Pentecost 20 “Our King Is Greater”
October 18th, 2020 – Matthew 22:21-22
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Old Testament Context
The Old Testament reading from this morning tells us a bit of history from God’s perspective. God is talking about this guy “Cyrus” and the great victories God is going to provide for him. God says He speaks to His chosen, Cyrus, who will go and take care of all his obstacles in battle. God will have Cyrus subdue nations and destroy kings. God will break open the gates of cities before him so Cyrus can enter through them with ease. God is going to do this all “for the sake of my servant Jacob and Israel my chosen” and so that people will know that God is the only true God and there exists no other. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that God says to Cyrus, “I name you though you do not know me… I equip you though you do not know me.”
So, who is this lucky guy to have so much of God’s support? Well, when God is prophesying this through Isaiah, Cyrus hasn’t even been born yet. In fact, Cyrus is born about 200 years after this. And Cyrus? Who is he? He isn’t a Jew. He is not a part of God’s chosen people. In fact, He becomes the king of a foreign, pagan, nation. Cyrus becomes the king of Persia.
Cyrus, as the king of Persia, is a really big deal. At this point, God’s people have been conquered by the Assyrians, (who treated them brutally). And the Assyrians have been conquered by the Babylonians (who in some ways are worse). The reason God’s people have been conquered by such brutal people? God is punishing them for rejecting Him. God sent prophet after prophet to warn them to stop and this is finally God’s judgement on them. God uses brutal enemy nations to punish them.
If you’re up on your history, you’ll know that Persia comes in and defeats Babylon. So, this Cyrus guy is God’s answer to rescuing His people again after their fair punishment under the brutal Assyrians and Babylonians. God is using another foreign, pagan, nation, of Persia to rescue His people.
Now I want to take you on this history lesson from here through to Jesus in the Gospel for today. Unless we understand all the background information about what’s going on when the Pharisees try to trap Jesus saying, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” we won’t understand the weight of the answer which Jesus gives.
To understand the history, I’m going to take you all on a quick tour through the history books between the last Old Testament prophet, Malachi, when God’s people are returned to Jerusalem by the Persians, and they are messing up again in need of a Saviour, through the great epics of the I and II Maccabees to Jesus in the Gospel.
Does anyone know the history of the Maccabees? These are apocryphal books which the Catholics have in their Bibles and we leave out. We look, with Luther, on these books as good history but not Holy Scripture itself.
To start, who knows what nation conquered Persia? Alexander the Great and Greece. Of course, God’s people are being tossed around with all these new conquerors. Israel keeps on having to change which flag they’re flying “on their front lawn.” To make a long story very short, eventually one of their Greek rulers starts forcing Greek culture and religion and trying to squash Israelite culture and worship of God. Many Israelites give in to the pressure and abandon God and become full-on Greeks instead. They burn God’s Scriptures, stop circumcising their children, work on the Sabbath day, eat all kinds of foods… you get the idea.
One day, an Israelite Priest gets fed up with God’s altars being used for pagan sacrifice and idol worship and he and his sons start collecting faithful Jews to form an army to fight the Greeks. They said that with God’s help they would fight back their oppressors and free themselves. One of the sons, Judah Maccabeus, becomes the leader after his father dies and is given the name “Maccabee” which means hammer, because of his power in battle hammering the enemy. Believe it or not, against many odds defeating Greek army after Greek army, Judah Maccabee recaptures Jerusalem, drove out the Greeks, and restored the Temple in Jerusalem which is celebrated as Hannukah. From here, the Maccabees had signed a treaty with the up-and-coming Roman Republic, and the Maccabees’ and their successors ruled in their own government and worshipped God again in the Temple.
Eventually, as all things do, the rulers’ integrity begins to decline. One of the successors was King Herod who tried to kill Jesus as a baby. Eventually, the rulers became more Roman than Jew which caused all types of issues for those Jews who were trying to stay faithful. They saw their oppression by the Greeks happening all over again under Rome instead. They were looking for another Judah Maccabeus to free them from Rome. As many saw it, the Scriptures which pointed to a promised coming Messiah-King, referred to another Judah Maccabee who would destroy Rome and free them again.
Some Jews are scared of being punished by God, maybe now by Rome instead of Babylon, for rejecting Him again. Their response is to be better, to try harder, and to make all of the Jewish people live better to avoid God’s wrath. These people are called the Pharisees. They opposed becoming too Roman, unlike the Sadducees who focused on the Temple and would compromise by being a little Roman here and there. The Pharisees sent their disciples to Jesus along with some other very politically intense people.
Jesus is being set up. The Pharisees did not like Jesus’ approach to doing God’s will. Jesus was not forcing people to be perfect. He was not coming in judgement. He was eating with sinners and tax collectors. He was calling the people who were trying to be perfect, Pharisees, hypocrites, and those low lives? He was forgiving and calling into the Kingdom! He was not helping their cause but hindering it! He was calling people to turn from their sin and not go into themselves to try harder, but to turn to God. Jesus was calling people to turn to Him and find a royal pardon from God.
He sure did not look like a Judah Maccabee or a Cyrus of Persia who could rally an army and overtake Rome. He did not have a smug arrogance about Him because He was better than everyone else. He did not look like a future king playing the political game vying for power. He was not who they were expecting. He was a nobody.
He was a nobody, yet He was everybody. He was the God who called Cyrus before he was born and levelled nations to deliver His people from their oppression. He was the God who created and fought on Judah Maccabeus’ side to deliver His people from their oppression. He was the God who manipulated enemy nations to punish His nation of Israel who turned away from Him to do evil. He was, and is, and is to come the perfect God – the only God who exists! He made you and me and here He is, brought low to the point of being set-up with a silly political question like “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
And Jesus stoops down to our level to answer the question. He says, “show me the coin for the tax.” They tell Him it is Caesar’s likeness and inscription on it. And He tells them “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marvel at hearing His answer – as we too should continue to marvel at these words of God.
Consider this, if I were to ask you, is it lawful to pay taxes to God or not, and I asked to show me the “coin” for the tax to God, what would you point to?
God has called us to present ourselves as living sacrifices to Him. Perhaps we are the coin. Whose likeness and inscription is on us?
We are made in the image of God. In Holy Baptism we are inscribed with the name of Jesus.
So when Jesus says to give to God the things that are God, He is saying give your very selves to God. All of you. Your life, your time, your family, your treasures – everything!
Except, what we can give to our King, ourselves, is pretty pitiful. We cannot take much pride in what we have to offer to the king who has the power to conquer and to set free; to punish and release.
Jesus’ death and resurrection was the best sacrifice that humanity could ever make to such a powerful king – and it was God who provided the sacrifice for us to give by making Himself one of us. Giving ourselves to God only has value because we are marked with Jesus’ sacrifice through baptism and we have been remade in the image of God.
We are marked by our King who is both extremely powerful in battle, and who transcended earthly politics by offering Himself to be killed and rising again.
Our God is so much greater than Cyrus, Alexander the Great, Judah Maccabeus, Prime Minister Trudeau, or any other ruler who was or is to come. He has more power, more humility, more integrity, more justice, and more love for His citizens than any other could ever have.
Thanks be to God, that our King, Jesus Christ, lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit as one God right now, and forevermore.