Sermon: The Challenge of Jesus

In his last week before his death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus enters the outer courts of the temple and begins to teach. Immediately he faces opposition. As we will see, Jesus is up to the challenge. If you can, please turn with me to Matthew 22:15-46. Matthew 22:15-46. Matthew is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In this passage we see Jesus as the preeminent teacher, which will require us to patiently try to understand his teaching. But before we do, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “We know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the Word of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

That same day, the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having any children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brothers, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her.”

Jesus repiled, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead – have you not read what God said to you: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

When the crowds heard this, they were astounded at his teaching.

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

“The Son of David,” they replied.

He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says:

‘The LORD said to my Lord,

‘Sit at my right hand

until I put your enemies

under your feet.’

If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can be be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared ask him any more questions.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

In our passage this morning, Jesus faces three challenges, one after another, that seek to undermine his authority as a teacher. We will see that in each challenge, Jesus comes out the victor. And then Jesus offers his own challenge, which we must reckon with as well.

Challenge 1: The Imperial Tax

The first challenge Jesus faces comes from two groups that are unlikely allies: the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees were the serious bible-obeying group in Judaism. All Jews tried to obey God’s word, but the Pharisees were especially serious. They were both closest to Jesus in many of their beliefs, but also got into the most confrontations with him as well. They were decidedly anti-Roman and, for reasons we will see in a minute, were often opposed to the imperial tax levied by Caesar.

Jesus enters Jerusalem and this group of Pharisees, who had already been plotting against Jesus, send their disciples to try and trap him in his words. But they don’t go alone, they bring along a group of Herodians. The Herodians were the most vocal pro-Roman faction of Judaism. They were the party of King Herod, the roman puppet king over the land of Israel. They had no problem making compromises to be in positions of power and influence in the world. Faith may or may not have been important, but you had to cut corners in order to get much of anywhere in the world. Pro-Roman and pro-imperial tax. Wonder of wonders, these groups – the Pharisees and Herodians – did not like or trust each other. Yet, they become unlikely allies in their mutual desire to oppose Jesus.

The Pharisaic disciples and Herodians come to Jesus and try to trap in a question about taxes. Now tell us, what is your opinion? Is it lawful to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?

Why is this a trap question? For the Pharisees, this was not an issue of taxes in general, but a religious issue. When God led the people out of Egypt, he established laws that would govern their conduct as his people, including what we know as the Ten Commandments. The Second Commandment reads like this: You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them and worship them. No images, no idols. All the colonies of the Roman empire, of which Israel was one, were required to pay a tax to Caesar with specific coins minted by the emperor. On one side of the coin was an image of the emperor Tiberius. And on this coin was a specific inscription in Latin. In English it said, “Tiberius, Caesar, worshipful son of the Divine Augustus.” The problem for the Pharisees was idolatry. Not only were the Romans oppressive pagans, but the coins they forced us to use when paying them taxes were mini-idols. They had images of Caesar on it and proclaimed that Ceasar was God and deserving of worship.

No good Jew, certainly no man claiming to be Messiah, would pay taxes to a pagan man claiming to be God. In fact, no good Jew would even carry around the coins. But to refuse to pay the taxes would be considered treason, and calling for others not to do it, insurrection, a death sentence in the Roman world.

So the Pharisees and Herodians gather to put Jesus in a trap. If he says ‘Pay the taxes,’ he will lose credibility as a true man of God. But if he says, “Don’t pay the taxes,” they can report him to the authorities and have him killed. Either way, Jesus will be undone by their clever question.

Yet, that is not what happened. Those who lay the trap fall into it themselves. But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Notice that Jesus doesn’t have any of these little idol coins on him, but those challenging him do. No wonder he calls them hypocrites. But Jesus’ response not only gets him out of this challenging situation, but teaches a powerful lesson. For the sake of illustration, I hold in my hand a twoony. It’s the Canadian two dollar coin. The one dollar coin is a loony because it has a loon on the back, hence the name. The two dollar coin is called the twoony. We are using this instead of the US quarter because whose image do you image in on the loony? (Hint: Not Justin Trudeau). Queen Elizabeth II. Whose image? Whose inscription? The Queen. Then the coin must be hers, if it has her name and picture on it. Might as well give it back to her. So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s. The coin has his face and his name on it, it must be his. So give it back to him. Jesus’ says we do owe our country, our leaders, our government their due. If it is theirs, we should give it to them. Yet, So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. If the coin should be given back to Caesar because it has his image on it, then what has God’s image on it should not be given to Caesar but to God. Whoever’s image is on something has claim on it, and should be given it and no one else. Friends, what has God’s image stamped on it?

Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.

What has Caesar’s image on it? Coins. Money. Fine, then give it to him. But what has God’s image on it? You. That belongs to God. Do not give to Caesar what belongs to God. No country, no state, no party, no organization, no leader has ultimate claim upon our life, only God. They have their place, don’t get me wrong, and Jesus says give them their due, but don’t give them what belongs to God. You belong to God and only he deserves your full life.

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

Round 1: Jesus.

Challenge 2: The Resurrection

The second challenge Jesus faces is not meant to trap him, but embarrass him. Now we encounter a third group of people: the Sadducees. The Sadducees were a segment of the priestly class. They were in charge of the temple and made up the majority of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. They were incredibly wealthy and powerful and corrupt. Significantly, they only believed that the Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament – were the inspired Word of God and, as it says in our passage, they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. These beliefs are connected. The passages in the Old Testament that speak most clearly about the resurrection of the dead at the last day are in the Prophets, the Psalms, and Job. But the Sadducees didn’t believe those were God’s Word and didn’t believe that the resurrection of the dead was in the Torah.

So this group, who doesn’t believe in the resurrection, comes and asks Jesus a question about the resurrection. This question is meant to make Jesus look foolish by presenting a case which illustrates the bizarre consequences of believing the resurrection.

They begin by referencing an Old Testament Law known as levirate marriage. The passage is Deuteronomy 25:5 and they summarize it pretty well. Moses told us that if a man dies without having any children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. The basic idea was that if a man dies childless, his family name cannot continue, so it is the responsibility of the brother to father a child with the widow who would carry on the family name of the first brother. This child would legally be the child of the first brother. This law plays out specifically in two different stories in the Bible – Tamar and Ruth. In Genesis 38, Tamar is married to Judah’s firstborn son, Er, but when he dies, the rest of the family refuses to take up their responsibility to Tamar or Er. In the ensuing story, God vindicates Tamar. In the book of Ruth, the complex workings of Ruth’s marriage to Boaz in the second half of the book are related to this command. Boaz is not first in line to marry Ruth, so he has to have a conversation at the city gates with the man who should have been taking care of Ruth and Naomi.

The Sadducees propose a situation where a woman, because of this command, is married to seven different brothers during her lifetime. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”

The Sadducees meant to make Jesus look foolish, but the tables end up turned on them. Jesus points out their ignorance of scripture and God’s power. He then responds by making a connection with the angels in heaven. Note that at the resurrection people will not become angels, but will be like angels. In particular, they will be like angels because there will be no marriage in heaven. The majority of commentaries I read suggested that this is because there will be no procreation in heaven. No making babies, no marriage. Angels don’t have babies and therefore do not marry. In the resurrection, we will be like them in that respect.

But Jesus goes on to prove the teaching that there will be a resurrection of the dead. He does it by appealing to a passage that is in those first five books that the Sadducees believed. Even though Jesus saw all of Scripture as God-breathed, he points out that even with what they did believe, the Sadducees should have believed in the resurrection.

But about the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what God says to you, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”

God declares that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he says this hundreds of years after their death. Not, I was but I am their God. The relationship between God and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not cut off by death and therefore it should come as no surprises that God will raise them up on the last day to live in his presence forevermore.

He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

When the crowds heard this, they were amazed at his teaching.

Round 2: Jesus.

Challenge 3: Greatest Commandment

The last challenge comes from the Pharisees again. While they would have been pleased knowing that Jesus silenced the Sadducees, they could not let Jesus leave unopposed. So they test him by asking him to weigh in on one of the most controversial religious questions of their day. Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?

All the Jews believed that all of God’s laws were equal in some sense. They could not pick and choose which to obey and which to leave behind. All of them were equally given by God and deserving of obedience. However, the complexities of life sometimes put these commands into conflict and the people of Israel developed a way of weighing the heavier and lighter commands so that when they came into conflict, one would know which one to keep. For instance, Jesus often gets into controversies on the Sabbath because the people of God are commanded not to do any work on the Sabbath, but they are also supposed to care for the poor and distressed. What do you do when someone is in distress on the Sabbath? Do you do something (that might count as work) or not?

Most agreed that the greatest commandment came from Deuteronomy 6:5 – Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. The ultimate duty of all people, the heart of the obedience required by God was to love God with all that you are. On that there was general agreement. But the sticking point was the second greatest commandment. Many said it was keeping the Sabbath – hence, Jesus’ repeated controversies over Sabbath keeping. But Jesus provides a different way. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

Without setting aside a jot or tittle of the commandments, Jesus reveals their heart: Love God and Love Neighbor. If you want to know what it is that God calls his people to do, it is this: love God and love neighbor. The rest of the commands flesh out how we are called to do this, but this is the heart. This is the beating heart of the life of those who have repenting and placed their trust in Jesus Christ – we are to love the LORD our God and love our neighbor. This is how we show our gratitude.

To this teaching, no one objects. Jesus reveals the heart of God’s law and meets the challenge of those who were experts in the Word of God. In doing so, he has given us an immense gift.

Round 3: Jesus.

The Challenge of Jesus

Three challenges from Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees. Challenges meant to trap, to humiliate, and to test. Yet, Jesus meets them all. At his teaching, people are amazed, astounded, and silenced. We see in Jesus the best and truest teacher, the most authoritative interpreter of God’s word. We, too, should be amazed, astounded, and silenced at the teaching of Jesus. We should be willing to sit at his feet and learn from him as Mary was so willing to do.

Yet, seeing Jesus as the Great Teacher is not enough. It is not enough to be astounded at his teaching, we must bend the knee to the king.

After facing all three challenges, Jesus offers one of his own in the form of a question about the meaning of Psalm 110. Jesus asks the Pharisees about the identity of the Messiah. They rightly identify him as the Son of David. This is true. Matthew takes great pains in the early part of his gospel to show that Jesus is the rightful, legal heir to David and has come to sit on his throne forever. Yet, Jesus offers a twist that presents a challenge to each of us.

In Psalm 110, David speaks of the Messiah as his “Lord” and one who sits at the right hand of the LORD God almighty. Though a descendent of David, David himself acknowledges that the Messiah is greater than him, that he himself calls him Lord and God himself seats him at his right hand.

In this short bit of scriptural teaching, Jesus is talking about himself. He is saying that he is greater than David, that he is the Lord and King before whom every knee should bow. Three times his challengers called him teacher, but none bowed before him as Lord. They honored him as a man of integrity who taught the word of God in accordance with the truth, but they refused to see him as the one who sits at God’s right hand until all the enemies of God are laid to rest. They honored him as teacher as they challenged him, but refused to bend the knee to the king.

We should take warning from them. We should acknowledge Jesus as Teacher. We should listen to all he says. But what he says includes that he is LORD and it is only by bending the knee to him and trusting in his saving work that we can live.

It is not enough to be astounded by his teaching, we must bend the knee to the King. No one could say a word in reply and from that day on no one dared ask him any more questions.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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