By James Cornwell
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 22:15-22
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.
In today’s gospel reading, two major factions of Israel — the Pharisees representing a spiritual faction and the Herodians representing a political faction — approach Jesus with a question that they hope will “entangle” him. Our Lord, of course, sees through their question to their true intent, and provides additional teaching for his disciples in his answer to them.
These factions were hoping to undermine Jesus’ authority by linking him to a contemporary debate that was enflaming the chattering classes of Israel: How to respond to the Roman occupation? The hope of the Pharisees and Herodians was to force Jesus into one of the two camps in order to undermine his authority with its rivals.
Jesus sees the danger. Although the gospel is comprehensive enough to provide a holy context in which we may render good judgment on the issues of the day, it ultimately transcends worldly factional debates. Indeed, Jesus shows us that by trying too hard to make the gospel “relevant” to the issues of the day, we risk giving the Pharisees and Herodians what they want by undermining the identity and authority of the Church.
Human beings are spiritual and political animals. Coming to judgments on issues of the day is inevitable for most of us, and Christians should prayerfully discern what their role is to be in response to them. We are, as it were, called to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s — we must render unto the issues of the day our (godly) judgment. But we should not forget that we are human beings, stamped with the image of God, and our Church is stamped with the image of Christ as his body. Therefore, even when we render such judgment, we should make it clear that it is as provisional as the rule of the spiritual and political leaders of our day, and that our ultimate allegiance, and the issues on which our final destinies turn, lie elsewhere.
James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their six children.
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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer
Today we pray for:
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, McKinney, Texas
The Diocese of Idoani (Church of Nigeria)