RCL Year A, Proper 24
Psalm 96:1-9, Isaiah 45:1-7, Saint Matthew 22:15-22

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s,”[1] words from our Lord and Savior in today’s Second Lesson.

Standing alone, that justly famous verse of Scripture may seem to divide the things of the emperor and the things of God into two separate groups. In a country where we enjoy religious liberty as a right by virtue of Article VI of the Constitution, we Christians should find it easy to separate the things that are the emperor’s from the things that are God’s.

But that sorting of things belonging to the emperor and of things belonging to God remains hard to accomplish for us today, particularly if we have read today’s First Lesson.

The background of that Lesson, briefly, is this. At the beginning of the sixth century B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon lays siege to Jerusalem which leads to three deportations of the people of Israel, including the king and his court, to Babylon. About sixty years later, after Babylon falls, Cyrus, the king of Persia, begins to allow the people of Israel to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the Temple.

The First Lesson begins with: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes.”[2] In other words, God providentially guides Cyrus to release the Jews in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. The separating line between God and the emperor or God and the king or God and the state can be blurred by God’s power to guide the emperor, or the king, or the state. In giving what belongs to the emperor, we may be giving it to God, who is the power, we believe, behind every emperor, king, or state.

Deciding what belongs to the emperor isn’t so easy, for the emperor may or may not perform the will of God. The emperor, whoever that may be, is like us: at every moment we are free to perform or not to perform the will of God. Isaiah tells us that Cyrus performs the will of God by permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem, but oftentimes we simply do not know whether the emperor, or the king, or the state performs the will of God. And so that sorting of things between God and the emperor can be quite challenging. It’s more challenging than black or white, or heads or tails.

And so, what do we do? My answer is to give most everything I can to God: worship, praise, adoration, loyalty, and obedience, and to be a little careful, a little suspicious, of the emperor. I pay what I owe and nothing more. Tax avoidance is legal, and tax evasion is a crime. I vote in every election, particularly concerned about the protection of religious liberty and the other rights enumerated in the Constitution.

I do not believe that Jesus’ statement was meant to plumb the depths of the Pharisees’ question. Jesus’ answer was meant to confound the Pharisees, and he succeeds in that. And he knows, as you do, that however many times the coin the Pharisees give him is flipped, it lands, heads or tails, with God’s name up.


[1] Saint Matthew 22:21.

[2] Isaiah 45:1.