"In God We Trust" – Matthew 22:15-22
[If you’re able to find some cash while you read, this might be a bit more fun. In worship, we reached in our pockets and dug around in our purses, holding onto and looking at our money while we listened.]
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They 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.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
So, if you were able to play along, you have in your hand, I believe, the most practical and holy tool for – and measuring stick of – faithfulness in the world. I’ll come back to that cash in your hands, in a minute.
We hear right off the bat in this Gospel that the Pharisees and the Herodians were trying to trap Jesus. They were asking him a question that was impossible to answer – in a way that would make everyone listening happy, anyway. He knew it and so did the ones asking the questions.
Theologians and preachers interpret this moment in a couple of different ways. One is to lift it up as justification for our modern-day penchant for a separation between Church and State, for drawing lines between the civil and religious realms of our lives. Caeser and the secular world on one side, God and faithfulness on the other. But that perspective doesn’t hold much water, really, because it’s not realistic to believe that any devout Jew in the First Century could even imagine setting up any kind of distinction between their politics and their religion, like we pretend to do. The practice of their faith was primary and elemental to every aspect of their daily life in this world.
The second interpretation of the passage has to do with the coin, in particular, because the denarius handed to Jesus as part of the debate would likely have had not only the image of Caesar’s head and shoulders stamped on its face, but it also very likely declared Caesar to be the "Son of God," or “Perpetual Dictator,” or something like it, in words, on top of that. That meant even possessing such a coin equaled idolatry in the eyes of the religious gatekeepers of Jesus’ day – the very ones trying to trap him in this story.
The coin itself was a violation of the commandments against “having other gods” over and above the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; it was easy to see it as breaking the commandment against idols and graven images; and maybe even “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” if you wanted to get really picky about it.
So Jesus can’t win, it seems. He can’t give an answer that would make him “right” in the eyes of the Pharisees – those Jewish leaders – because if he says ‘yes, pay the tax,’ he’s guilty of breaking all of those commandments and inviting others to do the same. And if he says, ‘no, don’t pay the tax,’ the Herodians – the supporters of King Herod and Rome who were part of the action that day – would find him guilty of treason, or sedition, or something worthy of ridicule, if not some sort punishment.
But, Jesus is over it. He’s been teaching and preaching and healing and telling parables and all the rest. He’s been approached by children, followed by his disciples, questioned by family members of his disciples, and by chief priests and scribes and Pharisees and now these Herodians, too.
And notice that we’re in Chapter 22 of Matthew’s version of the story here, which means Jesus has already rolled into Jerusalem on the donkey for the festival of the Passover, he’s already turned over the tables in the temple and that means, I’d say, he knows the cross is right around the corner, or just over the next hill – if you will – so he’s over it. He’s done. He can’t be bothered with any more of these questions, let alone trapped by them, as the ones asking them had hoped .
So he doesn’t answer, really. He does that thing Jesus does with so many of his parables and teachings. He leaves things up to them. He holds up a mirror so that they have to consider what’s really behind their own questions – and the answers they think they’re looking for. And they don’t know what to do with that; they’re amazed; they leave him and go away, with their tails between their legs.
They’re left to their own selfish devices. They’re left to wonder about their own response to Jesus’ rhetorical response: “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. Give to God what is God’s.”
In other words, Jesus’ answer to his own proposition is kinda, sorta, “yes.”
“Yes. All of our attention and our resources and our devotion belong to God.”
“Yes. We can still be faithful and pay our taxes and support politics and politicians and the public good, while devoting ourselves faithfully to God.”
And “Yes. In so many ways we are called to avoid devoting ourselves to the earthly things and the material stuff that our coins can buy in this world and ultimately devote ourselves to God most fully, instead.”
And I don’t mean for that to sound simplistic, because it’s not. In fact, it’s one of the greatest struggles of our day, it seems to me. This desire we have for things and for stuff and even just for survival, in some instances, and the way that conflicts with God’s invitation to sacrifice and to share and to be a blessing for the world around us is anything but simple or easy.
Now, I happen to think, for Christians and other believers in God, that it’s kind of cool that our currency has the phrase, “In God We Trust” on it, even if I wonder how much attention we give to that most of the time. It’s not about nationalism. It’s not about patriotism. It’s not about suggesting that we trust God in ways that are more or better than the ways that other nations do. But it’s that if we consider that statement, “In God We Trust,” in light of this Gospel story, it can be a really great reminder about where our allegiance is or – or where it should be – where God is concerned.
And I wonder if one of the reasons we don’t pay attention to that motto – In God We Trust – so much as it refers to our money, is because we don’t use cash and currency like we used to. We charge things on credit cards. We pay online. We write checks. So much of the money we spend or save, never amounts to anything more than numbers on a page or figures on a computer screen or transactions that happen out there in cyberspace somewhere. (There’s a whole psychology about the sneaky ways the world makes it easy for us to detach emotionally and spiritually from the ways we use our money – or let our money use us, as the case may be. Just ask anyone who’s taken Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University class.
So what if, as a real way to drive this Gospel home, we took a moment to add “In God We Trust” to the memo line of every check we wrote? What if, after signing our name to every credit card receipt we handed over, we scribbled “In God We Trust” underneath our signature, or even just the letters “IGWT?” What if, on whatever computers we use to pay our bills or manage our finances or budget our households’ spending, we attached a note with those words, “In God We Trust?”
Wouldn’t that be a great, faithful – practical and holy – way to remember where our allegiance really lies as we’re paying our cable bill or refinancing our mortgage or honoring our commitments to the Church.
And think of the witness this could be to anyone who notices those words on our checks… Imagine the holy conversations you could have with whatever bartender, server or cashier who might ask you what the heck those letters mean on your VISA receipt… We could start a movement, people.
But really, I wonder if we’d think more about what we’re spending. I wonder if we’d be reminded – and encouraged by God’s presence and power over every part of our daily lives. I wonder if we’d be more grateful for the ways God provides for us. I wonder if we’d be more faithful about how we use our money, more generous when it comes to giving it back to God, and more trusting in the God whose love for us so deep and so wide it can’t be counted in coins.