Lessons for Proper 24A: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; and Matthew 22:15-22
The time has come again when we engage in what is a particularly, while not uniquely, American experience. We will invest our time and energy; we will study and plan; and, we will likely spend some hard-earned money. We will do all this to locate, choose, and obtain the perfect or as close to the perfect specimen of a very specific variety of squash, called the pumpkin. And then, when we get the nearly-perfect pumpkin, we aren’t going to eat it. Instead, we will cut it open, scoop out the insides, and carve a face in it. Then we will light a candle and place that candle in the hollowed-out pumpkin and let the face light the night. Even as we enjoy this task, it must be admitted that it is quite preposterous.
But we humans like to leave our mark on things, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to graffiti art on the highway overpass, from ancient cave drawings to modern avatars. In art, poetry, and craftsmanship, in the stories we share, and in the wisdom shared with our children, humans are drawn to create and in creating to imbue our creations with our own image. It’s a way of making sense of our creation, leaving our mark, and staking a claim to our existence. This is likely why the first coins were minted: to let the world know who had the power, controlled the wealth, and maintained order in a region. Coins and money were formed with the images and inscriptions of people in power as a way for them to consolidate power and to control people.
Caesar’s cones were no different. In the story from the gospel according to Matthew that we heard this morning (Matthew 22:15-22), the Pharisees and the Herodians lay yet another trap for Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”(Matthew 22:17). Jesus’ response in the story, “Give, therefore, to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,” (Matthew 22:21), is too often used as a blanket statement of obeisance or obligation on the part of Christians to the political order, a proof-text as a quick retort that any question of the dictates of government. But, as we look at the narrative more closely, we see that this far from the meaning of Jesus’ response in the text of Matthew.
Jesus’ response is a brilliant counter to the trap! But, it is a very specific answer to a very specific trap. Two of the most important political groups in Jerusalem, the Herodians and the Pharisees, have joined forces against Jesus. The partnership is a strange one because the two could not have been more different in their approaches to Rome and its taxes. The Herodians (so-called because they sought the restoration of the Herodian dynasty to the throne of Judea) supported the Romans because the Herods were originally client kings who ruled only as puppets of Rome and Roman power was the only way that they would be restored to the throne. They would have been provoked by any answer that denied the authority of Rome to collect taxes – considered a treasonous way of thinking – and likely would have reported Jesus to Roman soldiers who were undoubtedly near to the encounter. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were religious purists who awaited the restoration of the throne of David. They would naturally have objected to paying any taxes to a non-Davidic king and especially to a king who, like the emperor of Rome, claimed to be of divine lineage. The crowds, whose presence implied in the story, would have thought along similar lines to the Pharisees, abhorring Roman rule and often showing their displeasure through protest and demonstration. Both the Pharisees and the crowds would have been very unhappy with any answer that approved of the taxes.
The encounter (the trap and Jesus’ answer) were, in other words, not merely an abstract debate about political philosophy or the relationship between the state and religion. This was a very clever set-up. The intent of the question was to ensnare Jesus either by getting Jesus arrested by the Romans for treason (through the Herodians) or by discrediting Jesus and turning the crowd against him (through the Pharisees).
Jesus, however, cleverly slips through the trap by asking for a coin. (Notice that Jesus doesn’t have one, but one of the Herodians or Pharisees does.) This would have most likely been a Tiberian coin, inscribed with the words, “Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of divine Augustus, High Priest,” and imprinted with the image of the emperor Tiberius (reigned 14-37 CE). To a Jew faithfully adherent to the covenant, the coin itself would have been an abomination, inscribed as it was by an emperor with divine pretensions (violating the first commandment) and impressed with the image of a false god (violating the second commandment). With that particular coin in his hand, Jesus then asks the pivotal question, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” (Matthew 22:20).
The answer, of course, was, “The emperor’s” (Matthew 22:21a). This was a brilliant counter on Jesus’ part. Jesus avoided the trap altogether, allowing for that particular coin with the image of Tiberius to pay a particular tax to Tiberius’s Rome. This is no act of political submission or mandate to obeisance. It is a sign of religious fidelity. Jesus’ answer is a non-answer. He basically says, “Give the cursed thing back.” It bears the emperor’s image and the imperial inscription so it can belong to none other but Caesar; and, moreover, it most certainly should not belong to any God-fearing, covenant-living Jew.
On the surface, the answer might leave us wanting because we don’t have any Tiberian coins or any coins for that matter with images of rulers who claim divinity. What Jesus had to say about that one Roman coin might not be of much help as we evaluate conflicting loyalties and obligations and as we decide between the claims of government and the claims of God. But, as we read the second part of Jesus’ answer, we gain some clarity about what Jesus is up to, for Jesus also tells those gathered to give “to God what is God’s.”
Now, it is important to remember that the coin that Jesus was holding belonged to the emperor precisely because it bore the image or icon (Greek – eikon) of the emperor and was likely inscribed with the emperor’s title and divine filiation. In other words, the coin was pressed and inscribed by the emperor for the emperor’s purpose to demonstrate the emperor’s authority. So, after telling the crowd to give the coin back, why does Jesus tell the crowd to also give to God what is God’s. “What belongs to God and is inscribed for a divine purpose?” What bears the image of God? What is stamped with an inscription of divine filiation?
The answer beckons us back to the creation narrative of Genesis 1:
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.Genesis 1:27
That’s right! As humans, the central defining characteristic, that which makes us human, is that we are created in the divine image. Moreover, as followers of Jesus, at our baptisms (at least according to the Episcopal rite), we were inscribed with the sign of the cross and offered divine filiation, becoming members of the household of God. What is pressed upon us and what is inscribed on us is the very divine image of God. So, when Jesus tells the crowd to give “to God what is God’s,” he is speaking to the Herodians and Pharisees and to the crowds of nothing other than themselves. And as we hear the story, Jesus is speaking to us still today of giving nothing but ourselves fully to God. 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, knowing this will not provide easy answers when it comes to particular moral or political issues. It will not tell us who to vote for or which policy course is best. Current challenges regarding taxes, climate change, racism, equality, the economy, and international diplomacy and conflict (among others) will likely remain debated and difficult. Please know that such will not change just because we toss at them this verse or any other proof text from scripture.
Still, what Jesus said to the Pharisees and the Herodians provides us a very good place to start. Give “to God what is God’s.” In other words, make space in God’s kingdom for all who bear the divine image. That means: make space there for yourself. Make space for me. Make space for your neighbor, your friend, and your enemy. It might not be easy and in this story Jesus doesn’t really elaborate on how. The rest of the story, however, reveals some direction that leads to concrete imperatives. The creation narrative of Genesis 1 demonstrates the imperative with the two commands given to humanity: to give life and to demonstrate God-like stewardship for what God has made (Genesis 1:29=8). In Isaiah, the imperative takes on the notion of mishpat and tzedakah – terms taken together that suggest the sacred exercise of authority in community that is directed to doing the right thing in relation to the other. For the prophet Micah, the imperative is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. And Jesus identifies the fulfillment of the law and the prophets as loving God and neighbor, given authentic and specific form in Matthew 25 where Jesus warns his followers to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger.
It is the image of God pressed on us, which is given form in the scriptures, that should lay claim to our allegiance and direct our efforts. It is the image of God that gives us the assurance that something lasting and worthwhile is forming and growing at the core of our personal histories and at the heart of a broken, yet redeemed world. Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and give to God the things that are God’s. At the very least, this is a good place to begin.