This week’s Gospel reading provides a break from the series of parables we’ve been walking through, those moments in which Jesus has been telling us about the nature of the Kingdom of God.
This passage from Matthew’s Gospel is also a bit out of sequence liturgically. Jesus has just processed triumphantly into Jerusalem, that moment which comes at the end of the season Lent, that moment known to us as Palm Sunday. And Jesus has just entered the Temple in Jerusalem, questioning all those who were buying and selling goods there, overturning their tables and calling it a “den of robbers” before curing the blind and the lame.
He’s not making many friends in the process, and we know what is about to happen.
This is the context in which this story sits in the overall narrative of Matthew’s gospel. And we know it is a significant story, because it also shows up in the other synoptic gospels of Mark and Luke.
A group approaches Jesus, made up of Herodians, those loyal to Herod’s Roman dynasty and also the disciples of the Pharisees, those religious leaders who were growing in opposition to Jesus’s ministry and in opposition to Jesus himself.
They have come to test Jesus, to put him on the spot. In the ancient world, asking someone a question in a public space was the same as impugning someone’s character, questioning someone’s integrity.
To make matters worse, they start out by trying to flatter Jesus. Kind of in that way that your friend from homeroom would try and compliment your mother when he came over for spaghetti dinner.
Well, Jesus was just about as impressed as your mother was.
He knew that these men had come to trap him. And he wasn’t going to play along. Tensions were high, and so were the stakes.
Is it lawful, they ask, to pay taxes to the emperor or not?
The trap is set—if Jesus answers one way, he will anger those loyal to Rome. If he answers another way, he will prove to those who doubt him and his ministry, that he is to be suspected after all.
By producing a coin, these men indeed are proving to be hypocrites, as Jesus charges. For the Pharisees, possessing a denarius proved that they were participating in and benefiting from the economy of the oppressor. For the Herodians, if they produced the coin, it would have not been a coin that King Herod had minted, which indeed had followed the Jewish custom avoiding idolatry by not casting images of persons.
The denarius featured the likeness and title of the emperor, Cesar, asserting his divinity.
In the end, Jesus doesn’t get caught in the trap at all. Instead, he answers the question. But, he answers in a way in which his adversaries cannot win, and in which God does.
The answer Jesus gives is both practical and spiritual. Give what belongs to the emperor—those coins in your pocket, for instance, those belong to him. But, once you’re done with that, and even before, give to God what is God’s.
Because, what belongs to God? Everything. All that we have, all that we are, all that is, indeed all that ever will be belongs to the Creator of all things.
Jesus is reminding those gathered around him what is really important.
The message isn’t about compartmentalizing what we have. It’s not about the separation of church and state—giving to the government what is the government’s in mid-April and giving to God what is God’s in church on Christmas and Easter.
No, what Jesus is saying here is that everything belongs to God, and that while the empire might seem God-like, and those in power in the empire might believe they rise to divine status, in the end there is only one God, and it is to that God in which all belongs.
The coin presented to Jesus bears the likeness and title of the emperor. And Jesus calls those who present the coin hypocrites, for they have forgotten that what is etched on the coin, the words claiming divinity for Cesar, are false.
But even more importantly, and truly important for us today, the Pharisees and Herodians had forgotten whose likeness is etched on themselves.
Certainly, the Pharisees would have been familiar with the beginning of Genesis. The 27th verse of the first chapter reads, “so God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Hopefully you know we are included in that act of creation, in that declaration that humankind is created in the image of God. You might question whether or not the entire universe could have possibly been created in six calendar days. But we know, we’ve experienced, we believe, that God created us in God’s very likeness.
And with that comes, of course, great responsibility. Because, if we are to heed the statement of Jesus, the directive to give to God what is God’s, then that means that we not only have to give our all, we must act in God’s image in the world today.
We are not to act as gods of course—that’s exactly what Jesus was speaking out against—but we are called to act as God’s partners, God’s agents, God’s co-workers in the vineyard.
As we reflect on the idea and the reality of empire, we know that many characteristics of the way empire was experienced in the time of Jesus are the same today. We have rulers—in some parts of the world they even continue to be called kings. And governments still work in ways that capitalize on fear, indifference, suffering and human failings. Remarkably, this empire, the government here in our own country even continues to view execution, the manner in which Jesus himself was killed, as a valid form of punishment in the year 2020.
However, as we reflect, we must also recognize that in many ways empire is much different in our world today.
Empire no longer shows up in the form of one ruler, or even solely in the form of government. It is a part of every aspect of our lives, from the media we consume (and the phones in which we do that consuming) to the vehicles we drive and the books we read. Every moment of every day the empire of which we are a part markets to us, capitalizing on our fears, our desires, our hopes, our dreams and our weaknesses.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is asking us whose image do we bear? The image of God or the image of the empire?
Like many of you, I have really struggled to find a way in which to interact as a Christian in the political world of our day. As the media reminds us each day, we as a people have become more and more polarized. This, of course, is part of empire too, the more divided we are the easier it is to distract and defend actions that most of us object to.
But let me be clear. This isn’t solely about the current occupant of the White House. Empire existed long before he was elected, and empire will exist long before he gratefully returns to his gold-platted patio furniture.
We have been deeply divided as a country before. Indeed, it is hard to pinpoint a time when we weren’t, with perhaps the days following the September 11th attacks or Pearl Harbor being exceptions.
Technology does make it easier to sow division though, and it is so easy to get caught up in the vicious back-and-forth on Facebook and Twitter and newspaper comments sections. That is where empire is communicated, that is where we most often buy into it most personally and most directly.
The question before us this morning is this: whose likeness do we bear? The empire’s or God’s?
We know how it is that we were created. We know that in our baptism we were once again literally bathed in Christ. And yet we act as though we aren’t really sure whose likeness we bear in the end. We act as though we can lead a compartmentalized life—bearing God’s likeness here on Dale Street while bearing the empire’s while walking done Grand Avenue.
Jesus isn’t asking us to be perfect, far from it. But he is reminding us, today and always, that we are beautifully and wonderfully made in the image of a God that asks more of us. To give to God what is God’s means that we have to try and give our all—to resist the empire and the way in which it exploits, imprisons and executes.
Last Sunday afternoon many of us gathered in this sanctuary for a meeting with candidates for mayor of this city. The election is just over two weeks away. We heard, not only from the mayoral hopefuls, but from many residents of Saint Paul who shared their stories of the struggles they or their loved ones experience every day. Those who shared those stories stood up to empire, which would rather they remained silent. And the same is true of all those of you who will go to the polls and vote, making your voices heard, and in those of you who will help your neighbors do the same.
Resisting empire doesn’t mean building a hermitage in the woods where you leave the world. Although it could I suppose. Resisting empire for those of us who aren’t hermits means remembering who we are, and whose we are. And by recalling the likeness we bear, we work for justice, for peace, and for a better world.
Please pray with me.
Lord God, Creator of all, in your wisdom, you have bound us together so that we must depend on others for the food we eat, the resources we use, the gifts of your creation that bring life, health and joy. Creator God, we give thanks.
Holy be the bodies of those who know hunger, sacred be the bodies of those who are broken, blessed be the bodies of those who suffer.
In your mercy and grace, soften our callous hearts and fill us with gratitude for all the gifts you have given us. In your love, break down the walls that separate us and guide us along your path of peace, that we might humbly worship you in Spirit and in truth. Amen.
Prayer adapted from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.