20th Sunday after Pentecost (A) October 22, 2017 Text: Matthew 22:15-22 Rev. Jon Nack
Dear friends in Christ, when I hear someone say, “I believe in a higher power,” I tend not to be impressed. There are many “higher powers” in this world. But there is only one “highest power.” And if you mix those two things up (whether in your words, or in your deeds), then you are guilty of idolatry.
The Pharisees in our text wanted to entrap Jesus. And what they wanted to do was to use the highest power in the world at the time, the Roman government – Caesar in particular. At the time, there was no greater power than Rome. Caesar ruled his empire with military and economic might. The military might took the form of 25 legions of soldiers, which was an immense fighting force of around 125,000 trained and well equipped fighting men. These soldiers were used to enforce Roman rule and conquer foreign lands subjugate its populations. Obviously, this meant heavy burdens of taxation not only for the support of Rome’s military might, but for the monthly bread and circus handouts to citizens and slaves in Rome that would have required approximately 300,000 tons of imported grain a year! [i] “In addition to the grain toll, there were also taxes on produce, sales taxes, temple taxes, occupational taxes, custom taxes, transit taxes, and many others.”
Clearly, this heavy burden of taxation was an ongoing source of bitterness and anger because it was plundering a people that often couldn’t afford it, and handing it over to those who kept getting richer and richer. (Though to be fair, Herod had reinvested Roman money in some magnificent public works projects throughout Israel, including the enlargement of the temple in Jerusalem.)
But another objection to the tax was the very fact that the coins used to pay the taxes bore the image of Caesar along with the inscription, “Son of God.” Such a statement would have been blasphemous to a Jew, but widely accepted just about everywhere else in the empire.
And it was quite simple, really. If you refused to pay, you were going to pay. You were going to feel the full weight and power of the Roman Empire with all that it had at its disposal to enforce it laws, collect its taxes, and rule its subjects.
And that is exactly what the Pharisees wanted to see happen to Jesus. That is why they pit Him against the highest power in the land. They wanted to see Jesus crushed by that power as they came to arrest Him and execute Him as a rebel.
The Pharisees were showing that they believed in a higher power. Oh, they might have said their higher power was God, but when it came right down to it, the higher power they appealed to wasn’t God. They were going to use the government to make things right, to help them keep their own positions and authority and way of life.
There are “higher authorities” and then there is the highest authority. When you get the two confused, you are guilty of committing idolatry. Luther explained that we should fear, love and trust in God above all things.
The Pharisees wanted to trust in the power of Rome. We want to trust in the power of the dollar. We want to trust in our candidates and their efforts in office to make things right for us. We want to trust in our own resourcefulness and cleverness to get ahead, and sometimes to get around other people. We want to trust in the power of science and medicine and technology. We want to trust in our own feelings to guide us into the right thinking and the right decisions.
There are higher powers that we trust in. There are also higher powers that we fear. We may fear the disapproval of a husband or wife and not want to upset him or her. We may fear a boss who expects us to do dishonest things. We may fear the powers of the government that seems to be more and more hostile to Christianity. We may fear the power of society as it too stands ready to punish with ridicule and worse, those who stand for Christ, and Christian values. Or, we may simply fear that we are losing out in life if we don’t spend our days, hours, and dollars and what we think will bring us happiness and fulfillment at the expense of our spiritual lives. That is an awful powerful force for far too many today that have so many excuses why they do not frequent the Lord’s house or honor the Sabbath. There may be lots of higher powers. But there is only one highest power.
But Jesus showed how foolish it is when you mix these two things up. The Pharisees trusted in the power of the Roman government and their own cleverness to set the trap for Jesus. But there is a power much higher than that! There is the highest power that they are neither fearing, nor trusting – and that is God Himself.
In fact, every powerful government is under the authority and rule of the almighty God. King Cyrus from the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 45) is a perfect example. Even though he may have trusted in himself and viewed himself as his own highest power, God reminded him that it was because God empowered him to conquer as part of His divine plan to bring Israel to repentance. It is Yahweh who says, “I am Yahweh, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am Yahweh who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)
When Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar what is His and to God the things that are God’s,” He is reminding them and us, who the highest power is.
It is a clear call to repent of the sin of mixing up higher powers with the highest of all. It is call to repent of the sin of idolatry and turn to the own who has the power to kill and the power to make alive. It is a call to return to the true God because there is no other.
It is time to stop taking comfort in our own works and wisdom and simply cling to Jesus Christ who has been given all power and authority and in whom the fullness of God dwells.
I want you to understand today, that there is no higher power than Jesus Christ. When our own powers seem to be failing us, when the powers of this world seem to stand against us, when the powers that be seem to turn a blind eye, or the evil eye, we have a Savior in Christ Jesus.
By our baptism, we bear the inscription, “Sons and daughters of God.” For the Word of God proclaims to you: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” 
Jesus says, “Fear not, your sins are forgiven.” That is from the highest authority of all. In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 The Holy Bible : New International Version. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1984, S. Ga 3:26