What Belongs to God?

Watch or listen to this sermon here.

Luke 20.20-26

Last week stepped back into the gospel of Luke, one of the four biographies Jesus’ life. Kirsten brought such quality teaching, and if you missed out I’d encourage you to give it a listen online because you’d be hard pressed to find a more in-depth and clear exposition of that passage. Today, we continue in the following episode in the narrative.

Have you ever found yourself in the hot seat? Everyone’s holding their breath, all eyes are on you, and what you do or say will have dramatic repercussions. A high stakes moment. The first responders among us face these moments daily, the high stakes are their bread and butter. But in our own way we probably all know the feeling. In a high stakes moment your pulse quickens and you began to sweat. The stakes can be material or emotional, but tangible or not, your body feels the pressure. This moment is unlike other moments and there’s nowhere to hide, it’s all on you. Is this stressing you out? Maybe you didn’t come to church to have your cortisone levels spiked. But I think we need to feel the story we’re reading today as much as we need to think on it.

THE SCENE

The scene today in Luke’s gospel is a high stakes moment. Here’s how the stage is set. Luke’s already told us that the higher-ups from the Temple in Jerusalem are conspiring against Jesus now his teaching has moved from the surrounding country and into the city. In the previous episode the higher-ups (those in charge of the Temple and in authority over Israel) go toe to toe with Jesus, challenging Jesus’ authority in front of the people. But, as Kirsten showed, Jesus’ ups the ante, challenging their authority, even telling a parable against them. For a variety of reasons, Jesus is proving to have real authority in contrast to the shady authority of the higher-ups in the Temple. Drawing from Israel’s ancient Scriptures, Jesus calls himself the cornerstone, the stone all other stones will be set in reference to, immoveable and dominant, which is a theme which continues in today’s passage. We also heard that Jesus is very popular with the people, as they believe he’s from God. So, green with envy and fearing a loss of control, the Temple leadership want to arrest Jesus then and there, but can’t because of the people’s admiration. A public arrest is just too dangerous. No one wants a riot because the Roman authorities come down hard on civil unrest. So, publicly bested by Jesus on the question of his authority, and exposed over their lack of real authority in the Temple, the higher-ups shrink back into the shadows to figure another way to solve the Jesus problem. 

Dramatic stuff isn’t it? A great deal of western literary tradition springs from the Bible, the gospels especially. So the next time you’re watching an enthralling movie or tv show, remember a lot of the time they’re lifting from the Bible whether they know it or not! Here’s what happens next, Luke 20:


Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

THE QUESTION

The higher-ups in the Temple won’t risk public failure again, so this time they send in agents with a plan to catch Jesus out another way. The agents lay a bomb of a question the young rabbi’s feet. It’s not a sincere question but a trap, bated and barbed by brilliant people, intended to ruin Jesus once and for all. Of course, the agents start with flattery, laying it on thick, but only as a kind of set up to a devastating punch line. Rabbi, we’ve been listening and can tell that you teach the truth. You don’t play favourites or show partiality, but side very clearly with God in all things. That’s the set up. It’s clever, but also true and they use the truth to set their trap. Jesus doesn’t seem to be swayed by any authority other than God’s. He hasn’t cowed to the higher-ups in the Temple or shown deference to their station in high society. Here comes the punchline: Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not? How long did it take the higher-ups to come up with that one? He talks about a kingdom, and rides into the city like a ruler? He questions our integrity and challenges our authority over Israel? Alright Jesus, you want a seat at the high rollers table? You want to talk about authority? Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. And don’t forget the elephant is listening. What do you think of Caesar’s authority, Roman authority here Jerusalem? Can you feel the temperature in the Temple rise, the pulses quicken? The blood is pumping now, and it wouldn’t take much for blood to start spilling if Jesus were to misstep. 

What’s the trap exactly? Simply, it’s to land Jesus in hot water with either answer he gives to the question. At least that’s their plan. On one hand, if Jesus says the people shouldn’t pay tribute to Caesar, the higher-ups can hand him over to the governor on grounds that Jesus is encouraging political resistance, even inciting insurrection. Everyone had to pay tribute, that was the way of the world. Could they entice Jesus to oppose Rome publicly? On the other hand, if Jesus responds by affirming the tax payment, he’s signalling to the crowds that they should be complicit in their oppression under their pagan overloads, dividing their loyalties to God, whom they are meant to give total devotion. Along with this, the crowds are hopeful Jesus is going to actually do something about their oppression as he’s had plenty to say about God’s kingdom which is arriving, in his own words, “on earth as it is in heaven”. The people hope Jesus will bring on real world regime change.

So, to sum up: Jesus is in danger of either losing credibility with the people (yet another poser-Messiah, they’d seen plenty of those before), or the danger of publicly exposing himself to charges of disturbing the peace (and the deadly consequences under the Romans). It’s a dammed if you do, damned if you don’t question laid at Jesus’ feet. It’s public, it’s highly charged, and it’s laced with cultural nuance we can’t fully appreciate at this distance. All to say, cut the wrong wire and the whole thing could blow up in Jesus’ face.

Unfortunately for the higher-ups, they’re dealing with Jesus. You might think of Jesus as a compassionate, kind, even miraculous figure. But we’re learning he’s also full of an undeniable authority, and he’s unbelievably sharp. Often in the gospels we read how people were amazed at his teaching, or how those who challenged him had nothing to say in response when they dared go toe to toe. He may be in his early thirties, but he knows the Law better than the oldest, wisest, cleverest scribe. As in this instance, he sees your motives behind your words. The higher-ups don’t realize they’re way out of their league when sparing with Jesus. If he wants to dodge them, or turn things around on them, he can do so with ease. It’s almost as if they are sparing with God.

He saw through their duplicity and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?”“Caesar’s,” they replied. He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s…

The temperature rises again. You should know that the tribute coinage itself was a blasphemous symbol to a Law observing Jewish person, a repugnant thing that flew in the face of what it meant to be an Israelite. It bore Tiberias Caesar’s image and inscription, noting him as the object of total devotion in the Empire, even the son of a god. So the tribute coin was not only currency, but a reminder of everything a first-century Jewish person hated about their circumstances. It’s also helpful to remember that some of the higher-ups themselves (the Sanhedrin) were responsible for collecting the tribute from the people[i]. Some of the higher-ups had chosen to collaborate with the Romans so long as the Temple was allowed to function, and they could run it. The question was, if the higher-ups were in bed with the Romans, how far had they gone? This is the question Jesus was exposing once he began teaching in the Temple consistently, no longer further afield. Jesus and the higher-ups were on a collision course.

So the question comes: “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus replies by asking for a coin, and the lackeys produce one. Jesus asks whose face and inscription it bears. Caesar’s, of course, they reply. Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, answers Jesus. Scholars have noted a few of things at play.[ii]

First, the spies of the higher-ups are shown to be dirtied by their obvious entanglement with the Rome, which the people already know but Jesus points to with ease. Imagine the moment. Bring me a tribute coin. Oh, you have one readily available? Seems we already know what kind of game you’re playing. Isn’t it your bosses who take up the tax on behalf of Rome to begin with? Second, the agents are made to admit it’s Caesars image on the coin. So, Jesus’ response of, “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s” is clever and veiled resistance language. Resist Caesar by giving him what is his, let him have the filthy stuff. As God’s people, aren’t we meant to live under a different authority anyway? Third, Jesus subtly (or not so subtly given the prior narrative) calls into question the higher-ups loyalty to God. They’ve already been show up by Jesus to have no real authority in comparison to him, as we saw in the earlier episode. And now they’ve chosen to lay a political trap. Motivated and maneuvering not on the basis of God’s authority, but Caesars, and using sinister methods.

So, as it becomes increasingly clear that Jesus is from God and his authority comes from God, the higher-ups can choose one of two paths. They can either listen to Jesus and welcome his authority and message, or they can take the low road and try to do away with him. And here we see them taking that low road. They’ve not been loyal to God, the Temple is a den of thieves, as Jesus has said earlier. An evil shadow stands behind their scheming even in this moment as they try and do away Jesus. Their questions about Jesus’ loyalties exposes their very disloyalty to God, showcasing instead their loyalty to the world’s ways through a figure like Caesar.

Scholars also notes that there’s a foreboding tone underneath this whole shadowy scene. In a short while it is Jesus, the true image of God, a man and not a coin, who will finally be handed over to the power of the Romans by the higher-ups. But again, as we know the end of that story, what was meant for evil God turned to good. Through the very instrument of destruction and evil used on him, a Roman cross, Jesus will turn the enemy’s play around, swallowing death and bringing about life. So, Jesus bests the higher-ups in this scene, and he’ll best the evil powers at work behind them through his death and resurrection. Jesus is simply in a different weight class. “No one takes (my life) from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (John 10.18)

WHAT BELONGS TO GOD?

Still, just because Jesus comes out on top, the drama and tension of this moment isn’t automatically defused for us, nor is the drama and tension of the passion narrative right around the corner in Luke’s gospel. We may know the ending, the big picture, but when imagining this scene our hearts still race, our palms still sweat. We still feel the high stakes. Why? Probably because Jesus doesn’t stop at:

“…give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but continues:

And give to God what is God’s.” They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.

For all listening in the Temple courts, Jesus answers the trick question, while raising the stakes higher again, with a response provoking a heavier question: what belongs to God? And that question, the question of what belongs to God, hasn’t settled and died with the higher-ups of that day, or the crowds listening in, but echoes down to us now, as resonant a question as ever. 

What belongs to God? Where do our loyalties lie? Have we got our priorities straight? What are we wrapped up in? Do we sit under God’s authority, or are our allegiances tied somewhere else? Am I setting my life, and my daily choices which make up my life, on God’s course, God’s bearing, or not?

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Have you noticed that we spend a lot of time worrying about what belongs to Caesar? We think our lives are dictated by governments and political landscapes. We think our lives are built on money, possessions, ambition, that our legacies will be shaped by how well we play the games the world plays. We can get totally absorbed with what belongs to Caesar, pulled here and there by advertising and influencers and political tactics. And every day we spend more energy worrying about the things that belong to Caesar, we begin to think and act more and more like little emperors. It’s very hard to trust and follow Jesus, when our focus is on lesser authorities. As Jesus says earlier in the gospel, you cannot serve two masters.

So, Jesus’ statement of, “give to God what is God’s” is what we need to be about as his followers and family. We’re not meant to be little emperors, but little children in God’s care. Are there things that belong to Caesar, ways of the world we live under, like it or not? Of course. Political backdrops, societal structures, money concerns, career trajectories – we all live in the real world. Jesus isn’t diminishing these realities, he lived with them too. He’s heightening the question of a greater reality. A more important authority and question of human accountability and purpose. At the end of the day, at the end of your life, what belongs to God?

Good grief, talk about a high stakes question, talk about the high stakes question. If God is God in heaven and here am I on earth, then this isn’t a religious question. It’s a question about ultimate devotion, about what it means to be a human being. If you take Jesus at face value, and take the message of Scripture seriously, “what belongs to God” is the human question. And you might think the answer must be dense or complex, but according to Jesus and Scripture it isn’t. 

What belong to God? I belong to God. You belong to God. Caesar’s image and inscription may be on the coinage, but God’s image and name is on us. What belongs to God? In the end everything does. So, in the middle of our ordinary, earthy lives, how does that reality shape our thinking and speaking, our living and choosing? Give to God what is God’s. What a statement from Jesus.

HIGH STAKES LIVING

The danger of being a Christian these days is the proclivity of turning Christianity into a jelly of the month club. Sign up for a new religious flavour which might on occasion add a little value to your life. But that’s not following Jesus. Give to God what’s God’s. That’s putting all the eggs in one basket, that’s your whole life. 

You can go and seen Caesar’s name written on the crumbling buildings in Rome, and on his derelict palace on the island of Capri. But Caesar’s name, and my name, along with all the other names in history, is washing into the sea. God’s name is on the universe. God’s name is on you and me. As everything else erodes, God’s name is eternal.

Following Jesus under his authority and direction, then, is remembering that God’s ways are not our ways, and going God’s way can feel like going uphill when downhill looks easier. Following Jesus under his authority is remembering that ultimately you don’t belong to a political party or an ideology. You don’t belong to a cultural trend, a class of people, a business or educational school of thought. You don’t belong to good vibes, to good times, to the goal of work life balance. You don’t belong to what tempts you or triggers you. In the end you and I belong to God. And if we’re his, if we’re all in on following Jesus, these daily high stakes moments compound and collect and define the shape of our character. But thank Jesus for his Holy Spirit. He told us he wouldn’t leave us orphans, but would give us everything we need by the Spirit for daily high stakes living.

Our days are filled with moments and choices. And these moments and choices make up the long-term trajectory of our lives. Choice after choice. Moment after moment where we choose the character and kingdom of Jesus, or not. It’s not just money. It’s not just sex. It’s not just a business decision or a leadership strategy. It’s not just a shortcut around humility or integrity or the dignity of another person. It’s a question of what belongs to God. It doesn’t matter if it’s public or private. It doesn’t matter how long or short you’ve been a Christian. It doesn’t matter if you’re a project engineer or a school principal, a postal worker or a local pastor, a parent or a city planner. Do I belong to God, or not?

Daily life in following Jesus is high stakes. And if you feel it, if sometimes it makes you sweat, or quickens your pulse, or drives you to your knees because you need help to do the right thing under God’s authority – congratulations. You’re doing your best to follow with integrity. You’re living under the reality that there is a cornerstone, and every other stone is set in relation to him. You’re living like the kingdom is arriving on earth as it is in heaven, and is arriving through your very life, because it is. Give back to God what is God’s, and everything else will fall into place.


[i] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, p. 712

[ii] Tom Wright, Luke For Everyone

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