When our Gospel for today is studied nowadays, it is usually approached either symbolically or metaphorically. That is, in hearing these words we feel instinctively that there is much more here than the literal details of St. Matthew's story.
For example, our Lord, as we know, was tempted of Satan three times following his baptism by John in the River Jordan. St. Matthew records the story of those three awful tests in the fourth chapter of his Gospel. Scholars who analyze Scriptures for us analyze among other things the internal parallelisms that are a major characteristic of both Hebrew and Christian Scripture. They say, for instance, that having been tempted three times by Satan, the established master of spiritual evil, our Lord, of necessity, also had to be tempted or tested three times by the human, professionally established leaders of religion in his day. In other words, it is no accident, the scholars say, that Matthew who tells the story of Satan's three tests in chapter 4, then tells in his 22nd chapter the tale of all three of the rabbi's tests, including ours for today about rendering unto Caesar.
The rabbi's three test questions, or temptations to heresy as they are called, had to do with the rules of Judaism. That does not mean that the Pharisees' questions were superficial ones or that they dealt only with obviously legalistic issues. It also does not mean that all the established religionists of Jesus' times adhered to the absolute letter of the law only as a way to control the devout laity around them. None of these redactionistic, rather arrogant conclusions is necessarily true. Rather, I think we must assume that if the test questions posed to Jesus by the organized religion of His day were to have any real bite to them, the issues raised in them had to have been ones of real, personal, and urgent currency among the faithful. The questions of temptation by definition almost had to have been built around tenets of dogma that defined for faithful Jews the essence of godly allegiance and serious doctrine in late Temple Judaism, and only a fool kicks over the traces of holy matters lightly, for to do so can mean death to the soul.
Of the three questions of religious temptation posed by the rabbis then, the first was ours this morning-the question of whether paying taxes with the proceeds of Jewish resources to a pagan ruler could be anything other than a recognition and acceptance of that ruler's power over Jewish loyalty and obedience. Was such knuckling under not a violation of the first commandment which says, "You shall have no other gods before me"? It is a serious question, and any answer to it would seem to have serious implications.
The second and third questions of the temptation toward heresy are raised by the Jewish clerics immediately after the one about Caesar and are recorded by Matthew in the eighteen verses which follow those we have just read. The second is about the truth or lack thereof of a resurrection. The clerics posit to him a woman who, in compliance with the tradition of the elders, married each of seven brothers, one after another, each of them dying before he could sire children by her. The question from a rabbinic point of view was, "If there is indeed a resurrection, then whose wife will this devout woman be in it?" The answer given by Jesus is a no-answer of sorts in that he tells his antagonists that in Heaven there is no marriage, and thus it is a piece of intellectual silliness that they're engaging in. Lest, however, anyone might miss the point, Jesus does add that of course there's a resurrection, for God, whom the clerics rightly acknowledge is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is most certainly not the God of the dead, but of the living, and, therefore, how silly to ask.
The third and final temptation question was the rabbi's challenge to Jesus to define which of the ten laws of Torah was the greatest. Again, instead of giving any kind of answer that was determined by the parameters of their question, Jesus gives his inquisitors his beautiful, and also often quoted, summary of the law: "Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all of thy heart and all thy soul and all thy mind and thy neighbor as thyself."
And thus ended the three temptations of religion by human leaders which, the scholars argue, parallel the three spiritual temptations by Satan in the desert. Now this approach to the reading of the three is, as I have said, primarily a symbolic one and puts our selection today in its appropriate and larger context.
The metaphorical way of addressing the issues raised here is used most frequently on temptation question number one, the one about Caesar. We are so accustomed to applying that metaphorical approach these days that almost without thinking, when with our ears we hear "Caesar" as in "Render unto Caesar," we with our minds really hear government, and when we hear with our ears "taxes," with our minds we really hear any kind of political stance a citizen can take with reference to government. But not only is that a broad leap forward from Jesus' time into our own, but it may be-in fact, I think is-a real narrowing of the range of Jesus' message and of Matthew's record.
There is in Judaism an apocryphal story which says that during the time of the Exodus, while the children of Israel were wondering in the Desert of Sinai, they began increasingly to wear Moses down with their incessant infractions of the law. As they wore Moses down, according to the story, so he too began to wear God down with his own complaints about the errors of his rag-tag flock. The children were scuffling with each other in the camps. They were playing with dice, the women were quarreling over their tasks, the men were feasting before sundown on holy days. The list of infractions went on and on, growing each day longer as Moses came more and more often to the Tent of Meeting to protest to God the absolute impossibility of creating a righteous people out of such errant material. Finally, one day God had just plain had it. And there came a mighty voice out of the cloud of Presence, and the voice said, "Moses, Moses, do you really know what's wrong here?" "What, Lord?" Moses asked. "The problem," God answered, "the problem, Moses, is that you're just more religious than I am."
Now while we may find that story amusing, it is also, like most stories out of Jewish wisdom, a very insightful and, I would submit, a very holy one. It is also directly in line with what Jesus is saying to the Pharisees and through them to us: Namely, that religion can often get in the way of holiness for the chosen people of God, because religion is what happens to understanding once it has been understood, whereas holiness is what spiritual imagination leads us to struggle to understand next. Not honoring the difference between the two can get in our way individually, and it can get in our way as groups and organized bodies of the faithful.
When the first question of temptation came from the Pharisees-the question that is our Scripture this morning-Jesus did as he was to do with all three of the temptation questions. He simply did not answer it in terms of how it was couched. Rather, he said, as we have just read-he said, "If we are talking about the rectitude of an action, let me see the physical items that are involved in its execution; that is, if one pays tax to Caesar, with what does one pay it? With a denarius? Good, then let us look at the denarius." And taking one from the crowd, Jesus, we are told, holds it in his hand and says, "Now, look here and tell me, whose piece of metal this is. Tell me, whose face is on here? Whose motto? Whose mark? Caesar's, you say? Why, then, it would seem to me that if this is Caesar's piece of metal, it should be returned to Caesar."
That's a nice bit of logic, a clever way out of a conundrum, a piece of insight that left the crowd either dumbfounded or highly amused or, in some cases, probably both. What was the pivotal thing, however, is the rest of what Jesus said. For as with the story of the woman with seven husbands and the summarizing of the Law, it is not Jesus' escape from the jaws of religious literalism but his instruction in holiness that we should hear. Having exposed the lack of spiritual imagination in the Pharisees' test, our Lord pushes on to the business of holy discernment. "Render," he says to the crowd around Him, "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, because it is Caesar's, but render unto God what is God's because it is God's." The trick in this life, he says, is in remembering to ask of every single thing we encounter, "Whose substance are you? Whose image do you carry? Whose face? Whose motto? Whose slogan?
If a thing is the stuff of Caesar, if it is Caesar whom a thing serves, and Caesar from whom the thing's power and the affairs of humankind directly emanates, then render it back to Caesar. If, on the other hand, the thing is the stuff of God, if it is God whom the event, the action, the decision, even the thought or word before us serves, and God from whom its power in the affairs of humankind directly emanates, then render it back to God. But even in the re-hearing and re-phrasing of Jesus' answer, we know in our souls that its application to our own lives is unendingly difficult. We know that discerning what is Caesar's from what is God's is not nearly so simple as it sounds. It most certainly is not so infrequent or so simple an exercise as it was when there was a coin ready at hand with the words and signs of ownership already printed on it and when Caesar was an alien power rather than being the vote we ourselves are about to cast or the public opinion poll we ourselves are about to answer. Rather, holy rendering is the kind of spiritual fray we in this country right now seem to have to enter with exquisite difficulty every single day of our lives.
As creatures who are both empowered citizens and Christians simultaneously, we spend a good deal of our thinking and of our political arguing everyday on the very issues the Pharisees raised. Jesus, it appears from St. Matthew's Gospel, would have us do our rendering today first by asking the questions of whose image and whose slogan, and then second, do as he did in his dealing with all three of the temptation questions. Jesus appears to be telling us just as God did Moses, that the danger to our souls in wrestling with these questions is not the questions themselves so much as it is in being afraid to employ spiritual imagination, in being confined to the questions and afraid to question them. It is here that we may let the trappings of holiness, the rules and customs and traditions we have expressed it in, become our holiness, and that finally is the sin here, for it asserts and demands, in the childish way of Moses in the Tent of Meeting, that God and the things of God must serve humankind and the needs of orderly human living. Not so, says our Gospel today, not so. Ask the question and then by prayer dare to imagine holy answers to holier questions.
Let us pray.
Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations. Preserve the works of your mercy that your church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your name. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.