GOSPEL Matthew 22:15–22
After Jesus begins teaching in the temple, religious leaders try to trap him with questions. First they ask if God’s people should pay taxes to an earthly tyrant like Caesar.
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Grace to you and peace, people of God, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Well, this story of Jesus has pretty much everything you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company. Money, religion, and politics. If Jesus somehow segued this lesson to deal with adultery, then I think pretty much every base would be covered. It seems in this story, which happened about a week before he was crucified, was probably one of the last reasons that Jesus was killed. I mean, until now he had basically just ruffled the feathers of the Jewish elite, the religious leaders, and performed some miracles and healings. Nobody really minds if sick people get better, right? This is nothing that the Roman authorities would have cared much about. You see, in Roman ruled nations the old, ancient religions, like the Jewish religion, were allowed to be practiced, even though the rest of the conquered lands would be required to confess that “Caesar is lord.” In fact, the coins, which had the face of Tiberius Caesar, the emperor of the time, on them, said the words, “Augustus Tiberus, son of Divine Augustus”. In essence, he was claiming that he was, in fact, the son of God. The emperors all believed they were deities.
Now, doesn’t this add an extraordinary twist to this story? Two groups of people who don’t normally play nice together, the Pharisees, who were devout Jewish nationalists, and the Herodians, who were Jews that were sympathetic to Roman rule, are trying to trap Jesus. The Jews did not tend to like the Romans and the ones who did were not exactly the most popular people in the neighborhood. However, on this occasion, they were combining forces for one reason: They want to make him choose sides. By doing that, he will either provoke the Roman empire by saying that Jews should stop paying taxes or he will anger the Jews by becoming a Roman sympathizer. Jesus, however, knows exactly what they are doing. Jesus, sees the coin, used to pay an imperial tax, and essentially says, “Okay. This looks like this is the emperor’s coin, so you should give it back to him. But you should give back to God what belongs to God, too.” “Whoa, time out!” the Pharisees and Herodians must have thought. They didn’t see that coming. When Jesus said this, he established a third way of living, a third way of being, a third way of viewing the world. Jesus is not siding with the Hebrews or the Romans. Instead, he is declaring that God is above both.
Let’s think about this a bit. We put our name on stuff that is ours, right? I, for instance, have my name on my debit card and in a lot of my books. I put my name on my emails and on my anything that I’d prefer to get back if I lend to someone. In essence, we put our names on things that we value and things that we want people to associate with us. Caesar put his face and his name on the coins that were used to pay him tribute. Caesar desired to have that money returned to him and he wanted people to call him the son of God while they did it. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that God has done the same thing. Now, before you immediately begin to rationalize what I just said, I want to make my case here.
We don’t need to read very far into the Bible to know that God loves us. In fact, in Genesis 1 (verse 27), we are told that “God created humankind in his image.” I believe that God would not have created us in God’s image if God wasn’t madly in love with us or didn’t design us to be in communion with God. We are created in the image of God and we are image bearers of God to the world. We are called to daily return to God and give our lives to God’s work. Our allegiance, as it were, is not to the empire or to our own whims and desires. When our allegiance is right, it is to God because we, like the coins Jesus spoke about, bear an image. We bear the image of Christ and, in our lives, ought to bear the message that Christ, not Caesar, not money, not popularity, is Lord. Christ is Lord, the son of the true God, not the emperor. But so often we forget. It is so extremely easy to pledge our allegiance to other things. We can easily get wrapped up in other things, like our own money, our own politics, and our own ideas of what God should be. In essence, we pay to Caesar what we owe to God. We give ourselves to other things which ultimately don’t fulfill us and leave us reaching for something else. Other things like money, like status, like pleasure, like drugs or alcohol or stuff.
Now, before you tune out (or maybe you already have) and assume I’m just accusing you of not doing enough or trying hard enough or something like that, I want to tell you something, and it’s very important. You would not be made in the image of God if God did not want to give everything for you. You would not be made in the image of God if God did not want to give everything for you. And God did! Jesus, the true son of the true God, died and gave everything so that you wouldn’t have to deal with this unfulfillment. You are made in the image of God so that God could satisfy you and you wouldn’t have go to these other things. We have access to that third way. We don’t rely on politics or money or material stuff to give us purpose and salvation. In this third way, we give back to God because God has given everything we ever need to us. Not Caesar’s military power, not tradition’s unbending rules, but God’s free gift of grace is what gives us strength.
Our New Testament reading in 1 Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10) is also trying to navigate this path. Scholars believe that 1 Thessalonians is the oldest New Testament book, even older than the gospels. And Paul is writing to a group of people who were not given the exception that the Hebrew people received. They were told to declare that Caesar is lord, and refusing to do so could easily be seen as rebellion, which would result in pretty swift punishment. And this letter to a persecuted people begins with a prayer of thanksgiving for their faithfulness. Paul writes, “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you.” Did you hear that? God has chosen you. God has chosen you, to hear and experience a fullness of life that nothing else can offer. God has placed in you an image, much more permanent than a coin. God has shown love so deep that we can’t even begin to comprehend it. And that is what we, as people of God, place our faith in when we confess the Apostles Creed and pray the Lord’s Prayer.
In our world, our allegiance is at a premium. Advertising agencies spend millions of dollars to promote a brand in order to line their own pockets. Sports teams and clothing companies beg us to wear their logo, promising us that if we would just bear their image, our image would improve. In a world where the bottom line matters so much, I’m here to tell you that God has a different bottom line. God doesn’t need our stuff. God doesn’t need perfect behavior. God has put an image on us that goes deeper than the logos and the taglines. God has made us in God’s own image. And we give back to God what bears God’s image.
And how, exactly, does that look? I mean, we know what it looks like to pay taxes, and for those of you too young to pay taxes, you will. We know what it looks like to give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. But what does it look like to give back to God what is God’s? I think that could mean any number of things. I think most people believe is looks like the offering plate that will come by later or the offering baskets that sit in back, but it means so much more than that. It means dedicating your time taking part in God’s redeeming story in whatever ways you’ve been gifted. For some people, it looks like running wire and building, working with your hands. For others, it will look like a listening ear and a voice that speaks of love when the rest of the world speaks hate and war. For some, it may look like standing up for those who can’t stand for themselves anymore. Or maybe it means taking 10 minutes your of your day to pray for what God has placed on your heart. We have been given time, energy, emotions, and money to use for God. And, when we, as the people of God, give to God what belongs to God, we become more than we could ever become on our own. I don’t care how hard you pull on your own bootstraps, you will always be more satisfied, fulfilled, and passionate when you’re serving God than you do when you serve yourself. We become Christ’s agents in this broken, dying world. And as I close this message, I’m reminded of a poem by a man named Symeon, a Christian mystic from the 10th century called “We Awaken in Christ’s Body”. I want you do close your eyes as I read this and do your best to be fully aware of what this poem is saying.
We awaken in Christ’s body
as Christ awakens our bodies,
and my poor hand is Christ, He enters
my foot, and is infinitely me.
I move my hand, and wonderfully
my hand becomes Christ, becomes all of Him
(for God is indivisibly
whole, seamless in His Godhood).
I move my foot, and at once
He appears like a flash of lightning.
Do my words seem blasphemous? — Then
open your heart to Him
and let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply.
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body
where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
People of God, we’ve been blessed. Not necessarily by riches. Not necessarily by perfect health. Not necessarily by everything going exactly the way we feel it should. We have been blessed with forgiveness. We’ve been blessed by God’s love. And we are blessed to be able to take part in God’s work in the world as image bearers of God. Amen.