“In whose image?”
Message preached on
October 29, 2017
I am not a “numismatist.” That is, I do not collect or study coins. However, I have tried to save some of the coins or bills from the countries I have visited. In part, that was at the request of one of my children. My, or her collection, is not very big, since I’ve only been to six countries other than our own, four if you do not count airports as being “in country.” I did try to pick up some Pounds or Shillings when I was at Heathrow, or Deutschmarks at Frankfurt airport in Germany, but all I could get were Euros. Unless, of course, I wanted to exchange a lot of dollars – which I didn’t.
In Nigeria, our group of ministers visiting there in 2009 did not use the banks to exchange dollars for Nairas. The black market on the street would give a much better rate. As each Naira bill is worth just a little more than a quarter each (the rate as of last Friday), we could hold a million naira in our hand and think ourselves rich – which, compared to the average person on the street there, we were.
In a humorous aside, we enjoyed having our sister Belita Mitchell, pastor of the Harrisburg, PA First Church of the Brethren, in our group. One of her quirks we loved was that she likes crisp, clean bills, for which she would trade with the rest of us. She didn’t want any “dirty money” in her purse.
That’s a good entryway into this morning’s gospel story about Jesus facing yet another trap set by the religious elite in Jerusalem. They hoped to catch him up on the issue of “dirty money,” that is, taxes paid to Rome. “Is it lawful,” they asked, to cooperate in the oppressive tax system of Caesar, the emperor of the armies that currently occupied Israel. The question was a minefield. If Jesus said “yes,” the radicals all around would mark him as a collaborator. Answer “no,” and he could be arrested by Roman soldiers. It was a dirty question for which there was no good answer.
Now, before going further we need to unpack a few things. First, whenever we speak of religious leaders back then, we need to realize they were as diverse in that day as they are today. Sadducees and scribes were the big cheeses of the Temple, which lay at the heart of Judaism then. They had their own beliefs, which differed from the Pharisees, who operated out among the people. After Jerusalem, and the Temple along with it, was destroyed in 70 AD, only the Pharisees survived. They gave rise later to the rabbis of today. Of any of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, he probably was closer to the Pharisees in his teachings.
By this point in the gospel story, however, even the Pharisees (the liberals of that day) were against him. While they agreed whole-heartedly with him on many things, like the resurrection of the dead, he had overstepped boundaries they could not abide, like healing someone on the day when all are supposed rest, the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14). The Sadducees, the conservatives of that day who did not believe that there was life after death, had their own traps set for Jesus (see Matthew 22:23-33 after this). In this morning’s gospel episode, the Pharisees linked up with yet another religious bunch, the “Herodians,” who collaborated with the Romans – “no problem” – as long as the Jewish King Herod was allowed to rule (get it? “Herod” – “Herodians”?).
I mention this all because we are tempted to put everyone back then into a box labelled “Jews.” In the first hundred years of the church, there was an on-again, off-again relationship between the followers of Jesus and the rest of Judaism, of which they were a part. The break between Christians and Jews, when it happened, was piece by piece, since there was a great deal a diversity within both movements. By a certain point there grew within the church a cancer called “antisemitism,” a hatred of Jews, which has reared its ugly head many times. We always need to be careful with scripture to not let it speak in such a way as to give license to such cancer.
A second thing we need to unpack about today’s gospel lesson is that it probably takes place in the Temple. In the background of this episode we should hear the noise of God’s people bringing their offerings. Many have with them animals for the altar – sheep or birds or other creatures they have either brought from home or purchased outside the holy of holies. Can you hear the sound of them all, including those who in their arms carry grain for an offering? Furthermore, hear the “clang, clang, clang” of coins being tossed into the metal horns of the offering boxes. Do you recall the story of the poor widow whose offering of but a few pennies rang out more clearly in the ears of Jesus than all the noise of bags full of coins tossed in with a “listen to how generous I am” attitude of the rich? (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4)
Also in the background are the moneychangers who, no doubt, set their shops right back up after Jesus overturned their tables (Matthew 21: 12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46). Part of their business was to exchange Roman cash – “dirty money,” if you will, for the proper currency of Judea. It would not be right to give as an offering to the One, true God a coin which bore the image of some emperor in Rome who proclaimed himself God, that declaration stamped on every denarius. No, such a coin did not belong in the Temple of the One who commanded, “you shall have no other gods before me,” and “you shall not make for yourself an idol” (Exodus 20:3-4, Deuteronomy 5:7-8). No, that would not be appropriate. It would, in fact, be “against the law” handed down by Moses.
With this background in mind, we approach today’s gospel story. In it, the Pharisees join forces with the Herodians (two groups not usually agreeing on much of anything). They come to Jesus with a test. They preface it with flattery: “Teacher, we know you have integrity, teach the way of God accurately, are indifferent to popular opinion, and don’t pander to your students” (vs. 16 from The Message). The trap is set. “Does the Law (the Torah of God) allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” In the minds of those who pose the question, there is no good answer. “Game, set, match,” they think. “Checkmate.”
And then Jesus does the unthinkable. “Show me a coin,” he asks. One of them reaches into his pocket and mindlessly hands it to Jesus. Oops. He did not check first to see what kind of coin it was. There in God’s Temple this idiot (forgive me) produced a Roman coin. Of course, Jesus did, according to Matthew, ask for a “coin used to pay the tax.” In both Mark and Luke, however, Jesus just requests a coin. Regardless, this is the Temple. Such a coin does not belong here. The law, the Torah has already been broken.
“Whose image is on this coin?” Jesus asks. They answer, “Caesar” – The emperor Tiberius Caesar, proclaimed as the “Divine” (i.e. God) “son of Augustus.” The inscription on the coin says as much in Latin, the language of those who would in 40 years tear down this Temple, stone by stone. Please note: Jesus did not say, “Why did you bring this coin into this sacred place?” He didn’t have to. Those who thought they had ensnared our Lord realized that they had, instead, trapped themselves. No, Jesus didn’t need to question why this dirty money was in this holy place. He simply said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Mind you, that does not mean, as some have interpreted down through the years, that there are two realms in our world: the realm of God and the realm of whatever present Caesar demands our allegiance. Jesus did not tell us to behave one way in Caeser-land, and another way in God-land or, if you will, to live one way in church and another way in everyday life. That’s not what Jesus said. But isn’t that how we often live? We’re good and nice and holy on Sunday morning, and then we head out into the world and all that stuff slides off and we’re just as cut-throat as everyone else.
Only - Jesus didn’t say that, and nowhere in the Bible does it call us to be such two-faced people. Granted, it’s hard to have integrity, to integrate being a follower of Christ with the rest of our existence, to be the same person everywhere. That’s what integrity means. To integrate what we believe and how we live every day. It’s difficult to be genuine in this and to be good – good not in some showy, holier-than-thou way, but good in our ability to “love God with heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as our self,” no matter where we are.
Another thing Jesus didn’t say, but I’m sure those who tried to trap him back then heard this, and so should we. In mentioning the image of Caesar, Jesus harkened back to the beginning of the Bible where God made Adam in his own image, and thus made all of us likewise. The unspoken message of Jesus is this: “Give your whole self to the One who has imprinted Divinity upon you” (to borrow from Rabbi Arthur Waskow). Of course, Jesus didn’t say that. But he didn’t have to. The Pharisees and Herodians, people of the book, would have known it, and so should we.
In whose image are we made? … When we look in the mirror, when we see each other, when we glance at the beggar on the corner or the cashier at checkout, when we behold the person whose car just cut us off or the face of someone who hands us a tract, when we glimpse our friend or even our enemy, all bear the image of our Creator. You, me, everyone. Not just some emperor on a throne. We don’t need a coin to remind us, but maybe every time we hold a quarter or nickel or dime, we remember: everything belongs to God, even me. I am made in God’s image. I can’t wipe it off. Wherever I am, I bear – you bear God’s image. And this One in whose image we were made desires of us our whole selves: body, heart, soul, mind.
Yes, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God (in whose
image we were made) what belongs to God. The truth is … everything belongs
to God. Imagine that!