Putting Ourselves in His Presence
[November 2, 2008] The gospels record the eye-witness remembrance of Jesus. Jesus is present in our midst through the Holy Spirit within us and among us, and when we listen, the Holy Spirit brings the living Jesus to our remembrance (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:14) so that we can know that He—the risen One—is present in our midst, and we are present before Him. In today’s reading (Matthew 22:15-46) Jesus is asked three questions, after which He asks a question of His own. We may question Jesus ourselves, but we should realize that when we do, because of who He is, we ourselves are the ones who are questioned.
This section began when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem for the last time, as a sacrifice to be offered for the purification of the nation (Isaiah 53:10), and as the true Passover Lamb, which had to be examined for defects before it was slain. He also entered the city as the Son of David coming to claim what is His. The people waved palms of victory and hailed Him with “Hosanna to the Son of David” before the stewards of the city. In a demonstration He entered the grounds of the Temple as its inspector and purged it of those who would take advantage of His people. The next morning He looked for fruit from a fig tree (the symbol of national Israel, of Israel in its land) and finding none, He cursed it—a kind of enacted parable.
That day, the chief priests and elders (the guardians of the Temple, the city, and the people), find Him and question His authority to act like this. He proves them incompetent to judge and refuses to answer them. He then tells three parables. The first parable follows up on their inability to hear God’s voice through John the Baptist. The tax collectors and harlots did better than they, and even though they saw this, they still would not straighten up.
In the second parable, about a vineyard, they are compared to tenant farmers and God to the owner of the vineyard. Jesus compares Himself to the son of the vineyard owner and has come looking for the fruit of the vineyard, the fruit that is due the owner from the farmers. In other words, Jesus, who has come into the city as the son of David, is in actuality the Son of God now demanding a reckoning from the leaders. In the parable, the farmers kill the owner’s son, and thus condemn themselves.
In the third parable, God is compared to a king has a wedding feast for his son and invites his people to attend. Jesus is the king’s son, and those whom the king sends before and after the dinner has been prepared, these are the messengers of the Gospel. But the people invited cannot be bothered and even killed the messengers.
The king becomes angry and destroys their city.
The leaders of the people ask Jesus one question, which He does not answer, and then He tells them three parables. Now they ask Him three questions, and He responds with one question which they do not answer. These passages mirror each other, and therefore belong together. The leaders think it is their job to examine Him. They question Him, but He turns the table around and questions them. He then allows them to examine Him, but in the end, He lets them know that He has been the One examining them.
In chapter 23 Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees, the teachers of Israel, and in 24-25 He describes how the Son of Man will come in judgment, judgment of Israel, the church and the nations.
Even though we can absent ourselves from the scene and imagine this examination has nothing to do with us, we would do better to enter the scene and listen. We will be judged by our own response to Jesus, as this passage makes clear at the end.
Caesar or God (Matthew 22:15-22)
The first question was not an honest question. It was a trap. The word used in verse 15 is for snaring animals during a hunt. The Pharisees despised King Herod, but here they are together. These were the opponents of Jesus in Galilee. The zealots in Galilee called on people to boycott the tax to the emperor. To pay it is to recognize the cult of the emperor. Others appealed to the prophet Daniel and said that the people should bear foreign rule with its claims. Where did Jesus stand? He would discredit Himself either way.
Most people think Jesus gives a clever answer. He simply divides our loyalty. Caesar has his claim on one part of our life and God has His claim on another part. Our life has at least these two realms—the realm of government and the realm of religion. The key is to know how to separate them. This popular interpretation is wrong. God claims our entire allegiance and is Lord of every aspect of our lives.
Notice how Jesus answers them. “Show Me the coin for the tribute.” He does not have the coin Himself and He does not touch it. They take it out of their own pocket. He asks, “Whose is this image and inscription?” On the coin was a graven image of the emperor Tiberius. Graven images were forbidden to the Jews and yet His questioners had this coin on them and apparently used it.
When Jesus says, “Render then the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar,” He is telling them that He does not have the coin, but they do. If they are willing to use Caesar’s money in their financial transactions, then they accept the imperial system and the business climate it guarantees. If they are willing to be in the game, then they have to play by the rules. If they accept Caesar’s sovereignty when it is to their advantage, they need to pay Caesar when he claims their tribute. If we accept the need for national defense and enjoy the benefit of fire departments, police protection, public highways, schools, libraries and parks, then we ought to pay the tax. The Amish do not enjoy social security and therefore do not pay the tax.
Jesus is not giving a theory of church and state relations. He is simply saying that if we are willing to carry and use the coin that bears the emperor’s image and inscription, we are obligated to give back to Caesar what belongs to him.
The most important thing Jesus says is what follows: “Render to God the things that are God’s.” This is more important than rendering to Caesar. The real question is, have we given to God what is due to Him. Jesus just told them the parable of the vineyard. The tenant farmers need to render to the vineyard owner the fruit that is his due. Here the leaders fail. We saw with the question of authority (21:23-27), that they only took care of their own status and position, as though God was not even a player. The only reality that matters, however, is that we live before God who holds us accountable. Our first obligation is not to the government but to God. Let nothing get in the way of this.
The Living God (22:23-33)
The Sadducees came to Him next. They do not believe in the resurrection and they ask Jesus a rather stupid question in order to mock belief in the resurrection. The question is stupid because it assumes that in the resurrection life will simply be a continuation of what we have going on here. Jesus says that their question itself is wrong because they do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God. They have no experience of God, no real knowledge of God, and therefore they misunderstand who God is in the Scriptures.
The answer Jesus gives focuses on who God is rather than on the resurrection. God is not something in the past that you read about. “Have you not read what God spoke to you?” God is still speaking in the Scriptures. He did not only speak to Moses, He speaks to you. When He said, “I am” the God of the fathers who have died, He speaks in the present tense—and that present tense still holds today. He is still the God of the fathers. They are alive to Him because He is ever living and includes the past in His present. Aside from our being like angels, Jesus does not explain more about the resurrection.
His answer points the finger at the Sadducees. They do not know God as living; therefore they do not live as though in His presence. Instead, they live as though only their wealth and other people matter.
The Great Commandment (22:34-40)
Before, the Pharisee only sent one of their students. This time they send a lawyer, one of themselves, to test Jesus’ orthodoxy. We are familiar with the two commandments that Jesus recites. But
people sometimes misunderstand three points:
First, Jesus did not give us these two commandments. These commandments were given through Moses—in Deuteronomy 6:5 (see 10:12 and 30:6) and Leviticus 19:18. Not only did Jesus only repeat them, but every Jew would have agreed with Him. (They argued about who the neighbor is, but Jesus does not answer this here.)
Second, Jesus did not replace the Law of Moses with these two commandments. The whole law still applies, though it applies differently to Jew and Gentile. What Jesus says, and the Jews would have agreed, is that that the whole Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. They depend on them and flow from them.
Third, the two commandments are not equal. The great commandment is the first. The second is like it and flows from it. Love of neighbor is not independent of love of God. You can only love your neighbor properly if you love God with all your heart, soul and mind with nothing left over. God and neighbor cannot compete for your love. I love my neighbor because I love God. I love God by loving my neighbor. It is a question of priority, but also of allegiance. On your job you are to serve God. You love your family in order to love God. There is no area of your life in which God does not claim your first love.
This sounds demanding, but we are not talking about a duty but about love. Why do you serve God? Out of fear? Out of guilt? Out of self-righteousness? It must be because you love Him.
The Son of David Will Sit at the Right Hand of God (22:41-46)
Jesus follows this with His own question. Whose son is the Messiah? Of course the correct answer is King David. But the Messiah is more than simply the heir to David’s throne, like an earthly king. He is the son of the owner of the vineyard; He is the son whose wedding feast the king was preparing. In other words, He is the Son of God.
Psalm 110 says that the Messiah will sit at the right hand of God until all His enemies are put underneath His feet. This refers to His ascension into heaven (Ephesians 1:22), but also to His coming again in His kingdom (see 1 Corinthians 15:24-25). This is a warning that one day He will execute judgment. Already, however, He is here as Judge. Even as they questioned Him, He was judging them: Have they rendered to God what belongs to God alone? Do they live in God’s presence as the living God? Do they love God and their neighbor? When they passed sentence on Jesus and acted as His judges in handing Him over to be crucified, all the time He was the judge exposing them and, if truth be told, passing sentence on them.
John the Baptist asked the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Who told you to flee from the wrath of God?” Let us not flee. Only because Jesus is our Judge, because He has the right of judgment over us, can He also forgive us and be our Savior. The more we feel His judgment, the more we understand the immensity of His love and forgiveness.