IT’S A TRAP!

IT’S A TRAP!
A sermon on Matthew 22:15-22
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
October 18, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Earlier this week, I came across a news article about a religious event held in Nashville over the weekend. The article carried the rather provocative title “Jesus Christ, Superspreader?” The article went something like this:
A conservative Christian preacher promised to bring “salvation, signs and wonders and miracles” to Nashville on Sunday night when he hosted a mass religious gathering in the city’s Public Square park downtown. The real miracle, however, will be if no one catches the coronavirus.
Sean Feucht, a Christian musician, online personality and failed politician, claimed that 10,000 people joined him on the steps of Nashville’s courthouse for his Let Us Worship concert. But according to photos and videos from the event, attendance was noticeably sparser. Still the worshipers who did show up packed in elbow-to-elbow, singing along, shouting, dancing, and in some cases being submerged in on-site baptisms. Few masks, face coverings, or even Shrouds of Turin [sic] were seen to help minimize the spread of the virus.
“It’s officially a protest, OK, so it’s legal!” Feucht announced in a video message on Twitter, just a few hours before the start of the event.
Calling it a protest may have been Feucht’s loophole for positioning his potentially superspreading event as “legal,” but Nashville’s Metro Public Health Department wasn’t pleased. In a statement on Monday [the day after the event], the city says that the concert’s organizers did not receive or request a permit for the gathering. The Health Department is investigating. “We have worked very hard to slow the spread of COVID by taking a measured approach to protect the community,” the statement read. “The Health Department is very concerned by the actions that took place at the event and we are investigating and will pursue appropriate penalties against the organizer.”1
Feucht wrote on Twitter following the concert, “We had THREE venue changes and so much resistance BUT THE CHURCH WILL NOT BE SILENCED!” And in another tweet the following day, Feucht tweeted, “Music City showed up to enthrone KING JESUS last night on the steps of the courthouse downtown! Incredible to witness how God moved last night! These are incredible days!”
1 www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/sean-feucht-preacher-covid-1074213 (Accessed October 13, 2020)
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Nashville-based author Zack Hunt responded in an interview that Feucht was being
“pathologically dishonest” over his claims that the church was being silenced. He went on to say,
“Churches are not closed. They never have been. Many of us have had to go virtual for a time because
loving our neighbor is our primary calling as Christians, and right now, loving our neighbor means not
exposing them to a deadly virus. We still had church, even if it were online. We were never singled out
for our faith…”2
The situation described in the article points to a very real problem for the Christian community.
Since we are citizens of both the kingdom of God and of the country in which we live, what kind of
obedience does the Christian owe to the government? And what kind of obedience does the Christian
owe when one feels as if the government is overreaching its authority? Whether it involves a county
clerk in Kentucky refusing to sign marriage licenses for same sex couples…or employers refusing to fund
health insurance for employees that includes contraceptive benefits…or churches and ministers violating
mask wearing and social distancing guidelines set for the sake of religious gatherings during this time of
the COVID pandemic—Christians have to wrestle with tensions between the laws of the land and their
understanding of the Christian faith.
The scriptures are not always clear on how the follower of Jesus is to act in regard to the
authorities. In Acts 4, we read how John and Peter were brought before the ruling Jewish council in
Jerusalem. They were charged with unlawfully preaching and healing in Jesus’ name. The council forbid
them to do it anymore. The apostles replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to
obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Verses
19-20)
But then in Romans 13, the Apostle Paul writes, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing
authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist
have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against authority is rebelling against what
God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment upon themselves.” (Verses 1-2)
And in 1 Peter 2:17, Peter writes, “Show proper respect to everyone; Love the brotherhood of
believers, fear God, honor the king.” What is remarkable about these instructions from Paul and Peter is
that when they wrote them, the Roman government was no friend of the church. In fact, Imperial Rome
was just beginning to ratchet up its persecution of the early church. Within a couple of years of Paul and
Peter writing these words, the Roman government would begin feeding Christians to the lions in the
Coliseum.
All of which serves to beg the question: How are we to navigate these decisions about being
faithful to our Christian witness, while at the same time, honoring the authorities that God has placed in
2 www.newsweek.com/christian-preacher-investigated-mass-gathering-nashville-1538571 (Accessed October 13,
2020)
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power? Is there a line over which we should not cross? Where is that line to be drawn? How are we to
respond?
These are live questions that many people have asked since the earliest days of the church. And
we are still asking them. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus is confronted by a question that poses these
issues. While his answer is clear, there is still much that is ambiguous…
The setting for today’s gospel passage is the Temple in Jerusalem. It is Tuesday of the last week
of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Matthew tells us that the Pharisees and the Herodians come to Jesus with a
question. Nothing unusual about that. This was common practice in Jesus’ day. People would go to
famous rabbis and ask them to give opinions on thorny issues of faith and practice—or to ask them to
settle disputes. The gospels record that people did this on many occasions—coming to Jesus with
questions or to ask his opinion on disputes that they had with others.
But before they get to their true purpose, they decide to soften him up a bit with words of
flattery. They begin with, “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 can almost hear the sarcasm dripping from their voices, can’t you?)
Those asking the question want to appear to Jesus and to the rest of the people listening in as
though they were engaging our Lord in some friendly conversation. But they were not. The irony of their
words is that they were 100% the truth. The problem is that they did not believe a word of it, for if they
did, then they would have treated him with the reverence that he deserved. Instead, they eyed our Lord
with suspicion, if not outright contempt.
Perhaps hoping to lull him into a false sense of security with their flattery, then they launch this
question at Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
This is not just an innocent question that they had posed for discussion and debate as might first
appear. If our Lord answered with a simple “Yes”, then it would have discredited him in the eyes of the
people. It would have undercut any spiritual authority that he possessed. Palestine was under the
control of Imperial Rome at the time—and had been for around 50 years by that time. The people
chafed under the yoke of Rome. The Old Testament taught that there was only one true King, and that
was the Lord. There was to be no allegiance to any king, except to God and the king that he had chosen
to lead His people. Anything else was to be regarded as blasphemy.
On the other hand, though, if Jesus answered “No”, then he could be turned over to the Roman
authorities and prosecuted for inciting the people to rebellion. It would not be the first time that some
Jewish rabble-rouser advocated the overthrow of the Romans. If Jesus answered that way, then it would
not end well for him. He and his followers would all likely be executed for treason, just like all the other
Jewish patriots before him who had led rebellions against Imperial Rome. (And really, that’s what
happened to Jesus just a few days when he was brought to Pilate and then executed by the Roman
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government…) So, if Jesus answered that way, then the Jewish religious leaders would finally be rid of
this loose-cannon would-be messiah who refused to abide by the traditions of the elders.
So they figured that they had Jesus in a trap from which he could not escape. And they probably
patted themselves on the back for coming up with such an ingenious plan to deal with Jesus. Only it did
not turn out that way…
Jesus saw right through it. He knew that they were testing him to see what he would say. For his
part, Jesus was ruthless in his response. He began by calling them all hypocrites. And then, as is often
the case in the gospels when someone asked Jesus a question, he did not give them a straight answer.
Instead he began his response by asking someone to hand him a coin.
The coin that he was handed was a denarius, a common silver coin that was used for all kinds of
legal transactions. On one side of the coin, there was a picture of the emperor Tiberius that carried the
inscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.” On the flip side were the words pontifus
maximus, which means “divine priest.” The writing on this Roman coin was very different than the
words “In God We Trust” that we find inscribed on our money. Instead, it proclaimed that Tiberius
Caesar was the official Lord and God of the realm. It proclaimed his divinity. And as far as Rome was
concerned, there were to be no other Gods before him.3
Interestingly, Jesus did not flinch even as he held the coin in his hand. He did not fling it away as
if it were white hot with paganism. He did not roll his eyes at the fact that not everyone—let alone the
Romans—worshiped the God that Jesus called “Father.” Instead, his attitude seems to be rather
nonchalant toward the coin and the question. And so he gives the answer that confounded the critics of
his day and still challenges us in ours. When he receives the answer to his question about whose picture
is on the coin, he gives them this masterful answer, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are
the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Hmmmmmmmm…The hearts of the Pharisees and
Herodians must have sunk deep within them. Knowing that Jesus had bested them once more in a public
setting, they slunk away in defeat. Once more they left empty handed in their attempts to win a battle
of wits with Jesus. But they would be back…Oh yes, they would be back later on that week…
“Give to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor and the things that belong to God
to God.” What is it that belongs to God? Simple enough question. Well, everything actually belongs to
God. Psalm 24 tells us, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”
Everything was created by God and exists at his good pleasure. So, to give God what belongs to God
means that we dedicate all of our allegiances that we all carry to God. Whatever else these words of
Jesus might mean, they certainly mean that our highest allegiance—our highest priority—is to b e our
relationship to God. It is God alone who deserves our highest loyalty. And what’s more, our allegiance to
God’s kingdom helps to put all of our other obligations in their proper perspective. And that includes the
relationship that we have with the government…
3 I am indebted to Scott Hoezee of Calvin College for some of the material in this paragraph and the next.
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Ask yourselves this question this morning: Do not all earthly loyalties fester unless they are
held in the light of a higher loyalty? Family, friends, country, government, political party—as important
as all of these are—all of these claims upon our allegiance pale in comparison to the reality of the loyalty
that we owe to God. I think that is what Jesus’ point is in his answer to the Pharisees. Questions like our
loyalties to other things are just not as important as our loyalty to God. And the giving of ourselves to
God through his son Jesus should illumine each of these other concerns. Our relationship to God should
enrich and strengthen the other tie that we have. We have loyalties on earth and loyalties in heaven.
And everything—even our earthly responsibilities—looks different in the light of Eternity.
The classic poet Alfred Lord Tennyson expressed these same sentiments in wonderful language
in one of his best-known works, the poem titled In Memoriam. In the prologue to the poem, he wrote,
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of Thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see
And yet we trust it comes from Thee,
A beam in darkness; let it grow.
Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music as before.4
To God alone be the glory! Amen.

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