaning here.
What Jesus is essentially saying to the Pharisees in response is, you can give your money to Caesar, but you need to give your life, yourself, to God.
That's why in that final verse, which the lectionary leaves out, but which I think is very important, you read these words, “when they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and they went away.”
In other words, they marveled, they wondered at the truth of what Jesus is saying; and they also marveled at the fact that they couldn't catch him in the trap.
His answer was too brilliant.
His answer was too shrewd.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
And so in order to kind of just give you a little bit of background on this letter, it’s very helpful to again read the book of Acts and see what it says to us about Paul’s time in Thessaloniki. That’s not what’s going to tell us about what’s going on at the time the letter is written, but it’ll give us a background to the letter, because it gives us a little bit of an overview of Paul’s time during Paul’s time in the Church in that city, when he was founding it and beginning to preach the Gospel there.
So if you want to—as we’re reading through the first letter of Thessalonians—if you want to get that background, go back and read Acts chapter 17. Acts 17 will give you a full picture—as much as we know—about Paul’s first encounter with the people of Thessaloniki and his first preaching of the Gospel and how things went there before he left the city and then had to write the letter later when he was in a different town and place. So a couple words about Thessaloniki...unlike Philippi, we’ve talked about elsewhere, which was a Roman colony, Thessaloniki is a very Greek city. It’s thoroughly, thoroughly Greek. It’s actually named after Alexander the Great’s half sister. So the fact that it’s named from such a famous Greek woman just gives you an idea of the Greek ethos, the Greek character of the city.
However, like Philippi and some of the other cities that we have Paul’s letters to, it was not inhabited solely by pagans (by Greeks), but they were also Jews who lived in the city of Thessaloniki. And in fact, in Acts 17, it tells us there was a Jewish synagogue there. And of course, Paul’s standard modus operandi when it comes to preaching the Gospel is...Romans 1:
...to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
So he’ll always go to the city—to the synagogue in the city—before and preach the Gospel there. And then he’ll turn to the Gentiles and go out from there. So in Thessaloniki, Paul’s missionary efforts had some success with Jews, but was much more successful with the Gentiles, which is kind of par for the course with Paul. But what ends up happening is, some of the local Jews—when they hear his message—end up having him dragged before the authorities. And it’s interesting, they accuse him of treason against the empire.
So listen to this, this is a little quote from Acts 17—just a little quote to give you a background of some of the persecution and opposition that Paul faced in this city of Thessaloniki that he’s now going to write the letter to. So in Acts 17, this is the charge against Paul from some of his Jewish opponents in the city:
…“These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them; and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.”
So notice what’s going on; it’s very interesting. The local Jewish authorities who aren’t happy with Paul’s preaching in the synagogue are bringing him before the Roman authorities under the charge of preaching another king than Caesar. So it’s a fascinating charge, because we tend to think of Jesus as “my personal Lord and Savior”—we’ll use that terminology in modern times to refer to Jesus. And of course that’s correct, but it’s easy for us to forget that by calling Jesus mashiach
(Anointed One), christos
(the Anointed King), kyrios
(the King who was also Lord)—those terms were politically charged in an imperial context where Rome had conquered Judea, had conquered the Jewish people and saw them as a subjugated people...so that any talk of a Jewish king would be seen as a threat to the Roman king.
We don’t think of this sometimes, but the emperor is simply a king over many nations. So it has a royal status in the imperial context. So in this case, the Thessalonian Jewish opponents of Paul are charging him basically with treason against Caesar. And so Paul and Silas, his companions, are forced to flee from Thessaloniki to a city Beroea. And if you keep reading through Acts, you’ll see that they do do that.
So Paul isn’t in Thessaloniki very long. This is not like other cities, where Paul will spend a year or two preaching the Gospel, founding the Church, getting to know the people, establishing leaders, bishops, deacons, presbyters to govern the Church before departing and going to preach the Gospel somewhere else. In Thessaloniki, he’s only there for a very brief time. He’s able to convert some people to the practice of faith, but he ends up having to leave because of the persecution and opposition that he faces, and he goes to another town.
So after that happens, Paul later writes a letter to check in with the people of Thessaloniki to see how they’re doing, and also to correct some errors and to deal with some pastoral issues—some pastoral problems—that they’re having, many of which revolve around the issue of eschatology, teaching about the end. So as we’re going to see in this letter in particular, most scholars agree (and I think this is right) that the heart of the letter is going to be in chapter 4, where Paul’s going to deal with the issue of Christians/believers who die in Thessaloniki and about whom the Thessalonian Christians are worried that they won’t be able to share in the resurrection because they died too soon. So there’s an error in the Church at Thessaloniki about the second coming. They think that if you don’t live until Christ comes back, then you won’t be able to share in the glory of the resurrection if you died too soon.
So Paul writes 1 Thessalonians. He deals with several issues, but one of the main issues he’s going to be dealing with in this letter is correcting the personal and general eschatology of the Thessalonian Christians and helping them understand the actual sequence of events—what happens to a person if they die now (they die soon) and also what’s going to happen at the end of time when Jesus finally comes.
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