The religious people of Jesus day were pious, and they were self-righteous. They believed they had earned their high position at God’s table. They deserved the blessings of life, abundant and eternal. They were so devout in their faith, so attentive to the laws, that God owed them. They had God and the world all figured out and believed they possessed the keys to the Kingdom. They believed they were God’s gatekeepers and the judges.
They looked up at the rich, the powerful, and the strong with favor. After all, like them and others at the top, they were obviously blessed by God. And they looked down their noses with disdain at the poor, the disenfranchised and the weak with disdain. After all, they were obviously cursed by God. Either they sinned or their parents sinned. For whatever reason, the least of those in society obviously deserved to be least.
They looked up at those who accepted their biblical and world view with respect. And they looked down upon those who disagreed with their views with contempt.
Because they believed they had somehow earned the right to be the judge, they were more than willing to stone the adulterer, crucify the heretics with the thieves, mistreat the tax collectors, banish the lepers, oppress the women, restrain the mentally ill, hinder the children, ignore the bullied, even if that poor victim had been robbed, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road.
After all these who are the least in our society are the least, are on the bottom, for a reason. For whatever reason, it was very evident to them that God had not blessed them. And if God would not bless them, neither would they.
Then from Nazareth, from a place which nobody good ever comes, comes this radical named Jesus who turned the religious leader’s biblical and worldview upside down by actually identifying with those considered to be the least.
Jesus traveled all over and touched lepers,[i] cleansed the unclean,[ii] welcomed children,[iii] ate with sinners,[iv] praised minorities,[v] learned from one of another faith,[vi] loved the foreigner,[vii] respected a prostitute,[viii] gave dignity to Eunuchs,[ix] defended an adulterer,[x] protected the rights of women,[xi] brought peace to the mentally ill,[xii] lifted up the poor,[xiii] fed the hungry,[xiv] offered drink to the thirsty,[xv] blessed the meek,[xvi] advocated for prisoners,[xvii] and set the stage to one day promise paradise to a thief hanging on the cross,[xviii] and even forgive his own murderers who placed him on that cross next to that theif.[xix]
The judgmental and self-righteous religious leaders had about all that they could possibly stand.
“He’s destroying the very fabric of society. He’s making a mockery out of our religion. He is hurting our traditional Judeo values. And someone needs to put a stop to it.”
So they plotted, and they conspired, and they rallied their people and sent them to entrap Jesus. They were sly, and they were sneaky. They said to themselves, “We will soften him up first by showering him with a few compliments.”
‘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. You eat with tax collectors, sinners and harlots. You love the good and the bad equally. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?
Jesus, though, doesn’t fall for it. He never lets down his guard. Aware of their malice, Jesus 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.
The question for us this morning is this: “Why were they so amazed?” Why were they so astonished by his answer? Why did they walk away astounded?
First of all, it is important to understand why Jesus called them “hypocrites” right before he asked them to show him the coin used to pay taxes.
The image on the coin was Tiberius Caesar. And the title on the coin was “son of God,” as the Romans considered Caesar to be divine.
So, the Pharisees would have regarded these Roman coins as idolatrous. The point can be made by the group simply producing the coin they had shown themselves to be hypocrites as they were breaking one of the big Ten Commandments.
Here they were, holier than thou judges judging Jesus, and Jesus drives home the point that he made in his very first sermon on the mount: “Why do you seek to judge one with a speck in his eye, when you have a log in your own eye.” You hypocrites. Haven’t you noticed that when you point your finger at me or at others, you have three more pointing right back at you? Stop playing the judge, and instead, try to work on the sin that is in our own life.”
I can imagine the faces of the religious leaders turning red as they realized that this one whom they were sent to entrap has now entrapped them.
But Jesus is not finished with them yet.
With one of the most well-known, yet most misunderstood quotes attributed to him, Jesus responds: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.”
I like to think that this is a moment where a light bulb came on for these religious leaders. For it was like Jesus asking them:
“Give to Zeus what belongs to Zeus and give to God what belongs to God.”
What would any good Jew say belongs to the Greek god, Zeus?
Nothing, of course. It all belongs to God. All that is, all that they had, all that they were, and all that they would ever have and ever be is but a gift of God’s amazing grace.
Suddenly it occured to them, they have done absolutely nothing to earn the blessings of God. God, the world, and others did not owe them anything. And all of a sudden the grace of it all became amazingly clear.
It all belongs to God, and God, God alone, is the judge of it all. They were in no position whatsoever to ever judge anyone. They did not own their faith, their synagogue, their traditional Judeo way of life, not even their own lives. They had a log in their eye alright. But it was much larger than the log of idolatry. It was the log of pride and self-righteousness.
And, if just for a moment they realized it.
“Of course Jesus, that is why you do not show deference to anyone or treat anyone with partiality. We are all the same. We are all sinners, every one of us. Yet, God still loves us. And as we have been given this grace, we must share it with others, especially with those who need it the most, especially with those whom society has deemed to be the least, especially those on the bottom who have been erroneously taught their entire lives that that God is against them.”
Matthew tells us that they then left Jesus “amazed.” When they realized that it all belongs to God, that it is all grace, that all is miracle, they left amazed by it, humbled by it, changed by it, and very grateful for it.
I have heard in many sermons that there are basically two types of people in this world: the grateful and the ungrateful. Although it may not always be that simple, I believe there is some truth to it.
Many ungrateful people are usually ones who believe that there is something owed to them. The world may owe them. Others may owe them. God may owe them. If they have health and wealth and salvation, many believe it is because they earned it. And they have a tendency to judge others who have not achieved what they have achieved, do not believe what they believe, and do not act as they act. Ungrateful people are seldom content. Some own many possessions, and they often worry, work, and strive to earn more. They become bitter when things do not go their way and when others do not agree with them. When bad things happen they bemoan, “Why me?” because they deserve so much better. Because they deserve better, they are seldom amazed by anything good that comes their way.
On the other hand, most grateful people understand that no one, not even God, owes them anything. They understand that they have done absolutely nothing to earn anything. And they certainly understand that they have not earned the right to judge anyone, for it all belongs to God, and only God is the judge. They understand that all is the gift of a gracious Giver. Grateful people are often content. They are fulfilled. When someone asks them: “How are you,” they respond that they are doing better than they deserve. If they only have a few years on this earth, a few friends and a few dollars, that is ok, because that is a few more than they earned. Grateful people are often amazed by anything good that might come their way. Like the ungrateful, they also cry out: “Why me?” But they do so when the good things come their way. Because they know that none of it is deserved. They walk around, live, eat, drink and breathe holy amazement. They are astounded by the sheer, amazing grace of it all.
And they have a passion to share grace with others, especially with those in this world who need it the most. Because they have received grace freely, they share it freely. Grateful people are the first to forgive the sinner, give drink to the thirsty, share bread with the hungry, care for the sick, visit the lonely, and offer friendship to a stranger.
Matthew says when Jesus pointed out that it all belongs to God, they walked away amazed. This morning, may we do the same.
[i] Luke 17:11-19
[ii] Luke 8:43-48
[iii] Matthew 19:13-15
[iv] Matthew 10:13-17
[v] Luke 10:25-37
[vi] Mark 7:25-30
[vii] Luke 19:34
[viii] Luke 7:36-50
[ix] Matthew 19:12
[x] John 8:1-11
[xi] Matthew 19:3-12, Luke 10:38-42
[xii] Mark 5:1-17
[xiii] Luke 16:19-31
[xiv] Matthew 14:13-21
[xv] John 4:11
[xvi] Matthew 5:5
[xvii] Matthew 25:36
[xviii] Luke 23:43
[xix] Luke 23:34