Preacher: Jeff Davidson
Scripture: Isaiah 45:1-7; Matthew 22:15-22
Some of you will remember the slogan from back in the 1990s.
WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? There were WWJD bracelets, there was a
WWJD book that was an update of the original WWJD book from the 1800s
by Charles Sheldon, there were lots and lots of WWJD sermons, a couple
of which I even preached.
As these things go, WWJD isn’t a bad question. Asking yourself what
Jesus would do in a given situation is a good quick guide for what we might
want to think about doing. It’s not perfect, because Jesus can do things we
can’t do, but it’s a good starting point.
Our reading from Matthew suggests a different question. WWJND –
What Would Jesus Not Do? Matthew tells about a time when what Jesus
did not do was let himself be trapped.
The Herodians and the Pharisees get together to try to get Jesus to
say something that will get him in trouble with someone. These two groups
wanted to see Israel be an independent nation once again, but the
Pharisees wanted the ruler of that nation to be someone from King David’s
line and the Herodians wanted the ruler to be someone from the dynasty of
Herod the Great. What united them besides their desire for an independent
Israel was their hostility to Jesus.
The scripture says that these two groups came up with this question
as a way to entrap Jesus. This is the only place in the New Testament that
this word translated “entrap” is used, so it’s worth taking a second to figure
out what the trap was. The word translated “lawful” here is used several
other times in Matthew’s gospel, and it also shows up in other gospels, in
Paul’s letters, and in Acts. Sometimes it’s used to refer to whether or not
something is legal under civil law, sometimes it’s used to refer to religious
law. It’s not clear here which meaning the Pharisees and the Herodians are
referring to, and that’s the trap. If Jesus says that it’s lawful to pay the tax,
then he could easily be running afoul of some Jewish religious law or
custom. If he says it’s not lawful, then he’s preaching disobedience to the
Instead, Jesus does something that I was taught in elementary school
not to do. He answers their question with a question. Okay, first he does
something else I was taught not to do. Jesus insults them and calls them
hypocrites because he knows it’s a trap and that they don’t really care
about his answer. Then, asking for a coin, Jesus answers their question
with a question. “Whose head and title are on the coin?” “Caesar’s. The
Now the tables are turned a little bit. Although this particular passage
doesn’t mention it, all of this is happening in the temple in Jerusalem. A
coin with Caesar’s image on it wouldn’t have been welcome in the temple,
because it had the image of a living person on it. In Exodus 20:4, one of the
Ten Commandments is “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in
the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth
beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” We typically focus on the
idol part of this, or what the King James version calls a “graven image”, and
we don’t mind having pictures taken or carrying pictures of living people
around with us. Some of the early Brethren would not do that, though, as
they considered pictures like that to be graven images.
For the Jews of Jesus’s time, though, it was a little different than it is
for us. They were closer to the early Brethren in their approach. They took
the idea of “the form of anything… that is on the earth beneath” more
literally. This coin had the picture, or the form, of the emperor on it. You
weren’t supposed to have that in the temple. In fact, one of the things that
the money changers in the temple did was take the emperor’s money and
give you money that was acceptable in the temple, Jewish money with
numbers or harvested wheat or something on it.
In U.S. society we’ve kind of struck a middle ground. Our money has
people on it, but not living people. Can you imagine the reaction if
President Trump or President Obama seriously suggested that they should
be on the ten dollar bill instead of Alexander Hamilton? We don’t put living
people on money, although we will use an image of someone who has
So Jesus has kind of flipped things around. First he called out the
hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the Herodians for not asking a serious
question, then for the devout Jews who may have been watching in the
temple Jesus points out the presence of a graven image, a coin with the
likeness of the Emperor on it.
Then Jesus does a third thing that I learned in elementary school not
to do, at least not when you’re talking with the teacher. To recap, first,
Jesus insulted the Pharisees and the Herodians, second, he answered
their question with a question, and now that he’s gone through all of that
Jesus doesn’t even bother to definitively answer the question. “Give
therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the
things that are God’s.”
What does that mean? What kind of guidance is that, anyway?
Everything belongs to God, right? Psalm 24:1a says “The earth is the
Lord’s and all that is in it.” Does that mean we give everything to God and
nothing to the government?
Well, I don’t think so. I just got done spending nearly 17 years
working for the government, and some of you are still doing likewise, so we
kind of depend on people thinking that at least something can be given t
Caesar. So this is the place where I forget to ask myself WWJND – What
Would Jesus Not Do?
Jesus would not let himself be trapped by a false duality, an either/or
choice. Here on one hand is what is God’s and here on the other hand is
what is the emperor’s. That’s not the issue. That presents God and Caesar
as two competing, more or less equal entities. Really it should be God up
here and Caesar down here underneath, because if all that is in the world
belongs to God, that means Caesar belongs to God too. And all of that
brings us to Cyrus.
The Cyrus that Isaiah is talking about in our reading from the Old
Testament is Cyrus II, Cyrus the Great of Persia. Cyrus the Great ruled
from around 560 to 530 BC, when he is believed to have died in battle.
Cyrus built the greatest empire of his day, and one of the ways he did it
shows up earlier in the Bible. Cyrus respected the local customs and
religions of the places he conquered. One of those places was the
Babylonian empire, who at that time controlled Jerusalem and had exiled
the Israelites. In the book of Ezra, chapter 1 describes Cyrus being inspired
by God to return the furnishings of the temple to Sheshbazzar, the prince of
Judah, and directing the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the
temple. That’s what Isaiah is talking about in the passage from his
prophecy that we read earlier.
The interesting thing to me is that Isaiah makes clear in the prophecy
that Cyrus doesn’t know God. Two times God says specifically when
speaking to Cyrus that “you (Cyrus) do not know me.” God also refers to
Cyrus as “anointed”, and Cyrus is the only non-Jewish person in the Bible
referred to that way. Cyrus receives from God the highest compliment
possible for a non-Israelite, and Cyrus doesn’t even know who God is or
that God exists.
This confirms the idea of God and Caesar not being some kind of
competing entities, but of Caesar under God, Caesar being used to
accomplish God’s will even when Caesar or the government has no idea
that God exists.
This doesn’t mean that whatever the government says, goes. If that
were the case the apostle Paul would never have gone to jail. There would
have been no Church of the Brethren, as Alexander Mack and his followers
would have read the Bible, prayed about it, and shrugged their shoulders
saying, “Huh. Well, I guess we’ve got to obey the government when they
tell us to baptize babies.”
It also means that we will not necessarily recognize God working
through the government. We might, but we might not. God has used the
government of the United States to accomplish some very good things,
whether the President was Donald Trump, Barack Obama, or Millard
Fillmore. The government of the United States has also done some horrible
things in disobedience to God’s commands, no matter who the President
was at the time or what party controlled Congress.
What would Jesus not do? Jesus would not let himself be tricked into
granting the government equal status with God. What would Jesus not do?
Jesus would not assume that God’s work can only be done through people
who know or believe in God. What would Jesus not do? Grant the
government, any government, the power and status that is God’s alone.