Oh How Marvelous
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the way we are going to cover the last few chapters of the gospel of Luke, is a little bit like watching a season of the show 24. It’s not on television anymore, so if you watch it now, you probably can watch as quickly as you like. Initially, though, only one episode was released each week, with each show covering one hour of Jack Bauer’s epic day—hence the name 24.
What we are doing each until Easter is a little like that. We’re looking at the epic last week of Jesus’s life one slice at a time. Jesus dies on a Friday, but on the Sunday before that Friday he rode into Jerusalem hailed as king. On Monday he cleansed the temple of money changers. On Tuesday Jesus had a series of confrontations with the religious leaders. The first was about authority, the next about a parable Jesus told, and now the third conflict on that Tuesday so long ago is about taxes.
If your paystub is anything like mine, you have lines like FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act, which pays toward Social Security and Medicare) and FIT (Federal Income Tax) and Susquehanna Township EIT (Earned Income Tax). You and I pay taxes before we even get a chance to buy a soda or pay our mortgage or tithe to our church. How much income tax we pay and how much is appropriated to schools and roads and the military and some aspects of so-called reproductive health care, are lightning rods. Once upon a time, a war was fought, at least in part, over taxation without representation. But however controversial taxes are in America today, taxes were exponentially more controversial among the tens of thousands of Jewish worshipers who were in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover the week Jesus died. Jerusalem, as I hope to explain why, was like a house filled with gas; one spark could set it off.
Follow along with me as I read from Luke 20:19–26, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.
19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. 20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.
This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. “Heavenly Father . . .”
This passage is about many things, but I want to organize our study around a line at the very end of the passage, which says, “marveling at his answer they became silent” (v. 26). Wonder. Awe. Amazement. Marvel. So marveled, in fact, that in moment they could not speak.
Have you ever been like that—so overwhelmed with surprise and wonder that you couldn’t hardly believe what happened? A few years ago, my wife and I were recipients of someone’s extraordinary generosity. We’ve received amazing gifts from family before, but this was from someone who had only known us a few years. We really weren’t sure what to do or what to say.
As we look closer at this passage, I want to ask two questions. First, why did the religious leaders marvel, and then why, when I look at this passage and consider Jesus, do I marvel too.
1. Why did the religious leaders marvel?
To understand why the religious leaders marveled, we need to have a better grasp of what’s happening in this passage and the surrounding context. I don’t want to presume that everyone here this morning has been here for the last few weeks. Jesus is clashing with religious leaders, all in the vicinity of the temple. In every conflict the intensity increases, like turning up the heat on a stove. Last week Jason walked us through the previous passage in which Jesus told a parable that was a scathing critique of the religious leaders and their hard-heartedness. They knew the parable was against them. There was no ambiguity. Verse 17 tells us Jesus looked directly at them when he gave the punchline, and then in v. 19 we read,
19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people.
With no ambiguity, the heat on the stove moves from a 5 to a 7, we’ll say. Rather than repenting, which the parable invited them to do, they double down. They send spies to “catch [Jesus] in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor” (v. 20).
That’s an important line to understand. Israel was occupied by Rome and had been for some 75 years. The religious leaders had latitude to conduct business, but Rome kept them on a short leash, and executions were not theirs to conduct. To conduct an execution, one had to be handed over to Rome, and you needed a reason to do that. The religious leaders look to give Rome a reason to execute Jesus. Let me re-read vv. 21–22 to see the question they ask.
21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”
The question of lawfulness was not a question of whether taxes were lawful to Rome. Rome made the law; it was lawful to them. The question asked about lawfulness in the eyes of God. The thinking went like this: Rome is evil and pagan, and we are good and followers of God, so we shouldn’t give our money to them. It was a little more sophisticated than that, but that’s basically it. By the way, as best as I can tell, taxes at the time were somewhere around 30–40 percent.
So, on the surface, the question is about taxes. But beneath the surface, their question was about something else. Their question had the agenda of tripping Jesus up, either with Rome or the crowds, the people who “were hanging on his words” (19:48).
A few years ago GQ magazine interviewed one of the Duck Dynasty guys about his view of homosexuality and gay marriage (here). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an entire episode of the show or read an entire GQ, and I’m not sure I would be a huge fan of either if I did. But I’d submit to you that the question had little to do with GQ’s sincere inquiry as to the historic position of the Christian church about such things. Their inquiry had more to do with creating controversy and selling magazines. Here’s a loose cannon. Let’s ask him a delicate question.
That’s what’s going on with Jesus. It’s about taxes, but not really. If he answered no—saying, “Forget Rome! Never pay your taxes to those Gentile pigs!”—then he was in trouble with Rome. If he answered yes—saying, “Come on, guys, Rome is not so bad, are they? Just pay those taxes”—then he was in trouble with the people.
And it was big trouble. Remember the context. Think of the pressure the governor Pontius Pilate was under. There were an extra 200,000 people in town. And not just any people in any town for any celebration. They were Jews. In Jerusalem. For Passover. These pilgrims were returning to their holy capital city of Jerusalem to commemorate the time when God decimated Egypt, which was the largest superpower in the world, all because Egypt had their heavy yoke of slavery upon God’s people. And many of these Jews in Jerusalem for Passover were wondering if God would do it again.
Look at it like this. You might quibble with aspects of the Federal Income Tax, but imagine how much you would detest paying the FIT of another country if America was occupied by someone else. There’s a popular television show that explores what life might have been like had Germany and Japan won World War II. Imagine half of America belonging to Germany and half to Japan. Imagine the heat if a million Americans marched to Washington DC to protest, and they did it on July Fourth, Independence Day. Now, what happens when at the base of the Washington Monument when the topic of the German Federal Income Tax comes up? That’s a house filled with gas.
But Jesus can’t be trapped. You can’t put him in some mental version of a Brazilian jujitsu armbar or another intellectual chokehold. Let me re-read vv. 23–25.
23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
That word likeness is a loaded allusion. In the Genesis creation account we read that God made us in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26–27).
In other words, “If Caesar wants a few piddly coins. Give them to him. Fine. But you make sure that you give all of you over to God. You are in his image; you are in his likeness; you belong to him. Serve him. Love him. Surrender all to him.”
I’ll pause. Is that how you’d describe your relationship with God? When we had our church baptisms here in last fall, one of the men who was baptized mentioned how the Lord had changed him. He said Jesus used to be “an accessory to his life.” In this passage, Jesus asks you whether God is an accessory to your life or Lord of your life?
The religious leaders marvel at his answer. They stood amazed. They brought their A-game but just got schooled. They thought they trapped Jesus, but he escaped. And not only did he escape, but he reframed the conflict in such a way as to show they were in the wrong. That’s why they marvel.
2. Why do I marvel?
I want to spend the rest of our time talking about why do I marvel at Jesus in this passage, and why do I think you should marvel too. I have five things to point out.
I marvel at the hardness of our hearts. First, I marvel at the hardness of our hearts. I’m amazed that the marveling of these leaders does not translate into joyful, obedient worship. Rather than repent, we so often instead try trickery to wiggle from of the conviction Jesus brings.
Listen to the way the religious leaders are described: they sought to lay hands on him; they perceived that he had told this parable against them; they feared the people; they watched him; they sent spies; they pretended to be sincere; they tried to catch him in something he said; they wanted to deliver him up; and they were crafty. That’s an ugly look in the mirror. But they don’t look. They look away. Again, rather than repent, we so often instead try trickery to wiggle from of the conviction Jesus brings.
Last week, a newspaper broke a story about certain churches in a certain denomination who had mishandled not a few cases of sexual abuse. There will be many who will look at the report and discredit it, rather than seeing it is a wakeup call to repentance and reformation. There will be those who are more concerned with the optics, that is, more concerned with how it makes them look than how we should change.
This week, another pastor of a large, multi-site church was fired for abuse of his authority, which apparently then led him to a host of other lousy things. That’s the second firing of a megachurch pastor in Chicago this year. Some leaders will listen to those stories, and rather than seeing the stories as invitations to repentance and reformation in our own hearts, instead many will look at them and say, “Yeah, they’re not like me; and I’m not at all like them.”
As Ben and Jason and I talked about last week’s passage, Jason brought up Revelation 16. In that passage, after God pours out his wrath by the bowlful, we read,
8 The fourth angel poured out his bowl . . . . and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.
10 The fifth angel poured out his bowl . . . . People gnawed their tongues in anguish 11 and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.
17 The seventh angel poured out his bowl . . . . and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe. (Revelation 16: 8–9, 10–11, 17, 21)
The point, we should notice, was that the bowls of wrath were penultimate, not ultimate. They were opportunities to repent. And the clashing of Jesus and the religious leaders was their opportunity and our opportunity to let the God’s light shine over all of our hearts, and wherever God’s light finds places in our hearts not fully committed to him, to repent. I marvel that this didn’t happen for them.
I marvel that Jesus can’t be manipulated. This leads me to the rest of the things I marvel at—and they are all about Jesus. Jesus stands in stark contrast to us. One way that I marvel at him is how he cannot be manipulated. We can be manipulated; he can’t.
One commentator mentioned something interesting about flattery, which is one way they try to manipulate Jesus. The commentator said gossip is saying behind someone’s back what you would never say to his face, and flattery is saying to a person’s face what you would never say behind his back (Kent Hughes, Luke, Preaching the Word, 698). And oh, do they try to flatter him with words they most certainly would not say behind his back. But the subject matter of their flattery is humorous. O, Jesus, what we love about you is that you are never moved by flattery. You, Jesus, are so good at shooting straight. You’re not moved by what other people think. We love that about you, Jesus. Thanks for being great, Jesus.
The literal translation of what they say about Jesus not showing partiality is that Jesus “does not receive face.” I probably wouldn’t make much of that detail, except that during Advent at our church we looked at passages about the Messiah in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. And one thing we marveled at in Isaiah 11, was the prophecy that the Messiah would be unmoved by people’s faces. He’d judge with equity. He’d judge with righteousness, not by what he will see in people’s faces (Isaiah 11:3–4). Here, the leaders look at the very Messiah long ago promised, they praise him for being what the people of God had hoped for, and they don’t believe a word of their own praise. But we should. We should marvel that Jesus can’t be manipulated. What a Messiah, what a savior!
In seminary I remember being told something that I’ve heard repeated a few other times. The saying goes that when being hired by a church to careful of who picks you up from the airport because in just a year they might not be your friend anymore. They might have only been there trying to butter you up. I don’t think the saying is meant in a literal way; it’s only meant as a nudge to be aware of a certain danger. And I don’t mention this to make any of you feel guilty. Not at all. I simply bring it up to say how different Jesus is than pastors, even good pastors. We have to be warned not to led astray. We need to be warned not to receive faces. My pastoring can become uneven as I’m swayed by flattery. But not Jesus.
I marvel at the wisdom of Jesus. I also marvel at the wisdom of Jesus. You can’t trick or trap him. The question of the religious leaders is admittedly a brilliant question. You can’t answer it without getting in big trouble. It’s an impossible question. Impossible, unless you are Jesus, which makes his answer more brilliant than their question.
And it’s not just the answer that’s brilliant. The rhetorical device of asking for a coin, rather than just referring to a coin, was also brilliant.
Think about it. Why not just say, “Whose likeness and inscription is on a denarius?” You and I know that whose face is on a dollar bill. It’s Washington’s. And they knew the answer was Caesar’s likeness without looking at a coin. There were money changers in the temple because they knew that Caesar’s picture was on the coin and inscription stated, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” They did not like that, so they changed the money. They knew who’s likeness was on the coin, so why ask for someone to hold one up?
Jesus asked for the coin to make a point that they were already using the Roman coins, and therefore this whole business about trapping him to see which side he is on was bogus. Jesus is saying, “What’s that in your pocket, guys? Oh, you have a coin. Hmmm. Interesting. You say you hate Rome, but you have their money. And you would love more of it. You are not giving all of yourselves to God,” said Jesus. The Pharisees wanted to present themselves as free from all of this, but they were not. The wisdom of Jesus knew it. And as it’s said earlier in the gospel of Luke: in Jesus, behold, something greater than Solomon is here (11:31).
I marvel at the willingness of Jesus to respect the authorities. Two more to go. This one could be long, but I’ll make it quick. I marvel at the willingness of Jesus to respect the authorities. When Jesus interacts with the religious leaders, he is often firm, but he’s never disrespectful. Remember, before he rebukes them on Tuesday, he spent a night weeping for them outside the city. And when Jesus says pay that tax and give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s, Jesus is telling them to give money to the very government who, in a few days, would kill him with their soldiers. He’s bankrolling, in a small way, his own crucifixion. That’s an amazing respect for authorities and an amazing trust in the sovereignty of God.
We might have gripes about our government, but as Christians, is your griping infused with respect and covered in tears?
I marvel at the sacrificial love of Jesus. Finally, I marvel at the sacrificial love of Jesus. The gospel of Luke focuses in on Jesus. We might say, there were many actors on the stage (the crowd and the disciples and so on), but now the floodlights dim, and the spotlight is trained on Jesus for us to marvel. The religious leaders are still in view, but their part seems mainly to show the contrast. Jesus is marvelous because his heart is not hard like our hearts; he can’t be manipulated like us; his wisdom exceeds our own; his relationship to authorities is beyond token respect; and his sacrificial love for his enemies costs him his life. I’m amazed at that.
Everyone around Jesus—the religious establishment, the crowds, the secular bystanders, even the closest followers—were all halfhearted. And still, Jesus was all in. If anyone is in God’s likeness, it’s Jesus (cf. Heb. 1:3). He holds back nothing from God the Father. And he goes to the cross for sinners like me. That’s amazing. I marvel at that. I’ve never surrendered to God all that he deserves, and neither have you.
The Bible says this in Romans 5:8, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” I look at this passage and I’m amazed by the gospel, and I want you to be amazed by it as well. If you’re not moved by this, pray for it. Pray that God would give you fresh wonder and awe. For the religious leaders, their marveling did not lead to joyful, obedient, fullhearted service of God. But that’s what Luke wants for us. Marveling at God’s mercy, live your life as a living sacrifice. For this, the apostle Paul writes, is our spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1–2). Worshipful marveling that leads to worshipful obedience.
Pray with me as the music team comes back up to lead us in a final song. Let’s pray . . .