Isaiah 45.1-7; Psalm 96.1-13; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22
When God comes to earth, when God comes to be with us, when God dwells among us there is rejoicing and exultation and singing and great joy, yes. In Jesus, we see God use power to heal, to feed, to teach, to love. And we also see the religious leaders trying to entrap him, religious leaders who want to see him gone, and are just looking for a way to make that happen.
The Herodians we don’t know too much about, other than their support of Herod, which would certainly put them at odds with the Jewish religious leaders at the time, the Pharisees. This is a decidedly unexpected combination of people who have come together against a common foe - Jesus.
And the question they choose to try to rile Jesus up with is certainly not benign. Matthew’s 1st century audience was one living under Roman occupation and Christianity was illegal. While persecution by the Roman rulers was not intense at this point, it was present.
And the tax the religious leaders are referring to was quite the hot button issue. When originally instituted by the Romans, it triggered a movement of dissention that eventually culminated in a bloody and disastrous war that went on for years in which the Israelites were eventually defeated by the Romans. Think Boston Tea Party, but without the colonies winning the revolutionary War. Paying this tax was a divisive issue that brought forth deep feelings for the original hearers of this story. Payment of this tax, for them, was a painful reminder of being in lands occupied by foreign powers.
So Jesus is asked a simple yes or no question - Should people pay taxes to the emperor or not? If he answers yes, he could be perceived as in collusion with Rome, pro-occupation. That would not go well with the people. If he answers no, he could be accused of revolutionary sentiment against Rome. That would not go well with the Roman rulers. It’s a win-win for those against Jesus - either way, he’s going to get into serious trouble, and Pharisees will be rid of him.
Thing is, Jesus is a master of the situation and refuses to be caught. He knows what they are up to, he answers a question with a question, and then answers their question with more than they asked and in a quite ambiguous way. There are many ways to interpret what Jesus says to them about the coin, about Caesar, about what we are to give...many ways to apply it to our lives. But many scholars would argue that there is something more important happening here than a question about taxes.
God reigns, God rules, God is sovereign. God cannot be tricked, trapped, controlled, manipulated. Two more times in this chapter in Matthew questions will be flung at Jesus - with malice, with every intention to entrap him. And the questioners fail. Every. Single. Time. Eventually, though, it seems they get what they want. After all their kniving and manipulation, they manage to execute Jesus. He is even taunted by Roman soldiers- if you truly are the Son of God, just come on down and save yourself. For a moment, it seems they have won. It seems God has been controlled, trapped, done away with.
But even death cannot entrap the one who has created all things. Death itself is defeated by the God of love. Easter Sunday cannot be restrained or restricted. Just when the powers that be think they’ve got Jesus right where they want him, they’ve packed up this problem in a neat little box and done away with it, God changes everything.
It’s a great story - in fact is is the greatest story. It is easy for us to listen to it today and sort out the good guys from the bad guys. To cheer for Jesus and pump our fists in the air when he outsmarts these meanies time after time. How could they possibly expect to manipulate or trap Jesus in this way?
And yet if we’re honest, it’s much easier for us to deal with our faith if we’ve managed to put God in a nice, neat little box. If God likes the same things we like, votes the same way we do, and supports all our beliefs.
The writing from Isaiah today reminds us that we too, can easily become the Pharisees, trying to pin God down so that we avoid the discomfort and pain that comes with hearing difficult truths and seeing God work in ways that we don’t like.
Isaiah is trying to get the Israelites to understand what God is up to in their world. The end result is going to be the they, the Israelites, who have been exiled from their homeland for two generations, will be able to go home soon. Good news, right? Problem is, God is going to use Cyrus, the Persian king, to do so. Not only is God going to use him, a non-Israelite, someone who doesn’t even know who God is, Cyrus is being called the anointed one, the title used for their one and only superhero favorite king, David himself.
God is fully able and fully free to work with Cyrus just as he is, and this is confounding and even offensive to the Israelites. It’s hard to make a contemporary comparison for us today because our context is so different, but the same kind of feelings might be evoked in us if we were told that God was going to do great things for us through the leader of the Taliban, who would then be put in the same category as people like the Pope or Martin Luther.
God is not restricted by our categories of religion, class, race, gender as God works in the world. Sometimes the richest promises made good on by God entail combinations of things neither bargained for nor anticipated. The Bible is riddled with stories of God using unexpected and unaccepted people to make the world a better place.
God is always doing new things, but with the things and people that have been here all along - you’d think we’d stop being surprised. After all, God reigns, God is sovereign. God is ultimate creator, and if God has fashioned everything around us, then the good news is that hope can grow anywhere. In the places we don’t expect, through the people we don’t like very much, when it seems that all hope is lost. God cannot be put in a box, entrapped, controlled. And just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, God shows us resurrection in a way we’d never expect. Let us, then, set aside our judgements, our need to control, our division so that we can not only see, but participate in, the many ways the hope of God flourishes in our world.