3rd September 2023

Jesus under pressure

Passage: Matthew 22:15-33
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Automatically Generated Transcript

So today we're reading, looking at Matthew chapter 22. It's a really politically laden passage. There's a lot of drama going on. But before we dive into that, I just wanted to reflect on how words are important. And you know, what we can say can often reveal something about who we are and what we think, right? Journalists and politicians, they know the game. There's a constant game going on between the media and politicians. And for the journalist, the aim is something like catching the politician out by asking a hard-hitting question. For the politician, the aim is a little bit different. Their goal is to say as many words as possible without actually answering the question. And so the game is played between the media and politicians. Similar game happens in the legal world, you know, where witnesses are put on up to the stand, and a barrister might be asking them probing questions to try and get at the truth. Something might have happened, and the barrister is asking tricky questions to test the witness account, put them under the microscope, and thoroughly test the truth of what they're saying.

You know, recently I came across an illustration of this in Popular Culture. I saw a clip from a legal TV series called Better Call Saul. I haven't seen the show enough to vouch for it or give it an endorsement, but I think it's quite a gritty legal series. But the particular clip really dramatised this feature, where the defence attorney, his name's Saul, he's cross-examining a key witness in a robbery. And in his cross-examination, he asked the witness a series of questions to establish what the witness actually saw. So he asked him, do you feel you can confidently identify this person? To which the witness says very confidently, I can, absolutely. It's him. And he points to the person sitting at the lawyer's bench, sitting back where the defendant would normally sit. And Saul continues, are you sure that's the person? There's no doubt in your mind. Again, the witness affirms that the person sitting where the defendant would normally sit is indeed the perpetrator. And it's at this moment, in a very dramatic fashion, that Saul reveals the person sitting where the defendant normally would sit is not actually the defendant, and the witness has very confidently misidentified the culprit. There's an uproar in the court, and of course, the case is lost.

The key witness has been put to the test, and has been found to have no credibility. So our passage today involves a similar situation, where another person is being questioned under pressure. This person is none other than Jesus himself. So let's have a look. How does Jesus hold up under pressure? We're going to look at this passage in Matthew chapter 22. So firstly, let's get our bearings in Matthew's Gospel. So in the previous chapter, just to give us a little bit of bearings, Jesus has just entered Jerusalem. He's only a few days away from his crucifixion. We got a little sneak preview of the end of Matthew earlier in Communion. But very early on in Jesus' time in Jerusalem, there's this tension that forms between Jesus and the religious elite of the capital. Jesus has been driving out corrupt money-making schemes from the temple. The chief priests and teachers of the law have been indignant about children praising Jesus. And the chief priests and elders have been challenging Jesus' authority. And this political tension has very quickly come to a head as Jesus is there in the temple teaching the crowds. We get a series of parables as Matthew paints this picture for us, where Jesus tells the parable of the two sons, the parable of the tenants, the wedding banquet.

And in each of these cases, we're not looking at them today, but there's an underlying criticism of the lack of fruit of the Pharisees, their abuse of power and their insensitivity to the kingdom of God. These parables have been exposing their lack of integrity and their rejection of Jesus as king. Now, at some point, the chief priests and Pharisees worked this out. And we read in verse 45 of the previous chapter, chapter 21. When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds because they held him to be a prophet. So they're feeling the weight of this tension. They're perceiving Jesus to be an enemy, and they are being exposed for their lack of integrity and their lack of fruit, their abuse of power. And this brings us to the events of our passage today, verse 15 of chapter 22. Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. They've made a plan to catch Jesus out.

They've made a calculated plan to respond to his criticism in a way that will trick Jesus up, catch him out, expose him to be unreliable and lack credibility. So let's read their attempt, verse 16 of chapter 22. Does that sound like a trap to you? I think it does. There's probably a bit that we might not understand from our cultural separation of 2,000 years between now and then. But let's have a look at the players here. So we have mentioned of the Herodians. Don't know necessarily a lot about them. They're probably supporters of the Herodian dynasty. Think King Herod when Jesus was born and the other King Herod who beheaded John the Baptist. These are supporters of their regime. They were a family who in various places around the area ruled in place of the Roman Empire. So they weren't very well liked by the common Jewish people. And then we have this other group, the Pharisees. These are probably more well known to us, more familiar to us.

These were a group of religious elite known for their strict adherence to the oral law, a set of rules that have been born out of tradition in their keeping of the Mosaic law and the Old Testament and the law of the prophets. So this group of people in the first place, they identify Jesus as a man of integrity that is someone who acts consistently in what they do and what they think and believe inwardly. There's no mismatch between the inward thoughts and beliefs and ideals with the outward actions that Jesus does. He is a man of integrity. Which is ironic because it wasn't that long ago that Jesus asked them a question whether they thought John's baptism was from heaven or man. And even though they thought one thing, that they had rejected John's baptism, they were unwilling to answer this truthfully because they were afraid of the crowd. There was a mismatch between their thoughts and their inward perception and their outward deeds because they were afraid of what the crowds would do. So despite their own lack of integrity, they've come to Jesus and they see that he does in fact have this integrity and they challenge him with this rebuttal, verse 17.

Tell us then, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Alright, quick poll. Who likes paying taxes? Anyway, there's usually one person, definitely the minority. I don't like paying taxes. I'm sure most of us feel this way where it's not something we relish doing, do we? As much as we might like the roads and the system of government we have and the structure that that affords us, I for one don't relish paying taxes at all. But I think there are a few things that make this even worse for the Israelites here. As much as we don't like paying taxes to the ATO, there are a few specific aspects of this imperial tax that we're talking about, that Jesus is talking about in the passage, that would have made it even less palatable to the ancient Jews. Firstly, this isn't a tax paid by Roman citizens. So there's the fact that it's not really equal and fair. It's targeting non-Roman citizens. It was paid by every adult Jew, every male, female, even slaves had to pay this yearly tax. And in many ways, it was a bitter and harsh reminder that Israel was a subjugated people. They were an oppressed people subjugated to a foreign power.

Artie France describes it as a potent symbol of political subjection. I don't think we can quite say the same thing about the taxes we pay, but for the ancient Israelite, paying the imperial tax was akin to paying your oppressors, people who had conquered you. It would have been incredibly unpopular with the crowds, who had been seen as condoning the Roman oppression of Israel. What happened to God's promises? Where God promised the Israelites that they would be a nation in which other nations would be blessed, that they would have a land, that they would be established in the land. It challenges the very core of God's promises to Israel, that the Israelites would have to pay tax to a foreign oppressive power. And so the Pharisees have come with this incredibly devious question to ask Jesus whether he supported this tax. So on one hand, it would have been incredibly unpopular with the crowds. If Jesus had have said, yes, we should pay the tax, he would have immediately lost popular support, something that the Pharisees were very keenly aware of.

But on the other hand, if Jesus criticised the imperial tax, and was teaching from the temple that people shouldn't be paying the imperial tax, this could be seen as a rebellious act against Rome. The Pharisees could then denounce Jesus to the Roman authorities. It was politically dangerous. There was no safe answer that Jesus could give. They've got him. It's wickedly clever, isn't it? Let's see how Jesus responds in verse 8. But Jesus, aware of their malice, says, Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax. And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, Whose likeness in inscription is this? They said, Caesar's. Then he said to them, Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. When they heard it, they marvelled, and they left him and went away. See, if this was a question posed to a modern-day politician, we'd probably expect a long-winded deflection that somehow landed back on rehearsed party policy. But instead, Jesus responds in a way that sends his opponents away in amazement. It's not just a clever evasion or non-answer, but an answer that cuts to a deeper issue. I think there's a few things going on here that may not be so obvious to us a few thousand years later. Firstly, he exposes how easily these people have a denarius in their pocket.

So the denarius was a Roman coin. I've got a picture of it, if you don't mind, John, I'm putting that up on the screen. It had an image of Tiberius and was stamped with this image and had an inscription. The translation would have been something like this, Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, chief priest. Can you just feel how jarring that would have been to a pious Jew who was taught from the Torah that there is one true God, to worship the one God alone? In the first commandment, in the second commandment, have no graven image. And yet here are the Pharisees, people who espouse not only the law but their own extension of it, imposing such great degrees of law-keeping on everyone, who pull from their pocket a mini-idol of an image of a false god claiming to be divine, but only a man. And they come to him, to Jesus, to trap him and expose him, to bring down this false god upon him. But Jesus exposes their hypocrisy as people who would on one hand hold themselves out as so pious, yet in reality be harbouring an idol in their pockets. They didn't even need to have this coin. The Romans were aware of Jewish sensitivities around idolatry. They were allowed to exchange in their own day-to-day currency.

They had their own currency, and yet here they have this Roman coin, the denarius, to show and reveal, expose their hypocrisy in the middle of the temple. But Jesus' answer cuts beyond the issue. At a surface level we might think, is this Jesus teaching us a codified tax law? I don't think that's quite the case. Rather he is seeing the Pharisees' hearts, cutting through to their hearts and exposing their hypocrisy. There's this interesting notion in the language to render to Caesar the idea of giving back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And in the same way we're meant to give back to God what belongs to God. And whereas the Pharisees were wanting to prioritise tax and the issue at hand of whether the Israelites should pay their overlords at the time, Jesus cuts to a higher issue, a deeper issue, a more pressing issue, and that is their failure to give to God what belongs to God. And when you think about that for a moment, you realise that what belongs to God is everything. All of us, all of our being belongs to God.

And when we pursue other things like wealth, when we pursue other things like our own autonomy and authority and control of our lives, our ability to dictate terms, we lose sight of what it means to be a creature created by an all-powerful God. We lose sight of what it means to be human, put in this creation and made with the likeness of God, to be given the image of God. And see, whereas the coin bore the image of Caesar, we bear the image of God. We should be giving all of ourselves back to Him. It's what we were made to do. We're called to give back to God what belongs to Him, that is actually all of ourselves, our hearts, our minds, our strength, our soul. As Michael Green poetically captures in his commentary, the coin bears the image, Caesar's image, give it back to Him. You bear God's image, so give yourself back to Him. You know, when we consider who we are, we're creatures that bear the image of God, all of us belong to Him. And Jesus' words scratch at a deeper issue in our hearts, that we're created in His likeness, woven into the fabric of who we are as people, as a likeness to our Creator.

Moreover, we're created for a purpose, which is to worship Him. Man was created to worship God in a loving relationship with Him. It's not just something we do, it's at the core of our humanity. See, just a few verses later in chapter 22, Jesus answers another question about what is the greatest commandment in the law, and He says, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. It's the same answer to give to God what belongs to Him. You know, we need to love our God, not just by the actions we do. Let's put aside this notion that love is only an action, it's not. You know, when Jesus died for you, it wasn't just an action that He did out of a sense of responsibility for you, He did it out of a genuine and deep love for you. And we can't necessarily conjure these feelings, and certainly we should behave in a certain way, but God needs to transform us in a way that loves Him in spirit and truth, to genuinely worship Him. Only the Spirit can do that in us. Well, let's continue on in our passage. We've had round one, Jesus and the Pharisees, but the story is not over, and we're not even going to get to the end of it today.

Unlike Dad, I don't intend to keep you here all day. We're only going to look at a bit of this chapter. Let's look at round two, Jesus and the Sadducees. So next, the Sadducees come to Jesus. This represents another group or wing of the Jews and internal dynamics of Jewish politics. And generally speaking, we can probably assume a few things about the people involved here. The Sadducees differed from the Pharisees on a number of theological points. For instance, they only affirmed the first five books of the Bible as authoritative, and they only followed the law as written by Moses. On the other hand, the Pharisees followed the entire Old Testament and more, the oral law as well. So there's a difference in theological opinion. Moreover, the Sadducees were generally from the wealthier elements of the population. They were more ingrained in the higher echelon of the culture. They had more political sway, and here they are asking Jesus another powerful question that is designed to trip him up. It's not necessarily as politically laden as the Pharisees' question, but rather it's a question about something that pushes Jesus to clarify his stance on a hot topic of the time. What does Jesus think about the resurrection? See, this was a defining difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

The Sadducees didn't believe in the resurrection. So they come to him, and they ask, Teacher, Moses said if a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now then, there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, having no offspring, left his wife to his brother. So too did the second and third, down to the seventh. Now, if you're the seventh brother, I'd be starting to feel a bit worried, right? In this situation, why are my brothers mysteriously dying? Maybe there's something going on here. All the same, it's a hypothetical situation. And we get down to the seventh brother, and he also dies, and the woman outlives them all. So, verse 27. After them the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her. So this is the Sadducees' hypothetical scenario, and it's designed to highlight, at least in their minds, how following the law of Moses is incompatible with the idea of bodily resurrection. Because if the resurrection was true, this is their logic, right? It just results in this ridiculous situation.

Whose wife is she? She's married to seven brothers. Reminds me of a movie, actually. It's a castaway moment, right? So, I'm sorry, if you haven't seen the film Castaway, I'm assuming that some plot swirl is okay, because it's been out since the year 2000. But the basic plot is along the lines of this. The character, played by Tom Hanks, is involved in a plane crash, and is stranded on an uninhabited island as a sole survivor. Meanwhile, the love of his life and would-be fiancée is left at home grieving for his apparent death. But several years later, he is rescued. If you haven't seen the movie, sorry, he does get rescued. You can know that. But plot twist. Another plot spoiler, sorry. She's now married to someone else. Okay, Jesus, who should be her husband? It's this kind of implausible situation that the Sadducees are trying to expose about the inconsistency in the Pharisees' teaching that the resurrection is a true and biblical idea. But Jesus' response is curt and powerful. He says to them in verse 29, You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Mic drop. Well, he goes on to give a little bit more explanation, and I'm glad for this. He says, I don't really know what that looks like.

But things are different when we are resurrected. Straight up, he deals with the actual issue raised by the Sadducees. How does marriage work after death? The answer is, we'll be like the angels in heaven. In other words, life will be so radically different now that the absurdity that is contrived in this artificial situation described by the Sadducees just won't apply anymore. The problem that the Sadducees are too caught up in is an issue of this life, and they're failing to imagine or understand life at the end of the age. I think, again, Artie France captures this quite well. He says, They do not reckon on any real divine dimension. Of course, they're not going to be able to understand about life after death. But this question is really just a farce for their real theological concern, marriage after death. Their real theological concern is, what about the resurrection of the dead? And on this, Jesus answers, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. He is not God of the dead, but of the living. If it's not clear, Jesus teaches and affirms a resurrection of the dead. There is life after death.

And this quote he's referring to comes from God's encounter with Moses in Exodus. And while in verse 33, the crowd seemed to be astonished at this teaching, I have to admit that it's a little more obscure to me exactly the way which Jesus is using this reference. But I think there's a few things that come to my mind about this quote where Jesus says, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. I think what it reminds us is of God's eternal and unbreakable promises with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There'd be something deficient or unresolved if these fathers died without any ongoing life after death. God's promises to them suggest a more permanent and personal significance than is possible if they do not live eternally with him. Additionally, I think this reference reminds us of that moment in the wilderness where Moses encounters God in the burning bush that burns without consuming the bush. And God tells Moses his personal name as the great I Am. And this reference reminds us of the eternal nature of God being powerful over all creation, powerful over all death, above anything we could possibly encounter in this world.

He is above it. He is our creator. And Jesus reminds us that he is a powerful God. That's his criticism of them. They don't know the power of God. They don't know the scriptures, and they certainly don't know the God that is described in them as being the creator, as being powerful, as being the eternal I Am, who would be in a bush that would not be consumed. And you know what that tells us about God is that his source, what drives him, is nothing. He is self-sufficient in a way that does not consume the bush. He is eternal. He is. And Jesus reminds us of this power that he has in this verse. You know, at the end of the day, I think that the issue with the Sadducees was that they had a very small hope. All they could hope for from God was a better life in the few years that they had. But the hope we have is so much greater. It's a hope for an eternal life with the whole congregation of the church in heaven and a bodily resurrection. We have a big hope.

You know, it's something that I think that the secular scientific world struggles to understand or struggles to find. You know, I've been listening to quite a well-spoken physicist called Brian Cox, and there's an emerging idea that says, I'll let him speak for himself, he says, the ingredients in our bodies were assembled in the hearts of long-dead stars and have assembled themselves into structures that can think and feel and explore. And it's a sentiment that marvels at what constitutes us is the same thing that constitutes the fabric of the universe, that we're made out of stardust. And this should lead us to a sense of wonderment that even though we're here for such a brief moment in time, we are made out of something eternal. But to this, Brian Cox goes on, why do you want any more? I want more than just a fleeting life of struggle, a life of work and disappointment. I hope for an eternal life with him to be filled in a way that exists with my creator God. And sure, maybe this physical body is made out of the same stuff as the universe, but so what? I'm more impressed by the fact that this body is made in the image of God. We share something far more than just a physical likeness to this universe.

We share an image with God and his likeness. Our humanity is so much more than what we can expect in these mere hundred years, if we're lucky. In the Sadducees, their hope was too small. Brian Cox, his hope is too small, but our hope is so much bigger because we trust in an eternal creator who desires for us an eternal and loving relationship with him. Let's hope big. Well, I want to keep going. We've talked about round one, Jesus and the Pharisees. Round two, we've had Jesus and the Sadducees. Round three, if we kept going, the passage would be Jesus' interaction with someone who was both legally and theologically trained. Sounds a bit like a shady character to me, but instead today, let's shift gears. Let's talk about round three of Jesus and us. How is that interaction going to go down today? Well, I have two main reflections that I want to leave with us this morning, and that is first and foremost, God, this is what I think we take from the passage today, and what I hope we can walk away with as being present in our minds is first and foremost to give God what belongs to God.

So today's passage explores the responses of two main groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and underlying each of these groups is a rejection, a fundamental rejection of Jesus as the King rather than welcoming him into the city of Jerusalem as Lord and King, the rightful Lord and King who would reign over God's people forever. They reject him. They withhold themselves from him. They have a political stake in the temporary and momentary political scene, and to affirm Jesus' authority would have resulted in some significant temporal implications, and that's because Jesus was bringing disruption to the status quo in a way that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were just unwilling to accept. And I reckon that today we probably don't share the same underlying rejection as the Pharisees and Sadducees, but for us it might be a little bit more subtle. As it happens, their rejection is a model of resistance that comes to us all too naturally as well.

Maybe it's not a deep and complete rejection of Jesus, but I want to tell you, being a Christian is a slow and uncomfortable process of slowly recognizing his authority and handing more and more of ourselves over to him and entrusting more and more of ourselves to him. What might you be holding on today that belongs to God that you're yet to give back to him? You know, if you're a father like I am today, I look at my son and it scares me that I can't control his future. I have to give him back. What might you be holding on? Let's give back to God what belongs to him. And the second thing I just want to leave us with today as a reflection on the passage is that we need to know the Scriptures and believe in the power of God. So for the Sadducees, they lacked a proper understanding of the Scriptures and held to a wrongful position. Particularly highlighted here is their wrongful position of the resurrection. Jesus' reproof of them is that they neither knew the Scriptures nor the power of God. And this should be an encouragement to us to delve into his word and let it enrich us. Let's not fall for the same mistake.

Let's read his word and discover how it teaches us of an incredible creator who with delicate care crafted the heavens and the earth. You know, I think of Psalm 8 as the psalmist extols the glory of God as above the heavens and reflects on how as he looks at the moon and the stars placed with such delicate care by the fingers of God. It conveys this picture of greatness and yet that same God is drawn and interested in us, us lowly creatures. And the Scriptures, as we read them, it outlines who God is more clearly but also who we are more clearly. It highlights the problem of our sin. It highlights the problem of our need for repentance. It suddenly reveals to us the destitution that we have, the wickedness that we face in ourselves. It raises an impossible question. What do we do about our sin? What can we do about our sin and who we are and the separation that we have from him? It's an impossible question. And yet what we see as we read through his Scriptures and we read Matthew 22 is that Jesus is in the business of answering impossible questions. He sees the problem of our sin. He sees it and he answers in a way that is authoritative and decisive and clear and expresses his answer to us in the fullness of God's love to us that he came to die on a cross for us. We see in the Scriptures a God who is powerful over sin and death. A God who loves us to our very core. A God who can respond to the impossible question of who we are and our separation from him. Let's believe in the power of God to deal even with our impossible circumstances. Shall we pray?

Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for who you are despite the weaknesses that I have. Thank you for your willingness to reach down and walk with me. Would this church be blessed by your Spirit? Would you grow in the people here a sense of community and loving fellowship that reflects the goodness of the cross? A willingness to be gentle and kind. A willingness to do what is right despite difficult situations. Lord, would you grow in each of us a sense of integrity so that our inward being and what we think and feel and what we do in our own time when nobody is watching matches what everyone else sees and what we do publicly. Would we have integrity in our lives? Help us to give back to you those things that we struggle to let go of. And Lord, remind us ever again of your love for us. Would we know who you are through your scriptures? And would we believe in the power of God to deal even with the hardest things that we face in ourselves? So we pray these things in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen.

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