Pentecost 20, 2017, Proper 24
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Hamilton, Ohio
Pastor Kevin Jud
October 22, 2017
Psalm 96:1-9, Isaiah 45:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
Full Service Audio: bit.ly/ImmanuelWorship
Whenever you encounter communication of any sort, three things are vitally important to consider; context, context, and context. This is true when listening to a speech. This is true when reading a book. It is true when watching the news. This is especially true when working with the Bible.
We need some cultural context to make sense of our Gospel lesson today and understand how bizarre the situation really is. The Gospel we just heard tells us that some disciples of the Pharisees and some Herodians came together to confront Jesus.
The Pharisees are extremely nationalistic Jews. They believe Jerusalem should be ruled by Jews, not by the Gentile Romans. After all, the Law of Moses states in Deuteronomy 17, Deuteronomy 17:15 (ESV) “15 you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.” The Pharisees hate the Romans and their occupation of the land. They hate the Romans, but at this time they are not bold enough or stupid enough to rebel against the powerful Romans by force; that would be suicide.
The Herodians are just the opposite. As you might guess by their name, they support Herod. Herod Antipas is a puppet king of the Roman Empire in Galilee and a son of Herod the Great. The Romans had put his father in power and they kept Herod Antipas in power after his father’s death. Herod’s family members are not Jewish descendants of Abraham and Sarah but converts to Judaism and often considered to not be real Jews but only Jews for political purposes. Herod’s clan’s first loyalty is to Rome. So, if you are a Herodian, you are a fan of Herod, and, since Herod is a puppet of Rome, you are a fan of the Roman’s and Roman occupation.
They have the perfect question that will put Jesus between a rock and a hard place. With this question they can trap Jesus with His words: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” They think there are only two answers.
Ordinarily, the Pharisees and the Herodians are at each other’s throats … if not literally, at least figuratively. The fact that these two groups are working together to attack Jesus shows how much they hate Jesus.
And they have a plan. They have the perfect question that will put Jesus between a rock and a hard place. With this question they can trap Jesus with His words: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” They think there are only two answers. If Jesus says yes to Roman taxes, He is against God’s Word and the Pharisees and the Nationalist Jews will hate him. If He says not to pay taxes He is against Caesar and the Herodians will report Jesus to the Roman authorities to be arrested for rebellion. If He does not answer at all, the crowd will label Him a coward. The Herodians and the Pharisees think they have Jesus in a no-win situation.
Of course, it is not so easy to trap Jesus in His words. Jesus sees the fallacy in their plan. There aren’t just two possible answers to their question. There is a third answer: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” You can be for God and still pay taxes to Caesar.
The Gospels record many interactions like this between Jesus and His opponents. The opponents come up with some sort of plan to trap Jesus, embarrass Jesus and destroy His influence. But every time, Jesus turns things around on the Jewish leaders and embarrasses them. Plans to trap Jesus in His words always backfire.
We are tempted to believe that Jesus won all these debates because He was such an excellent debater. We are tempted to believe that it was His superior skill and knowledge that won all these debates. While Jesus was the perfect human being and had flawless thought; that was not His main advantage. His main advantage was that He knew the truth and He never wavered from it. Making your case based on truth gives anyone a tremendous advantage over those who depend on lies.
The opponents in today’s Gospel engage in a logical fallacy called the false dilemma. This is a logical fallacy that falsely offers only two possible alternatives even though a broad range of possible alternatives are really available. An example would be a child who says to their parent, “Either you buy me this book I want right now, or you don’t think reading is important.” The opponents offered two possibilities: either you pay your taxes or you don’t. Either you are for God or for Caesar. Jesus simply exposes their faulty reasoning by showing that there actually are other answers. We can pay our taxes, and give our offerings, and care for our families. God is gracious enough to give us the resources to do all three and maybe even have a little left over for recreation. The opponents try to trap Jesus using a dilemma that does not exist.
Your enemy, the Devil, often presents you with false dilemmas. One that involves your very salvation is the dilemma between self-righteousness and despair. It goes something like this. And remember this is a fallacy; it is false logic.
As you read the Bible, you see that God gives you a lot to do. Do you do what God says and go to heaven, or, are you failing and on the road to hell? This false dilemma is all that the unbeliever knows. He does not know that there is another way. He thinks, good guys go to heaven, bad guys go to hell. Are you good or bad? How good do you have to be in order to be good enough? This is the false dilemma of the law. Are you a good guy or a bad guy? Am I a good guy or a bad guy?
Now, I can deny the truth of my sin and insist that I am one of the good guys that go to heaven, but this is self-righteousness which directly contradicts John’s epistle: [1 John 1:8, 10] “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us … If we say we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us.” To say “I hope I am good enough to go to heaven,” is an arrogant sin of pride. To believe I am good enough is just lying to myself and calling God a liar. Self-righteousness is one choice.
My other choice, according to this false dilemma, is the utter honesty of recognizing my sin and believing I have no hope. This is despair. Here too, there is a strange sort of pride … the belief that my sin is more powerful than God. My sin is so terrible that there is nothing that God or anyone else can do. In the case of Judas, the pride of his despair is so great that he takes justice into his own hands and murders himself.
What a comfort and relief it is to learn that the two choices offered by the law are a false dilemma. Just as Jesus provided a third answer to the Pharisees and Herodians, He provides a third answer to the false dilemma of the delusion of the law. In the middle of John’s condemnation of our sin, we hear, [1 John 1:9] “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Here is the way that God forgives our sin and cleanses our unrighteousness. God has given us a third answer in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the one who does the work that makes this third answer possible. Jesus actually does what God gives Him to do. He keeps God’s law perfectly. He goes to the cross and endures the punishment we deserve for failing to do what God commands. In this way, He provides the third answer … the third answer that shows the futility of self-righteousness and the vanity of despair. You are not responsible for your own salvation. Jesus has taken that responsibility for you. Jesus earns forgiveness for you. Jesus cleanses you of all your sin. Jesus forgives you and gives you new life in the waters of Holy Baptism as we saw with baby Keith this morning. Jesus forgives in His words of absolution and in His Body and Blood in Holy Communion.
Jesus proves the benefit of His third answer by rising from the dead and ascending to the Father. Jesus invites all to trust Him and receive this blessing. God invites you to trust Him. God will raise those in Christ to immortality on the Last Day and join body and soul once again. On that day there will be a new heaven and a new earth for the first heaven and earth will have passed away. Then our Lord [Revelation 21:4] “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
The Pharisees and the Herodians in today’s Gospel try to make Jesus irrelevant by asking a trick question. When that doesn’t work, they give up on questions. They decide that the only way to remove Jesus from the scene is to remove Him from this life – to kill Him. During the next few days they carry out their plan and arrange to have Jesus crucified. When Jesus lies dead, the powers of sin, death, and the devil think they have won. They don’t understand. They don’t understand that the death of Jesus is His greatest victory.
It is by Jesus’ victory that you receive forgiveness, life, and salvation. It is by Jesus’ victory that even though you die, you will rise again. Jesus’ resurrection is the assurance that the work He did on the cross is the ultimate victory for you … the assurance that you don’t have to choose between self-righteousness and despair. The devil’s options are a false dilemma. In Jesus Christ there is another way, the only way, the way of the cross, the way to life everlasting. Amen
 The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. Wheaton : Standard Bible Society, 2001