Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, January 25, 2022
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Dual Citizenship

Matthew 22:15-22

Matthew chapter 22 is set in the Temple Courts in Jerusalem. All through the chapter, Jesus is sparring with the religious and political elites. There would be large crowds of people in the courts, and they want to trap him in his words.

In this case, it’s the Pharisees and Herodians who are working together. They are unlikely allies. Not people you would expect to work together.

The Pharisees, of course, were deeply religious. When it came to the Romans, they viewed their occupation as a serious challenge to faithfulness. How could they be faithful to God when they were being ruled over by a bunch of pagan foreigners who cared nothing for God? But the Pharisees were not extremists. They were not about to take up arms, at least not at this point. The extremists were the Zealots. The Zealots insisted “We have no King but God,” which sounds pretty good to me. The problem is that the Zealots were perfectly willing to use violence in their quest for independence. They would murder not only Roman officials but also fellow Jews who were seen as too moderate or too willing to accommodate to the Roman occupiers.

For example, the Zealots were probably happy to murder Herodians. The Herodians were the supporters of the Herod dynasty. Herod the Great was the king of not only Judea but the entire region at the time of Jesus’ birth. We remember him as the king who murdered a bunch of infants, trying to get rid of Jesus. But he was actually remembered rather fondly at this time. Herod the Great was not Jewish. He was Idumean, meaning he was a descendant of Edom, Esau from the Old Testament. But he may have converted to Judaism. And he married a couple of different Jewish wives, so that was a plus. He brought peace and prosperity to the region. And what he was really fondly remembered for was that he was the one who began the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple. And he was local and he was their king.

After Herod the Great died, he gave his son, Archelaus, rule over Judea. Archelaus was awful. He started his reign with mass murder and didn’t really improve from there. So after a few years, Rome removed him from power and rather than putting someone better in his place, they made Judea into part of a Roman province, called Palestine, and put a Roman governor over it. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, that governor was Pontius Pilate, whom we know from the Gospels.

The Herodians wanted a return to local rule. In order for that to happen, they wanted everyone to play nice. Maybe if everyone stayed out of trouble, the Romans would allow them to have local rule again.

Both groups disliked Jesus, but for different reasons. The Pharisees hated that he didn’t uphold their ideas of true religion, and the Herodians hated any Messiah figure, because they all seemed to cause more trouble with Rome.

So they ask him about taxes. The Romans collected three taxes from everyone. There was a ground tax, which was a share of all crops grown. There was an income tax. And there was a poll tax, which is the one in question here. Everyone, except young children, had to pay one silver denarius per year just for the privilege of living.

No one likes paying taxes, but it was the silver part that really bothered them. Rome allowed Judea to mint their own copper coins, but only Rome could mind gold and silver. And every Roman coin had an image of the emperor on it and a title that declared the emperor was a “living god.” That didn’t sit well. Neither did the fact that taxes paid to support things like pagan temples, worship of the emperor, and paid for the decadent lifestyles of the Roman elite.

“Is it right to pay taxes?” The question is a trap. If Jesus says, “Pay your taxes,” they’ll say he is unpatriotic and disloyal to God. If he says, “Don’t,” they’ll turn him into the Roman authorities as a revolutionary.

Instead, Jesus says, “Whose portrait and title are on it?” Caesar’s, of course. “Well, then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” So Jesus evades the trap.

What does it mean?

First of all, it means that every citizen of the Kingdom of God has a dual citizenship. We belong to the Kingdom of God and to a worldly “kingdom.” And we should strive to be good citizens of both kingdoms. We do belong to a worldly kingdom. And we do derive benefits from it. And so we do owe a certain amount of allegiance to that kingdom. We should pay our taxes, obey the laws, and participate in the civic life of our worldly kingdom.

I am convinced that our nation, like every nation, needs the leadership of people whose way of living is God-oriented. A God-orientation changes our fundamental perspective on life and the world. Without God, what is the foundation of our values and ethics? I’m afraid the answer is that it can only be something human-centered. And a human-centered foundation is going to shift over time. Values and ethics will change, and not for the better, I’m afraid. When we look at societies that have removed God from public life, like the Soviet Union or Communist China or North Korea, we see some rather unpleasant things happening. Human rights are not their strong suit.

But our true loyalty must be to the Kingdom of God. At the end of the day, Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth belongs to God, and so does everything in it.” That means that really, even the things that belong to Caesar truly belong to God. When these kingdoms come into conflict, and they will from time to time, we must choose the Kingdom of God. In 1 Peter chapter 2, Peter wrote, “Fear God and honor the emperor.” There is a different force to those words. Honor is appropriate in all human relationships. But “fear,” holy reverence, is of a higher degree, and it is only appropriate in our relationship with God.

And the Kingdom of God does not depend in any way on worldly powers. Whether Judea was ruled by Pontius Pilate or a descendant of Herod made no difference in the coming of the Kingdom of God. It also makes no difference if it is Donald Trump or Joe Biden. Neither of them can stop the Kingdom of God, and neither will bring it about. No worldly power will bring God’s Kingdom.

A few years ago I was reading a book by Phillip Yancey. At one point he remarked about how we have “religionized politics.” He went on to explain that one way to understand religion is that it is a quest to connect with what is ultimate. Normally, that’s God. But as society has become more and more secular, many people are trying to find the ultimate in something else, such as a political ideology. Political matters have taken on religious levels of significance.

More than once, I’ve heard and seen people paint a picture that “heaven on earth” will come about if their candidate wins. Conversely, “hell on earth” will happen if the other candidate wins.

I’m here to tell you, the question of who prevails on November 3 is not an ultimate question. Whether it’s Joe Biden or Donald Trump, Jesus is still King, Lord, and Savior. His victory is assured, and the gates of hell will not prevail against him.

So if your level of anxiety is high over what will happen. Relax. Jesus is still King and his Kingdom will never fail.

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