Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ungodly Taxes: Matthew 22:15-22

Today we continue a long stretch in Matthew that features a verbal showdown between Jesus and the Jewish religious elite.

The Scripture
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted together on how they might trap Him in what He said.
16 And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any.
17 "Tell us then, what do You think?  Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?"
18 But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, "Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites?
19 "Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax."  And they brought Him a denarius.
20 "And He said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?"
21 They said to Him, "Caesar's."  Then He said to them, "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's."
22 And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.
The Question
The religious elite had been trying to trap Jesus for a long time by getting Him to answer difficult questions, convinced that no matter how He answered, He was sure to alienate one group or another (it just never worked out for them).  But this time, they upped the ante: They brought in the Herodians.
The Herodians were Jews who totally went along with Roman oppression - they betrayed their people and made friends with Roman politicians.  Before, they had put Jesus in situations where an answer could make Him lose favor with certain groups of Jews.  But here, an answer could make Him either lose favor with all true Jews - or be turned in for treason by the Herodians and be executed.  Either way, the religious elite would win on a massive scale.
Except that our God is infinitely wise, and cannot be trapped by human schemes.
I find it very interesting that Jesus continually answered the religious elite through their many tests.  Let's glance at 1 Chronicles 16:24 for a moment, an idea that pops up time and time again in the Old Testament:
Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples.
Our God doesn't need validation - His self-confidence is not in a state of loss when people don't recognize His glory.  Rather, Old Testament instruction like this is primarily for the sake of those nations - because God loves those people, and eagerly desires them to come to repentance and faith in Him.
In the exact same way, in today's passage, it's not like Jesus felt some drive to answer the religious elite to convince them or show off to them (His revelation of His glory to the unbelievers will occur at the very end of time).  Rather, I see His continued answers as for the sake of the crowd - displaying His incomprehensible wisdom as a way to demonstrate His deity to them, to give them evidence that He is indeed Messiah.
In addition, His answer explains an important lesson ...
The Answer
If you're familiar with the Bible but haven't really examined this passage before, then 1 Corinthians 10:26 (or Psalm 24:1, which it quotes) may have popped into your head as an objection:
For the earth is the Lord's, and all it contains.
The problem with that reasoning is that the coin didn't stop being God's when a Jew gave it to Caesar - because everything that Caesar owned was God's. ;-)  But actually, this is completely unrelated to the point I see Jesus making.
We arrive at an enormous paradox that every Christian must work out in their own lives: Every single aspect of our lives should be centered around Christ and eternity, and yet, we live under a covenant of freedom in which we don't have to worry about legalism and rules inhibiting our functioning.  In this case, going along with an occupying force's demand for taxes was not a sin - it was suffering, a suffering that would have been made worse by refusing to comply.
Now, that can't be applied across the board.  For example, we can't deny Christ even when our lives are at risk (see Matthew 10:32-33).  For me, it kind of makes sense that there's a distinction between my stuff (because it's just that - stuff) and myself.  But we are not provided with a list of rules about what we can do and cannot do in situations like these.  The key is to continually strive after God.  If we "practice" seeking, discerning, and following God's will now, in the little things, then we'll have the answers we need for the big things when they present themselves.
As Bible teacher Ron Daniel points out, the denarius was made in Caesar's image, but we are made in God's image (Genesis 1:27); therefore, what God wants us to give to Him is ourselves.  Sometimes this can indeed include our stuff (see Acts 2:44-45), but not in a legalistic sense.
Does this all seem a bit theoretical, hard to put into practice?  Let's think about a situation we had here in America just a few years ago: There was an uproar over mandatory American tax dollars funding abortions.  Is that deplorable?  Absolutely - it is not possible to state how much so.  But that evil is not our doing, just as the atrocities committed by the Roman Empire were not the doing of the Jews who paid taxes.  It's the exact same.  The Romans would have seized their money and thrown the Jews in jail if they had not paid, so it would have made no difference.  Taxation is a very different situation from, say, German Christians who hid Jews in their homes during the Holocaust - because that did make a difference.
Again, don't read any of this as absolutes - situations like this are complex, so the only way to get an "answer" for what to do in a given situation is to actively seek God's will.
So, what can we do as we're trapped in a world so evil?  Live our lives for Christ every minute of every day.  Because Christ wants us.

[S]o that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among who you appear as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.
- Philippians 3:15-16a
How do you wrestle with making sense of paradoxical situations like this?
New Post Schedule (since life is settling into a routine again): Definitely one each weekend, and usually one each mid-week, as well.

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