Have you ever wondered if it is wrong to drink? Play violent video games? Skip church every now and then? What about swearing? I think it’s safe to say a lot of Christian teenagers have questioned right and wrong at some point in their lives. We just want to know we’re on God’s “good side” so we go to heaven.
Truth be told, I think a lot of us just want to know we’re avoiding the obvious sins so we can feel good about ourselves. However, God doesn’t always give us the answers we want to hear.
In Matthew 22, we find the Pharisees wanting to “trap” Jesus by asking Him a difficult question: whether or not it is right to pay taxes. They essentially wanted Him to a) anger the Romans, or b) anger the Jews in order to get Him off the Pharisees’ backs. So they sent out their own disciples to see if they could trick Jesus into saying something controversial. They probably thought they were being clever.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to trap him by what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are truthful and teach truthfully the way of God. You don’t care what anyone thinks nor do you show partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”Matthew 22:15-17
I’ve found this mindset to be true in my own life: I want to know if something is lawful or against the law–right or wrong–good or sinful. It can be easy to fall prey to the idea that it’s all about the law, and as long as we’re keeping it, all is well. But Jesus didn’t give the Pharisees a clear-cut answer, and He certainly didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear–He taught them a lesson about the kingdom of God instead.
Perceiving their malicious intent, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” They brought him a denarius.Matthew 22:18-19
I think it’s interesting that Jesus would call them hypocrites. They were so concerned with keeping the law and maintaining their own righteousness that they overlooked the reason for it all. If we aren’t careful, we can find ourselves thinking the same way: Look at how good I am! I must be so favored by God!
Of course we should strive to keep the commandments–David himself says the law is his delight (Psalm 119:174). But Jesus came to show us that it isn’t about what we can do for God; rather, it’s about what God already did for us.
“and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—the righteousness from God based on faith.”Philippians 3:9
Going back to the story in Matthew 22, Jesus holds up the coin:
“Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked them. “Caesar’s,” they said to him. Then he said to them, “Give, then, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.Matthew 22:20-22
It’s a mic-drop moment, am I right? They stood there in amazement, unable to condemn Him for His words as they had hoped.
And then they walked away.
I wonder how often that can be said of us: we ask God a question, but then we walk away when He doesn’t say what we want to hear. However, when we do that, we aren’t recognizing God as our standard and Judge–we’re just putting words in His mouth so we can have a personal cheerleader. Our unwillingness to listen shows that we don’t truly desire to be changed from the inside out–we’re just using God to prove that we’re right.
Jesus always desires so much more for us. He doesn’t want our compulsory obedience–He wants our hearts. His truths and purposes go so much deeper than the surface level do’s-and-don’ts that we so often make Christianity out to be.
Take this story, for example. Not only was His response clever, it also has a meaning behind it that holds spiritual significance.
When He asked them whose image or inscription was on the coin, they responded that it was Caesar’s. Jesus replied that, because of this, the coin belonged to Caesar. Basically, that which has the image of man, belongs to man.
Jesus continued His statement: “…and to God, the things that are God’s.” If that which has the image of man belongs to man, then that which has the image of God belongs to God. And doesn’t God say that we are made in His image?
So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.Genesis 1:27
In that case, we belong to God. And even though we sold ourselves over to sin and evil, Jesus came down to earth to pay the price–a living sacrifice–and buy us back.
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.1 Corinthians 6:19-20
He wanted the Pharisees (and us!) to realize that it isn’t all about religion: it’s about a relationship with Him, recognizing who we are in Christ, and what He has done for us. It’s about being so in love with Jesus that we say “Here am I! Send me!” because there is no other response that satisfies our desire to worship Him.
The Pharisees had a carnal mindset of law and order, death and darkness. But Jesus came to bring life and freedom. He came to show us that His kingdom is not of this world. A denarius is useless in Heaven–so give it to whom it belongs. Money belongs to this world. Our fleshly attempts to earn salvation belong to this world. The very question of whether or not it is right to pay taxes isn’t even Jesus’s main concern, because earthly things can’t get us into Heaven.
However, our relationship with God will. Our hearts–devotions–passions–full surrender in every way–that all counts towards God’s kingdom. Give unto God that which is God’s.
Now, God will work with our money, and I’m not saying that we don’t have the responsibility to pay our bills and taxes or that tithing is useless. But when it comes down to it, God doesn’t want our earthly sacrifices. As Christians, we are first and foremost citizens of Heaven, so we ought to live by Heaven’s currency. He is much more pleased with a broken and humbled heart.
The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. God, You will not despise a broken and humbled heart.Psalm 51:17
He doesn’t want our going-through-the-motions obedience. He doesn’t want our half-hearted attempts to be holy. If we’re still living for ourselves on the inside, He isn’t impressed by our sparkly-clean lives on the outside.
I would encourage us all to examine ourselves in this way, and ask ourselves why we do the things we do:
Is church just another way to earn points with God? Do we seek Him (or not seek Him) only when it affects our reputation? Are we intentionally pursuing a relationship with Him, or just trying to live a clean life?
Jesus wants to teach us more than right and wrong because He wants our surrender, not our stuff.
So next time you go to God in prayer, rather than asking for a pat on the back for all the ways you’ve been a good Christian this week, ask Him to search your heart and show you what needs to change. He would be more than happy to teach you about His kingdom and what it means to “desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).
Just don’t be like the Pharisees and walk away when He says something radical.
CoCo Ashley is a young writer devoted to using her words for the glory of God. She has been writing for as long as she can remember and dreams of one day publishing both fiction and nonfiction. When she isn’t writing, you can usually find her talking with her friends, reading a book, or simply being an introvert with music in her headphones. Connect with her on her blog at cocoschitchat.com.