Conversations: Jesus and his critics
Text: Matthew 22:15-22
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
We are continuing in our series of sermons on “Conversations with Jesus.” And we’re looking together at the kind of people Jesus talked to, and what he said. We’re looking at the kind of questions Jesus asked people, and the kinds of questions they asked him. And we’re asking ourselves: what do these conversations reveal about the way Jesus might speak to me?
Well, so far we have looked at conversations Jesus had with people who were sincerely interested in talking with him. Today I’d like to look at a short conversation Jesus had with a group of Pharisees who came to talk to Jesus, but who were not sincerely interested in talking to him. They came to him as critics. They were critical of him, and critical of his ministry. They wanted to engage him in a conversation that would trap him, and expose him as a false Messiah.
This is just one of many conversations Jesus had with his critics, but it’s one of my favorite Jesus stories. And it’s a Jesus story that many years ago played a part in my own conversion, by convincing me that this Jesus really was amazingly astute and ought to be listened to!
Listen as I read you Matthew’s version of the story, found in Matthew 22:15-22.
So my friends, let me set for you the context of this short but potent conversation: Jesus is now in Jerusalem near the end of his life and ministry. He entered into the Capital City on Palm Sunday with great fanfare and acclaim. But the first thing he did was to go to the Temple and cast out all the money changers and those who were selling animals for the sacrifice right in the court of the Gentiles. “My house will be a house of prayer,” Jesus said, “But you have made it a den of thieves.”
This, quite naturally, did not make Jesus very popular with the rulers of the Temple, or with the business community. And so the leaders of Jerusalem began asking Jesus by what authority he could go around acting like he owned the place. And Jesus told them a parable in which he basically claimed he was the Son of the “Owner of the Place,” and the rightful heir; and that they were simply the caretakers of the place, and had been doing a very bad job of it. This made the leaders of Jerusalem even madder, and they began looking for a way to arrest Jesus and get rid of him.
So the next day they sent a couple of spies to Jesus. And their job was to pretend to be sincerely interested in following Jesus, but to ask him a loaded question that would trap Jesus into making a political statement that would either get him in trouble with the Roman authorities, or would get him in trouble with his own fan base.
And the question, of course, had to do with whether or not Jesus thought it was right for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar. And why was this such a hot-button issue? Because the kind of Jews who were attracted to Jesus were not fans of the Roman domination. They generally hated Rome, and hated the fact that Israel was occupied by a Roman military force, and controlled by the pagan Roman government. And they were hoping for the long-awaited Messiah to come and restore the Kingdom of God in Israel, and set them free from Caesar and his Roman rule.
These were the kind of Jews who were attracted to Jesus, and who on Palm Sunday sang his praises as he rode into Jerusalem. And these fans of Jesus would expect Jesus to answer this question of paying taxes to Caesar with a resounding, “No!” They were hoping Jesus would say, “The time has come to overthrow Roman rule. So quit paying your taxes to that evil tyrant. It’s time for the nation of Israel to rise up in revolt.”
And if that is what Jesus had said, then the Jewish rulers in Jerusalem would have had every right to arrest Jesus and hand him over to the Roman governor for prosecution.
But here’s the other side of the trap. They also knew that if Jesus answered in the opposite way by saying, “Yes, God’s people should still pay taxes to Rome;” then Jesus’ own followers would turn on him as an imposter and false Messiah. And that would be fine with Jesus’ critics, too. Either way they would neutralize him.
It was a very clever plan they had. The only thing they didn’t reckon on was how astute, and downright brilliant, this Jesus of Nazareth really was.
First, Jesus is astute enough to see right through the motive of the spies who came to question him. He could see the trap they had set for him immediately, and he wasn’t taken in by their feigned sincerity.
And secondly, he was brilliant in the response he gave them. He asks them to show him a Roman coin, a Denarius. And he asks them whose image and inscription are on it. And they quite rightly answer, “Caesars,” because each coin looked like this: On one side was an image of Caesar’s head, with the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” And on the other side was an image of Caesar seated on a throne with the inscription, “Pontif Maxim,” which means, Priest Most High.
So Jesus says to these spies, and to everyone there within his hearing, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but then he adds, “and give back to God what is God’s.”
And that last line is what makes this so brilliant. If that coin had the image and inscription of Caesar on it, which made it belong to Caesar, what was it that Jesus was implying had the image and inscription of God on it that his hearers were supposed to give back to God?
Well, everyone of his hearers knew from the Torah that they were the ones made in the image of God. Human beings were the ones who had God’s own image stamped upon us. And as Jews who had of all people been entrusted with God’s laws, they were the ones with God’s own inscription, His words that were supposed to be written on their hearts.
So Jesus tosses the coin back to the spies and says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” But then perhaps he pointed his finger at everyone of them and added, “And give to God what is God’s.”
And look at the response Jesus gets. Matthew writes, “When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.”
Jesus had not only avoided the political quicksand of their question, he had turned it around in a way that confronted his critics with a truth about their own relationship to God which left them stunned, and convicted, and silent. It was brilliant.
So what does all of that have to do with you and me all these years later?
1. Well first, it models for us once again what conversations with Jesus then and now are like. We have seen again and again that there is a pattern in Jesus’ conversations: He confronts. He converts. He consoles.
If you haven’t yet written that down somewhere so you’ll remember it, write it down now. He confronts. He converts. He consoles.
When Jesus enters into conversations with people then and now, when we read his word and when we pray, Jesus will confront us with some kind of truth, just like he does here with his critics, or just like he did last week with the Rich Young Ruler, or the week before with the Samaritan woman at the well. He confronts us with a truth about God, which usually also reveals a truth about ourselves which challenges and convicts us in some way.
And that truth then begins to work its way into us and starts converting us. It begins to change our mind, to alter our perspective, to rearrange our values, to bring us to repentance.
And then comes the consolation. Jesus speaks his words of grace and forgiveness and comfort and invitation to us. He invites us to take his hand and walk with him into a new way of living. This is what conversations with Jesus are like.
But what I want you to notice in this conversation that we are looking at today, is that when it comes to conversations with Jesus’ critics, the conversation doesn’t usually flow very well from confrontation to conversion to consolation. It usually gets stuck at the confrontation with the truth that Jesus sets before his critics. m Just like we see here in verse 22. When Jesus critics heard what Jesus said, they were amazed. So they left him and went away!
My question is, if they were so amazed at his answer, why didn’t they stay and talk some more? Why didn’t at least one of them respond to the truth that had just amazed them, and show some sign of conversion?
It wouldn’t have taken much. Why didn’t one of them say, “Jesus, you’re right. We are hypocrites. We claim to be godly, but we came here to trap you. We came pretending to be genuinely interested in you as a Rabbi, but we really just wanted to bring you down. We were not reflecting God’s image that is stamped upon us, and you saw right through us. I am so sorry. Will you forgive me?”
You see, that would have shown that the conversion was taking place. That a heart and mind were being changed by the truth Jesus had just confronted them with. And Jesus would have then brought the consolation. He would have forgiven the repentant one. He would have invited such a one to come follow him and walk with him. Then the conversation would have continued for a lifetime.
This is what conversations with Jesus are all about. This is the “flow” that Jesus seeking to initiate. My friends, this is why Jesus talks to us!
But these critics, though amazed at Jesus, walk away. I don’t want us to be like that ourselves today. I urge us to be among those who hear the truths that Jesus confronts us with, and allow God’s word to penetrate and then convert our minds and hearts, and find that Jesus then consoles and comforts and calls us to walk with him further up and further in.
That’s what disciples do.
And in this conversation today, Jesus called all those who were standing there, and calls all of us who 2000 years later are sitting here listening again to this conversation, to “give to Caesar what is Caesars, but give to God what is God’s.”
Can you hear that as a truth for you today? Do you know that you have been made in the image of God? That God’s own image is stamped upon you as a human being. None of the other creatures in all creation were made like human beings. We have minds that can think and discern what is true. We have language by which to communicate with others. We have consciences to know right from wrong. We have emotions to feel love and hate, joy and sorrow, comfort and conviction. We have wills to make choices and decisions.
These are all attributes of God that He has uniquely shared with us. And God shared those attributes with us so that we might actually live in relationship with God? So that of all the creatures of creation, we might be able to know God, and communicate with God, and respond to God’s love by loving Him back.
When Jesus calls us to “give to God what is God’s,” He is urging us to give ourselves back to God. To entrust our lives to God, our souls to God, our will and our ways to God. As the Apostle Paul wrote in our earlier reading from Romans 12:1, “…in view of God’s mercies, (ie, in response to God’s great grace and love which have been freely given to you in Christ,) offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.”
This is what God created us for, and this is the way we truly worship and enjoy God, by giving ourselves back to him in response to His great love for us.
So don’t just be amazed at how smart Jesus was in answering his critics, and don’t just walk away like they did. Instead, be amazed at the truth Jesus confronts us all with: that we have been made in God’s image and we belong to Him. And let that truth seep from your head down into your heart and soul.
Let that word of Jesus do its work of conversion in you. If the Spirit brings to mind some way in which you have withheld yourself from God; some part of your life that you do not want to relinquish control over; some sin you do not want to let go of; some idol that you value more highly than your loving, heavenly Father?
In view of God’s mercies, and the truth that you were made in God’s image for relationship with God, repent of those things and let them go. And you will not be losing out by letting them go, you will be gaining the consolations of grace: the fruits of God’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness and self-control.
That’s where a conversation with Jesus can lead us if we’re willing to go there, and not walk away.