Sermon: What's in your wallet? Scripture: Matthew 22: 15-22 Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min. Location: First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, FL Date: October 18, 2020
It’s helpful to realize the context Jesus is in as you hear today’s scripture. Matthew takes two and half chapters to describe for us a singular scene that takes place in the Jerusalem Temple. Beginning at Matthew 21:23 and running through the end of chapter 23, we find Jesus confronting hostile civic and religious authorities while an awed crowd sits back and watches all the drama unfold. The people came to Temple and feast as they always did; who would have expected something exciting would happen “at church”?
Those who have been ensconced in power for so long are feeling threatened by the words, deeds and wisdom this upstart country boy is declaring and displaying. Jesus in his humble, direct way is outlining what soon was to take place in Jerusalem. He is laying the groundwork for reclaiming the Temple for God’s work that will be completed with his upcoming resurrection.
Our Story has four main characters. There is Jesus. There are the Pharisees, or as Dale Bruner from Whitworth University calls, “the religiously serious” and along with their disciples[i]. Then there is this group of folks known as the Herodians who were the political hacks for Rome. And the final characters are the silent onlookers – people like you and me watching and soaking all this up. We are like a Greek chorus who wants to shout to Jesus, “Watch out! This is a trap!” You see, the Pharisees want Jesus for religious sedition and blasphemy. The Herodians want Jesus arrested for political sedition because Jesus was a threat to Caesar and Rome. Listen to the Word of the Lord!
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 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.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. [i]
In a perfect example of damning someone with faint praise, the Pharisees begin their conversation with Jesus by appealing to his ego. In their mind, they are softening him up so he will get caught off-guard with a seemingly simple but ever-so-loaded question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Well, it kind of depends on who you were.
The Pharisees only saw one answer: No. This is because the Jews are a sovereign people and their god is not Caesar but is the God Almighty.
The Herodians only saw one answer: Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman government because they were the occupying force at the time that was bringing “justice and safety” to Palestine.
Both of these groups knew full well that whatever Jesus says will upset one of the two groups. It would be like having Jesus stand before you and me today and then ask him, “So, Jesus, are you voting for Trump or Biden?” Whatever Jesus says, he will deeply upset one side or the other. The reality is, both sides wanted to lock him up.
Jesus’ answer is brilliant and slams both sides knocking them back on their heels. With a wink in his eye, he asks them, “Show me the coin you will use for the tax?” They quickly produce a coin that has a picture of the Emperor on it and it is inscribed to the effect, “The Supreme Holy Divine Caesar.” It’s a great scene! We can imagine Jesus looking over the top of his glasses at the ultra-pious, self-righteous religious leaders who keep reminding Jesus that there is no God but the true God of the Jews; Jesus, meanwhile, is smiling pointing at the picture of Caesar, a Roman god, on the coin the Pharisees are carrying in their pocket! The implication Jesus is making is, “Why would righteous Jewish religious leaders like yourselves be carrying these miniature idols that speak of Caesar as God?” Jesus reveals their hypocrisy at this point. In essence he tells them, “Listen, don’t be all high and mighty about worshipping God when you are acknowledging the cultural Roman god Caesar by using a currency that affirms Caesar’s divinity.” I imagine their faces look like a child whose hands have been caught in the cookie jar!
Jesus’ genius does not end there! He goes on to say, “Give back to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The Herodians like his answer because Jesus is acknowledging the role of the State. The Pharisees like his answer because Jesus acknowledges the vital importance that for the Jew, God is the only king or sovereign that matters. The Protestant Reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther would look at this text as an example of how we cannot confuse the state, the system, the culture’s way with the way of God and the Kingdom of heaven. Yes, we are to live under the laws we have been given but when those laws, those systems conflict with God’s ways, God’s decrees, God’s just system, we have but one choice and that’s that we side with God. Jesus is declaring the State, the culture, has definite boundaries that can, and at times will definitely, encroach upon the boundaries of the Kingdom of Grace. What do we do about it? Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the Herodians is a reminder to all of us to make sure the realm of God takes precedence over all our political, financial and social matters.
So, Church, does it?
Years ago, Methodist actress Jennifer Garner made popular the credit card commercial jingle, “What’s in your wallet?” In essence, this is what Jesus is asking the Pharisees, the Herodians, as well as you and me. “What’s in your wallet?” In other words, Jesus is demanding, “Show me where your ultimate loyalty lies, pilgrim.”
Beloved, the object of our loyalty determines how we live. This is the essence of what Jesus is trying to teach us. The Pharisees and the Herodians all said the right things, publicly did the right things but their loyalty was devoted to their own sense of power, rank, prestige, and privilege as compared to the person standing next to them.
So, what’s in your wallet? What is the object of your loyalty my friends? As a church, as fellow pilgrims and disciples of the Way, it is vital to God to know where our ultimate loyalty lies. Church, we are all puzzle pieces that come together to form the identity of Jesus in our city. There’s nothing sadder than to see a beautiful puzzle all completed except for one little piece that’s missing. Jesus is saying he wants your life, your heart, to complete the picture of Christ in Fort Lauderdale and beyond. The puzzle, the picture is incomplete without your piece. Your piece, no matter how large or small it is, is needed to make the portrait complete. Beloved, your personal loyalty to God speaks to the larger loyalty of your church, this church!
I want to close today be leaving you with a question you that may seem to be a non sequitur but it’s not. The question is this: Why is it, friends, so easy for us that without any thought to drop ten dollars down for a very mediocre hamburger for lunch on Las Olas Boulevard and yet find it so painful to drop a dollar in the offering plate for the work of God in the church? What’s in your wallet? What do the receipts we have tucked in there say about where our ultimate loyalty lies? Is your piece missing from the puzzle?
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
401 SE 15th Avenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
© 2020 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Dale Bruner from Whitworth University calls the Pharisees the “religiously Serious.”
[ii] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.