today's message is based on Matthew 22:15-22


Did you ever hear the expression “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t”?
That means you have found yourself in a situation with two unappealing options.
Either choice will spell unfortunate consequences for you so its a no win situation.

That’s where Jesus found himself when the religious leaders put a question to him.
They asked him what sounded on the surface like simple enough question -  
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”.
However, this wasn’t just an innocent inquisition but a trap set to make Jesus look bad.
To look bad at the very least and quite possible a question that could get rid of him.

We have to remember that an antagonistic relationship had developed between Jesus and the leadership of the people.
He had been critical of them and their legalistic ways, putting rules before God.
But those leaders had only religious authority, not civic authority, over the people.
That control lay in the hands of Caesar and Roman occupiers who controlled their land.

So since this question was posed to Jesus in public, lots of people heard his answer.
Some in the crowd were most likely members of the radical group called the ‘Zealots’.
These were revolutionary Israelites who despised the Romans and their rule over Israel.
Jesus knew they were around and even one or two of his disciples had been ‘Zealots’.

Meanwhile, also always present like in the days of Communist Europe, were spies.
By direct observation from agents or with informants, the Romans knew who did what.
So a public comment by Jesus here would go right back to the Roman authorities.
Especially with something as important as possibly interfering with tax collection.

So Jesus is being set up where he’s ‘damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t’.
If he says it’s right to pay taxes, then he seems a traitor; siding with the Romans.
That would put a number of people at odds with Jesus, no matter what his message.
Maybe even some of his own disciples would begin to question and doubt him.

At the same time,…it was actually the law of the land to pay taxes to the Romans.
And to dispute and challenge that would have made Jesus appear a potential threat.
Sounding like a radical anti-Roman Zealot, it wouldn’t be long before he was arrested.
The Roman authorities had no patience for, and ruthlessly dealt with, trouble-makers.

This dilemma is exactly what the religious leadership wanted to put Jesus in.
Does he sell out to the occupiers,….. or be pegged as an opponent of Caesar? 
It seems like they’ve got him in a spot that’s a no win situation for him.

But then Jesus, in his brilliance and wisdom, turns the question in another direction.
He reminds the people that they live in a world in which they have two authorities.
The practical reality is that the Romans do control their land and their lives.
If they want to live and not be further oppressed, they need to acquiesce to their rule.
But they are also people of the God; Yahweh, who is their ultimate king and authority.
Their allegiance, first and foremost is to be to the God of Israel, before the Romans. 

So Jesus simply reminds them that they have a sort of dual citizenship in life.
One is to the government authority and laws that controls them,….like it or not.
But the other, more important one, is their ‘citizenship’ as part of the people of God.

For good theatre and to make his point, Jesus then asks for the coin that they use.
He says that the Emperor’s image is printed on it so it’s his money to begin with.
Then his answer highlights the more important alliance they have - “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s

This kept Jesus right where he wanted to be and enabled him to stay on message.
He did not come to be a political revolutionary or nationalistic zealot for a ‘free-Israel’.
But he also was not going to let him or his message be subservient to Roman authority.
He was always about putting God first and, with his answer, he implies as much.
The people may give part of their money to the Roman government and Caesar,….
but they are to always give their hearts and souls and first allegiance to God.

How’s this idea work for us today?
Most Americans love their country and don’t want any outside forces to threaten it.
And that’s a good thing and we can always be zealous about that if we want.
But as Christian people, it should never mean America first before God.
Because we too are supposed to have a dual citizenship in life.

We are at one time citizens of this great nation, and as such must follow its rules.
We pay taxes and follow the rules imposed upon us and the laws of the land.
But we also, by way of our baptism and faith, are members of an even greater entity.
And, as such, we are even more beholden to those laws and the authority of God.

Most times, we can live comfortably with a foot in both camps when they agree.
But there are times or will be occasions when one authority conflicts with the other.
Its at times like that when Jesus’ answer shines a light on which authority we follow.
Do we follow our conscience and the law of Jesus,….of that of civil authority?

The founding fathers felt that their creator endowed them with rights of liberty.
But the colonial rule government had laws that limited or infringed that liberty.
The laws of the United States permitted slavery for a long period of our history.
But the ideals of Jesus said that all people were of equal value in the eyes of God.
The laws of the later day south said blacks had to ride in the back of the bus.
But Reverend Martin Luther King was taught that Jesus said otherwise.

When he was arrested that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had broken lots of laws - doing ministry work on the sabbath, forgiving sins, equating himself with God.
He, instead, followed God’s laws of love and paid the price, for us and for that ideal.
So then, if confronted with such cases, should we.

Amen.