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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 19, 2014

 Theology According to Jack Benny

Isaiah 45:1-7; Matthew 22:15-22

              There is an old adage, “Politics makes strange bedfellows.” If ever this was true, it was in our passage today when the Herodians and the Pharisees conspire against Jesus over the money used to pay taxes to Rome. It would be like the Tea Party getting together with Planned Parenthood today to foist some shared project. The Herodians were the Jews favorable to the Roman Prefect, Herod Antipas. A great builder, Herod was also a great beast. The Herodians stood in support of the Roman poll tax instituted in 6 a.d. upon the Jews in Palestine, a name the Romans gave to this region. The Pharisees were the controlling party in Jerusalem and of the Temple, and they deeply resented this tax, and resented Roman control of Palestine.

             Note how they approach Jesus: “Rabbi, 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.” They begin with flattery to set up Jesus for their trap. It is a reminder that people in religious settings do not always have the right motives, that just because folks pose as devout does not make them so. There is far too much pretense among church people, and pretense often masks our own evil, ego-fed intentions. Remember the popular song of the 1970’s by The Undisputed Truth?! (What a name for a band!) “Smiling faces, sometimes pretend to be your friend. Smiling faces, show no traces of the evil that lurks within.” (by The Undisputed Truth)

             The question they ask is a loaded one. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” We in America are no strangers to conflicts over taxation. First we had the Stamp Act in 1765, then the Boston Tea Party in 1773 against Great Britain. In both cases the cry was “taxation without representation.” Then George Washington had to contend with the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791 in the young republic.

             If Jesus answered “yes” to the question, the Pharisees would be thrilled, because this would mean that Jesus was choosing Roman law over Torah, or God’s law, and it would weaken His standing or image among those on the Temple mount who hated the Romans. It would signal that Jesus was “selling-out” or “giving in” to Roman rule, which was deeply resented by most Jews. On the other hand, if Jesus said “no” to their question, the Herodians would immediately accuse Jesus of sedition against Rome, a crime punishable by crucifixion.       It was a malicious question they were asking behind all the flattery, and Jesus knew it. It is a reminder to us that Jesus always knows our true intentions.

             So Jesus asks to see the coin, the Roman coin, used to pay the poll tax. It was a silver denarius, about the size and weight of a nickel, with the head of Tiberius Caesar on the one side, and an inscription on the other that said, “Son of the Divine Augustus.” (The coin was not just politically anathema to the Pharisees, it was also a theological offense – a breaking of the first two commandments.) Notice who was carrying such a coin. Not Jesus! The Pharisees were hoping Jesus would undermine His influence among the Jews by siding with the Roman tax to placate Roman authority. But Jesus does not even possess such a coin! It is one of the Pharisees who produces the coin. The Jews hated the Romans so much that they would not even use Roman money in the Temple count for their transactions. Yet when Jesus asks for a coin, they produce one readily.

             “Whose image is on the coin, and whose title?” Jesus asks. The Greek word is έίκον, and our computer screens are full of them. The icon on the coin was Tiberius Caesar. Then Jesus says it. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”

             When they heard Jesus’ words, they were “amazed” or “astonished.” Jesus did not fall into their trap so much as He set one of His own. He has exposed His enemies as idolaters by virtue of their having these coins, but then He is also saying, “Give them back to Caesar. If the coins belong to Caesar, then return them to him.” But far more importantly, “Give to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus knew what the Pharisees knew: Everything belongs to God, the creator and giver of life and all that is. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

             So give the emperor his little coins back and get on to the weightier business of rendering your lives to God. The little coin bears the emperor’s image. Emperors come and go. (So do presidents!) In a third century sermon Tertullian said: “Render to Caesar Caesar’s image, which is on the coin, and to God God’s image which in on all humankind.” You bear God’s image. You were created in the image of God. So give your whole self to the God who in fact owns you.

             In Matthew 6, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Presumably, just as you cannot serve God and wealth, so also you cannot serve God and the emperor, or God and any nation.

             One of the things I love most about our own nation is that our money bears the inscription, “In God We Trust.” The first coins to bear these words were minted in 1864 by Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. It turned out this was unconstitutional, as only our national motto, E Pluribus Unum could be on any legal currency. Congress enacted legislation making this a second national motto on March 3, 1865. Since 1938, all United States coins have born this inscription, and all paper currency since 1957. I am not at all sure that the words are in fact true of us, but I take them as a prophetic call from our nation’s better angels each time I hold a coin or a bill in my hand and read those words again. That is the real question behind Jesus’ statement on Caesar and God. Where is your ultimate loyalty? To whom do you belong? Where do you finally and fully place your trust?

             Which brings us to Jack Benny! Remember this old vaudeville comedian who became a television star in his old age? Jack Benny joked about two things, always poking fun at himself. One was his age, which he was always trying to hide. And the other was how cheap he was, how much he loved his money and how hard it was to part with it. Remember his old gag? A thief approaches Benny with a gun, pokes it in his side, and says, “Your money or your life?” Benny puts his chin in his hand, and says nothing. The thief pokes Benny again and says louder and more menacingly, “Your money or your life?” “I’m thinking. I’m thinking.”

             Well, think about it, please! “Your money or your life?” What you do with your money is in some ways the real story of what you do with your life. There is no real security that does not come from God, no lasting security found apart from God. We belong to God body and soul, in life and in death. So give to God what belongs to God, and you will free yourself. “In God we trust,” says this coin. It also says, “Liberty.” Think about the connection!

                                                                                     Amen.

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