18 Pentecost proper A24                
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 22:15-21 Sermon                                      
October 16, 2011

Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
239 "Come Thou Almighty King"
360 "O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing"
123 "Our God, Our Help In Ages Past"

            CATCH 22 

TEXT: (vs. 15 & 18) “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words....But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, 'Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?' 

            Back in 1953, an American novelist by the name of Joseph Heller began writing an historical, but satirical novel about the U. S. Army Air Force during World War II.  The novel follows a fictitious man by the name of Yossarian, who is a member of the also fictitious 256th squadron, based upon the island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean Sea west of Italy.

            It took Joseph Heller eight years to write this story.  Then in 1961 this novel was published.  It has been cited by many as one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century.  The title it bears is simply "Catch 22."  In 1970, this novel was adapted for the silver screen in a movie bearing the same name.

            The basic premise of the book is the illogical and often immoral reasoning that can be found in bureaucracies, especially government agencies.  This is also referred to as the high level of absurdity embodied in bureaucratic nonsense.

            Because of this book, the expression "Catch 22" has been used to describe various types of "no win" situations.  Here is an example, quoted from the novel in Heller's own words: "There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.  Orr was crazy and could be grounded.  All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.  Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them.  If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to.  Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle."

            The significance of the "Catch 22" expression is shown in the repeating numbers.  A person is said to be caught somewhere in between the pair of twos.  So regardless of which way they might decide to go, it is always a lose-lose situation.  There is no advantage going one way over another.  To put it politely, you're "danged if you do, and danged if you don't."  And I'm sure you would agree, that life is full of these kinds of situations.

            In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is finding himself in one of these "Catch 22" situations.  Let's see what is happening, and how he deals with it.

            For the past several Sundays, we have been working with the Holy Week narrative recorded in Matthew's gospel, starting with Palm Sunday and ending with Good Friday.  This situation happens about right in the middle of it all.

            The Pharisees and other Jewish officials were working very hard to get rid of Jesus.  He was proving to be a big problem for them.  And more than once, he was taking after them about a money topic.  That was one of their biggest weaknesses. 

            If we look at Luke chapter 16, we find Jesus talking to the Pharisees about serving two masters.  Listen to what he tells them in verses 13-15: "No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” 14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. 15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God."

            These Pharisees were money driven greedy people.  Jesus knew their loyalty, and just how far they were removed from God.  So any time that Jesus played the "money card" with them, it really got their ire up, like when he upset the tables of the money changers in the temple court.

            So the Pharisees decide to set a trap for him.  They are going to put him into a real "Catch 22" situation.  They send two groups of men to carry this out.  One group consisted of the disciples of the Pharisees, and the other was a group of Roman loyalists, called the Herodians.  Even though they were natural enemies, still they combined forces in order to attempt to do away with Jesus, once and for all.

            So these two groups of men approach Jesus.  The disciples of the Pharisees are going to ask him a question, but not before they add a bit of sarcasm to it first.  In verses 16 and 17 they say, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

            Now this might sound like a perfectly legitimate question for them to be asking.  But we have to remember that Jesus knew what they were thinking, and why they were asking it in the first place.  If Jesus were to say that it was proper to pay taxes to Caesar, then the Jews could nail him with blasphemy, charging that he was loyal to Caesar and not to God.  On the other hand, if Jesus were to say that it was not proper to pay taxes to Caesar, then the Romans could nail him with being subversive to the government.  This was the epitome of a "Catch 22" situation; either way, Jesus would be signing his own death warrant.  It was more a matter of whether he wanted to incur the wrath of the Jews or the Romans.  That was the trap.

            Here's a little more background for you.  The Roman emperors always thought of themselves as gods.  It was the duty of the citizens to regard them as such.  Even though there was this type of strained coexistence between the Romans and the Jews, the Roman emperor was still regarded as a god amongst the non-Jews of society.  And Caesar was no exception.  He fully regarded himself as a god, and commanded worship from his subjects.

            This situation has to be fully understood in order for the rest of the story to make sense.  We have to understand why Jesus did what he did.

            Jesus turns to the disciples of the Pharisees and responds with a question of his own.  In effect, he tells them:  "Okay guys, dig in your pockets and pull out a denarius."  This is a coin worth about one day's wages.  "Look at that coin and tell me whose image is on that coin."

            I'm sure they weren't expecting this.  So they pull out a coin, and tell Jesus that it is Caesar's image on it.  And right there, he has got them nailed. 

            You see, it was against Jewish law and a complete abomination to be carrying around the image of a heathen god, and Caesar certainly fit that description.  From just their pocket change, they were giving a type of allegiance to Caesar.  Jesus had completely turned the tables on them, and they knew it.  Now they were the ones in the "Catch 22" situation, and it was because of Jesus' one question.

            Even though it was their attempt to trap Jesus, he doesn't try to trap them back.  Instead, he uses this opportunity to establish a very simple rule of church and state.  Verse 21 records what Jesus tells them:  “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.”  And then it says that they marvelled at him, and went away.  It was a simple lesson, but a very profound one.

            When we carry this through to the present day, this is something that the Christian has to deal with in every day life.  In my wallet, I have money--not a lot mind you, but I do have a few dollars in my pocket.  It's not Mighty Fortress money, or Lutheran money, or even Christian money for that matter.  It's money that was issued by the Federal Reserve, which is a branch of our government.  It bears the image of Washington, or Jefferson, or Lincoln, or Johnson, or Hamilton, or Grant, or Franklin.  These aren't gods, but notable men connected with our nation's history.

            Money is necessary in our society for us to function.  Our church needs money to pay the electric light, water, gas, and maintenance.  We need it to put food on our table, clothes on our back, gasoline in our car, or to pay for any of life's necessities--and maybe even a luxury or two sometimes.  We simply could not get along without it.

            Money was just as necessary back then.  Not only was it necessary for goods and services, but it was also necessary to pay taxes.  The Roman government, as corrupt and heathen as it was, still operated for the good of the people in many ways.  It was necessary for civil obedience; without it, there would have been complete anarchy.  The Romans were famous for their road building, many of which are still in use to this day. 

            Our government exists for the good of the people, even though it needs some serious fixing.  So it is necessary for us to pay taxes as well.  Even though we might grumble about it, it's still one of those necessary evils.  God indeed wants us to do what is right in the eyes of the government.  Not only does Jesus bring this out, but the Apostle Paul affirms this in Romans chapter 13, verse 7:  "Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed."

            So how do we give to God that which is God's?  Certainly our offerings and Christian stewardship are important things.  We need this to function in society.  But it goes far deeper than that.

            Let's just look at ourselves.  Our money may have the image of famous Americans, but whose image do we bear?  Whose likeness is imprinted on our souls?

            When God created mankind, he did so in his own image.  That image is one of righteousness and holiness.  But when man chose to disobey God and fell into sin, that image of righteous and holiness was completely obliterated.  It was dashed to pieces.  The only image left on our souls was the image of Satan who tempted man to sin.  We bore the image of sin and corruption instead of the righteousness and holiness that God intended.

            That image would have been forever lost had it not been for Jesus Christ.  The sinless Son of God came to this earth, born of a virgin in the most humble of surroundings.  He kept the law perfectly and lived sinlessly, something that we could not accomplish on our own.  And then he died the death that we as sinners deserved.  He did it out of nothing but love for us.  Everything about Jesus Christ reflected that image of righteousness and holiness.

            Through nothing but faith alone in Jesus Christ, that image of God has been completely restored.  When we appear before God, he will no longer see our sinfulness, but Christ's righteousness.  So when we render unto God that which is God's, that starts with ourselves and includes every fiber of our being.

            That faith began at our Baptism.  God the Holy Spirit created faith in our hearts, and through that faith brought us back into fellowship with God.  Even in those tender years, God himself had developed a saving faith.  And through the years following, that faith has been nurtured and fed through regularly hearing and studying God's Word, and through the true body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.  Through Word and Sacrament, our God given faith has restored God's image in our lives.  So yes, we render unto God that which is God's, and that begins with the person we see in the mirror.

            Our lives will be full of those "Catch 22" situations, those events in life where there is really no easy answer or solution.  There are various metaphors used to describe this:  "Between a rock and a hard place,"  "Danged if you do, and danged if you don't," or one that I like, "Between the devil and the deep blue sea" (the devil here refers to that pointed end on a boat's keel, and not to Satan).  And so often, we will feel trapped for an answer.

            But when it comes to God and the government, our Lord wants us to do what is right in both areas.  We have a foot in two kingdoms--the kingdom of this world, and God's kingdom of Grace.  He doesn't put us here to trap us, but rather to be faithful in both areas.  Therefore we can be assured that he will bless us as we render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's.