Whose Image?, Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 22, 2017

Proper 24

[RCL] Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

I strongly suspect that even a casual familiarity with any of today’s various sources of streaming news would absolutely satiate anyone’s interest in Caesar and Caesar’s taxes—but here they are again. Still, Jesus is being quite non-partisan here, and, although frequently misunderstood, this little story has much to say to any age, including our own.

The question of the Pharisees and the Herodians, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” didn’t trap Jesus. But it has trapped countless others. It has been used as a blanket statement of Christian political obligation—a quick and easy answer to any questions or qualms the dictates of a government may engender. Jesus’ statement about rendering to Caesar, of giving to the Emperor, has been used as a general rule that can answer any number of specific questions. Actually, it’s just the opposite. It’s a brilliant answer to one very specific question. But it also raises all sorts of general questions about God and Caesar—and only hints at a way to answer them.

Look at the story itself. Two important political groups in Jerusalem—the Pharisees and the Herodians—are ganging up on Jesus. It’s a strange partnership; the two groups didn’t like each other at all. First are the Herodians; they were supporters of Herod, the puppet King of Israel who was nothing more than a Roman lackey. Herodians would have a great investment in obeying Roman laws and paying Roman taxes. Then we have the Pharisees, who, as religious purists, would object strongly to paying taxes to any pagan king and especially to a king who, like Caesar, claimed to be of divine lineage.

At the same time, the crowds, who were watching the debate, also had a stake in this. They didn’t like either the Romans or their taxes, and they frequently showed their dislike by rioting. They would be very unhappy at any answer that seemed to approve of the taxes.

Next, there are the soldiers, who were watching the crowds. They were Romans who were paid by the taxes in question. They didn’t much like the crowds, who had a penchant for rioting and whose rioting they had to control. Finally, it was Passover time—the most likely time of the year for a good riot about religion, the emperor, Rome in general, and Roman taxes in particular.

In other words, this was not an abstract debate about either political philosophy in general or the relationship between Church and state. It was a perfect set-up, a very clever trap. The intent of the question was to ensure that Jesus was either arrested for treason by the Romans, discredited as a false teacher by the Pharisees, finked out by the Herodians, or lynched by the crowd as a traitor to his own people.

On one level, Jesus slipped out of the trap on a technicality. He asked for a coin (notice that Jesus doesn’t have one, but the Pharisees do). It’s a special minting of the denarius. On the coin is marked, “Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of divine Augustus, High Priest”. Below these words, the image of the emperor is pressed into the metal. To any good Jew, the coin itself was an abomination. It violated the first commandment by claiming that Caesar had divine pretensions, and it violated the second commandment by containing an image of this false god.

A big part of what Jesus said was simply “give the cursed thing back.” It could belong to no one but Caesar; it could certainly not belong to anyone who worshiped the God of Israel.

This answer was a brilliant counter stroke by Jesus. It avoided the trap, and it allowed that particular tax to be paid with that particular coin—not as an act of political submission, but as a sign of religious fidelity. It was a very specific, and very narrow answer that made it possible for Jesus both to escape the trap and to preach a bit.

But this answer, good as it is, doesn’t directly address the broader questions. Clearly, that coin belonged to Caesar—but what else does? No doubt some things belong to God, but what are those things, and how does one decide? Until we begin to get clear on these questions, what Jesus had to say about that one Roman coin is not much help for us as we make decisions about possible conflicts of loyalty, obligation, or actions involving the claims of the government and the claims of God.

Although Jesus is neither giving a theory about the relationship of religious people to their government nor making a simple division of life into two neat and distinct parts—this is Caesar’s, this is God’s—he is, on a much deeper level, doing something subtler, something more profound.

Remember, that coin belonged to Caesar because it was stamped with Caesar’s image (the Greek word here for “image” is eikōn) and marked with Caesar’s inscription. The coin was made by the emperor for the emperor’s purposes. All that is a pretty good claim to ownership—a claim that Jesus recognized, at least for that coin.

The next question that naturally flows from Jesus’ words is: “What, then, belongs to God?” Well, what is made in the image of God? What is stamped in the likeness of God and created for God’s purposes? Do you see where he’s going here?

Our central definitive characteristic, what it is that makes us human beings, is that we are created in the image of God. And what’s more, at our baptism we are further marked, we are stamped, we are inscribed, with the sign of the cross. Our image and likeness, and what is written upon us, is that of God himself. To whom, then, do we belong? To whom are we to render, to surrender, ourselves?

This, the question of our ultimate loyalty and our deepest allegiances, is what Jesus is really talking about as he deals with the plots and the traps of his enemies. The Lord is saying simply that what belongs to God is nothing other than we ourselves. There is no higher claim upon us, and there can be no higher claim upon us. Our lives are God’s, and all that we do is to be marked by that conviction. All competing claims for our lives and for our allegiance are to be evaluated and understood in the light of whose we are, and whose image we bear.

Alas, all of this does not provide us any easy answers when we face problems with a particular moral or political question. It does not automatically tell us who to vote for, or what policy to support, or which course of action is best regarding energy, taxes, the economy, or our current and future wars. Problems like these will continue to be difficult and ambiguous, and that difficulty and that ambiguity will not change if we toss these few verses from Matthew, or from anywhere else, at them. Still, what Jesus said to the Pharisees and the Herodians can provide us a very good place to start.

Give to God what is God’s—for God owns that which he has made in his image, and he is Lord over that which bears his inscription. It is that image, in ourselves and in others, that leads to concrete imperatives for justice, compassion, and righteousness.

It is that image that both claims our allegiance and directs our efforts. It is God’s image that gives ultimate value and meaning to what we do. It is that image, and no other, which gives us the assurance that something lasting, something permanently worthwhile, is being formed at the core of our personal histories, and at the heart of this broken and yet redeemed world. That, at least, is where we begin.

Certainly, give to Caesar the things that are Caesars—but give to God the things that are God’s.

The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

 

Download the sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Render unto God what is God’s, 19 Pentecost, Proper 24 (A) – 2014

October 19, 2014

Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99 [or Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9 (10-13)]; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” These words of Jesus have become a sort of proverb, and those who know little of scripture may still have heard “Render unto Caesar.” Yet, digging beneath the surface of this short encounter helps uncover some of the deeper currents in the exchange.

First, the combination of people approaching Jesus is intriguing. Matthew tells us that the Pharisees come together with the Herodians. The Pharisees did not want to give money to their pagan oppressors and so were opposed to paying taxes to Rome. On the other hand, King Herod’s position of power came courtesy of the Romans, so even though the taxes were widely considered to be oppressive, the Herodians had a vested interest in keeping the Roman taxes paid. Therefore, the Pharisees and the Herodians each reflected one of the horns of the dilemma.

Then came the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” This reference is obviously to Jewish Law, also called the Law of Moses. Clearly, it was lawful to pay the tax by Rome’s standards; the question was whether it was proper for a Jew to do so.

It would seem that they have presented Jesus with no way out. He can’t speak against the tax, for that would anger the Herodians and lead to a charge of treason against Rome. He could not speak in favor of the tax without alienating most of the crowds that followed him.

Jesus asks for one of the coins used in paying the tax. This is Jesus’ own trap, for it proves at least one among the questioners to be a hypocrite. For the coin used for the tax was a silver Denarius with the image of Caesar on one side, and on the reverse, the image of a woman named Pax or personified peace. The coins were against Jewish Law, which prohibited graven images.

You will recall the incident when Jesus chased moneychangers from the outer courts of the Temple. These moneychangers had a business because one was required to exchange pagan currency for Temple coins before going to do business in the Temple. Carrying the image of Caesar into the Temple was considered sinful. But note that when Jesus asks for a Denarius, one is quickly located and handed to Jesus.

Jesus then asks the question that everyone in Israel could have answered without a coin in hand. In our reading for this morning, we used the New Revised Standard Version, which said, “Whose head is this and whose title?” That translation misses the point of his argument. The word they translate as “head” is “icon,” a Greek word better translated as “image.” The word “title” is better translated as “likeness.” When they answer Jesus’ question, saying that the image and likeness are “Caesar’s,” Jesus replies that they are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Again, the translation covers something better revealed. It could also be translated as “give back” rather than “give” or “render.” Give Caesar back those things that are Caesar’s. It is his coin anyway, who cares if you give Caesar back his coin for the tax?

Then Jesus gives the most amazing line of the short encounter when he continues by saying that we are to “give back to God the things that are God’s.” It leaves everyone calculating what exactly is God’s that we are supposed to give back. And in case you were wondering, the clue was the word “icon” or “image” and the word “likeness.”

Jesus’ answer came from Genesis 1:26-27, which says, “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,’” and goes on to state “God created humankind in his Image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

The principle is this: Just as the coin has Caesar’s icon on it, so it is Caesar’s, we were made in the image and likeness of God, so we are God’s. Jesus affirmed the tax while making it all but irrelevant. Jesus implies that, though we do owe the state, there are limits to what we owe. Yet, Jesus places no limits regarding what we owe to God.

This text is often used to talk about stewardship in terms of what you give to the church. But this is no passage on the tithe. For if giving 10 percent of our income is all we do, we would fall well more than 90 percent shy of the mark. Jesus says that everything you have and everything you are is God’s already.

While this would certainly apply to the money you make, the formula is not that you give 100 percent of your income to God, for God knows you need the money for the necessities of life. The teaching is that once you have given God some of the money you earn, don’t feel that you have bought off an obligation. God wants to share in some of your time and energy, so the 100 percent formula relates to your calendar as well as your wallet.

What God wants is nothing less than to come and abide in your heart. The point is that you have been made in the image and likeness of God. God loves you. God keeps your picture in the divine wallet and on the heavenly refrigerator. Jesus did not care about the tax, for his real concern was that you live into the image and likeness of the God who lovingly created you.

You begin to live into the image and likeness of God by conforming your life to be more like Jesus’ life. Giving back to God through the church does matter, but merely giving money to the government, to this church or anywhere else is only part of the picture.

To live more fully into that image and likeness of God that is in you, give back your heart to God – for it is God’s anyway. When the time comes for communion in just a little while, I would encourage everyone, no matter what your denominational background, to come forward to receive the bread and wine of communion. And if you have not yet been baptized, then come forward for a blessing. For at this altar, we can meet Jesus anew every time we worship. For in answer to the question, “What are the things that are God’s which we are to give back to God?” the answer is, “You.”

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

In the image and likeness, Pentecost 18, Proper 24 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 33:12-23 and Psalm 99 (Track 2: Isaiah 45:1-7 and Psalm 96:1-9, 10-13); 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Generally quoted in its King James version, “Render unto Caesar,” this statement somehow comes easily adrift from its gospel moorings and is usually cited in support of political theories, from tax reforms to freedom of religion in the modern state.

We see this sentence in today’s reading from Matthew 22. Jesus and his closest disciples are in one of the temple courtyards in Jerusalem, where Jesus has been storytelling and teaching. Much of that teaching has been in response to an earlier direct challenge to his authority. Toward the end of a series of teaching parables in Chapters 21 and 22, Matthew tells us that “when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard these parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds because the crowds regarded Jesus as a prophet.”

Questions about Jesus’ authority had been aired throughout his public ministry, but Matthew wants us to understand that the tensions between Jesus and the temple authorities are now reaching critical proportions. In Chapter 22, Matthew writes: “the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said.”

And now Jesus comes under even more pressure: the temple authorities – chief priests and Pharisees – have already determined to remove him from the public eye. Now the Pharisees have brought members of the Herodians along. These are the courtiers and clients of Herod, Rome’s puppet king. They represent not only the Jewish ruling authority in Judaea outside the city of Jerusalem, but also the threat of Roman intervention in Jesus’ public ministry. Notoriously, Herod and his followers accommodated the Roman occupying power. So when the Herodians show up to listen to Jesus, the authority of Caesar has now entered the scene.

Having built up the picture of powerful challengers, both temple and Roman, now surrounding Jesus on all sides, Matthew shifts gear. Introducing a moment of exaggerated inflated rhetoric typical of any eastern Mediterranean court at that time, he briefly breaks the narrative tension. Pharisees and Herodians alike begin by flattering Jesus, 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.”

Entrapment begins with flattery. But then comes what is doubtless meant to be an absolutely killer question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

A moment’s thought should convince us, however, that this method of entrapping Jesus in his teaching might be a bit silly. Certainly, the Pharisees have heard Jesus teaching before now and they have watched him outwit all his interlocutors, often with quite edgy humor. Their question wants a yes or no answer. Yes, would mean that Jesus is prepared to abandon God’s priorities to accommodate the Romans. No, would mean Jesus is willing to side with rebel political groups such as the Zealots who want the Romans out at all costs. Do they not realize Jesus is too clever to fall into such a simple trap?

We notice that Jesus does not answer the question at all. He turns to the people nearest to him and asks for the coin that is used for the tax. It is interesting that Jesus does not carry such a coin himself. In his lifetime, there were several different tax obligations for a Jew in Jerusalem: the temple tithe incumbent upon all Jews meant one sort of coinage, but the newest tax was the Roman colonial land tax, payable in imperially minted coinage. The fact that Jesus apparently has no such coin is one of several indications in the gospels that Jesus of Nazareth owned neither urban property in lower Galilee nor farmland anywhere else. Jesus stands there, in other words, without any worldly resources in a potentially dangerous situation.

“Whose head is on this coin?” he asks. Because the coin is the Roman land-tax coin, the answer is “Caesar’s.” It might be the head of Augustus, or it might be the head of Tiberius, Matthew does not need to say. Jesus represents the authority neither of the temple nor of the Roman governor. The future of those two political entities, and the monetary tributes that support them, is not Jesus’ future. Nor are those entities the governing factor in the future of those early Christians for whom Matthew is writing. When Matthew’s Jesus says that Pharisee and Herodian alike should give Caesar his due, and give God his due, there is only one future at stake, and that is God’s future. For Matthew, as for ourselves, the reality of that future lies with Jesus: the living face of God.

Shortly after this episode, there is a brief confrontation between Jesus and members of another political body, the Sadducee party; and Matthew notes that from that day, nobody dared to ask Jesus any more questions. The gospel continues with a set of future-oriented parables and sayings given mostly to Jesus’ closest disciples, and then transitions into the great Passion narrative. We leave the reading ruminating upon the possibility that this business never was about coins, tax reforms, or divided loyalties.

As it says in the first chapter of Genesis, we are created “in the image and likeness” of God. We try to live into that empowering image in our political adherences, our economic aims for ourselves and our neighbors, our hopes for our families and friends. In all the complex claims on our loyalties and our finances, our tax dollars and our pension funds, for the children of God there is always and only ever this one priority and one claim upon our lives: the authoritative call and presence of God.

Written by the Rev. Angela V. Askew
The Rev. Angela V. Askew is now retired, but still lives in Brooklyn, New York.

To serve God in joyful freedom, Pentecost 23, Proper 24 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99; or Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13); 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees despised the Herodians with good reason. Like their namesake, Herod, the Herodians cooperated with the Roman occupiers and oppressors. The Pharisees, though not advocates of violent revolution, were loyal to Judaism and its God. The Herodians put political expedience first; the Pharisees put the Jewish faith first.
So, it must have come as a surprise to Jesus to see both Pharisees and Herodians coming to him as a group and saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no one, for you do not regard the position of human beings.”

You know you are in trouble when your enemies begin to flatter you, so Jesus must have been instantly on his guard. Then after the kinds words came the punch line: “Now, tell us, Jesus,” they asked, “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

By “lawful,” of course they meant “according to Torah.” If Jesus said that a good Jew should support the Roman state, then he would have allied himself with a power that was occupying Israel and killing Jews. That would have alienated the Pharisees and given implicit approval to a state that regarded its ruler as a god. It would have been idolatry. But to say that Jews should not pay taxes to Rome would have been treason. The question was a perfect trap for Jesus.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” It was a good question then, and it is as difficult to answer today as it was two thousand years ago.

There is much to say in favor of Jewish or Christian support of the state. The state maintains order; it keeps the roads paved; and it operates schools. Even the Romans, for all their brutality, created a system of roads that ran the length of Europe. It took less time to send a letter from Athens to Rome in the first century when Rome was at the pinnacle of its power than it did in the 11th century when Europe was divided into hundreds of small kingdoms. Under Roman rule, Europe enjoyed a standard of living that fell drastically after the Roman state disintegrated and was not recovered until the late 19th century.

Yet, the Roman state was brutal. Persons found guilty of treason were hung or nailed to a cross and left to bleed to death and asphyxiate; it was the cruelest form of capital punishment ever devised. Men and women flocked to the circuses or amphitheatres to watch convicted criminals fight wild beasts.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

The question seems easier to answer today. Compared to Rome, the United States is a humane and beneficent power. But there are those who question the way their tax money is being spent. Liberals say that too much is spent on national defense and conservatives say that too much is spent on costly and perhaps wasteful welfare programs.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

One of the interesting things about the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the Herodians is that he never answers their question.

“Show me the money for the tax,” Jesus demanded. And they produced a Roman coin. As Jesus held it up, it glinted in the sunlight, and Jesus asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” The coin would have borne the image of Caesar, much as our coins display the profile of Lincoln or Washington or Roosevelt. Finally, Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Well, that settles the question, doesn’t it? There are things that belong to Caesar, like the money with which we pay our taxes, and there are things that belong to God. Such as? And there’s the problem.

Jesus threw the question back at the Pharisees and Herodians. His statement just raises some questions. How and where do you draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God? What are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God?

The modern Western mind likes to put things in compartments. The icon of Western civilization might be the filing cabinet or the encyclopedia. If you look in the filing cabinet under A, you might see “Annual Parish Meeting”; under C, you might find “Copy Machine”; under T, “Taxes”, of course. Should this sermon be filed under T for taxes, C for Caesar, or G for God?

The filing cabinet frame of mind has led most Biblical scholars to misunderstand completely Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the Herodians. Our habit of compartmentalization leads us to believe that “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” means that some things belong to Caesar and others belong to God. But think about what we say when the offering is brought forward on Sunday morning: “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”

We also seem to have forgotten that Jesus was a Jew who every Sabbath of his adult life had recited the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.”

A whole God demands the service of whole human beings. The God of Jesus has a claim on all of life. So if God demands all of life, what is left to render unto Caesar?

The question Jesus threw back at the Pharisees and Herodians echoes Genesis. Holding up the coin, he asked, “Whose likeness or image is this?” The image of Caesar was imprinted only upon coins; but the image of God is upon every human life.

“The things that are Caesar’s.” What are they? Caesar seems to have a claim on much of our lives, but in fact, nothing belongs to him. Everything belongs to God; the things that Caesar claims are merely on loan.

“The things that are God’s.” The way most of us behave suggests that we believe that God has a claim on about one hour per week and a small percentage of our income. But God’s mark is upon every particle of our being.

When clergy preach stewardship sermons on this text, they usually ask people to consider how much they should pledge to the church. But the real question is not how much we should give to God or the church or how much belongs to Caesar, but how much belongs to God? And if we ask that question, then the real issue of stewardship is not “How much should we pledge?” but “How much should we keep for ourselves?”

All that we are and all that we have belongs to God. But we belong to God not as slaves but as children. Rendering to God what God has a claim on is not burdensome; it is liberation. We cannot divide our lives between God and Caesar. Realizing that life is whole and not fragmented is an insight that brings us freedom. It teaches us that our first and foremost priority is the service of God.

If you, like many people, feel many claims upon your time and finances and energy, then it is freeing to realize that in reality is that there is only one claim upon our lives: to serve God in joyful freedom.

Written by the Rev. Dr. J. Barry Vaughn
The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution, and more than fifty of his sermons have been published. He is a member of the history faculty at the University of Alabama.