Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Year A

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 & Matthew 22:15-22

The Rev. Denise Vaughn

In Whose Image is Your Coin?

I would bet there is not one person here today who has not either heard or said these very familiar words “There are only two things that we can be certain of in this life and they are death and taxes.” Taxes! What a powerful word that carries great weight in the English language. Wars have been fought over this word. It has had the power to elect politicians, finance our military, and send people to jail. It causes most to cringe at the thought of filling out the many, complicated forms the IRS needs by April 15 and cry maybe at the amount of money that comes out of our pockets. My question is who started these taxes anyway?  I mean nowhere in Genesis do we read that God levied taxes on Adam and Eve, and it was good. Moses did not come down the mountain with “Thou shall pay thy taxes” written on a tablet of stone.

Whenever they were started, it would seem that they have been a human invention needed for the necessity of earthly rulers, to finance battles, to build temples, roads and aqueducts. Many of the same things financed today with the taxes we pay. So it seems taxes have been levied and taxes collected for thousands of years, and the gospel seems to indicate that Jesus expects us to pay them. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” says Jesus, “and to God the things that are God’s.” The question asked of Jesus is not whether taxes should be paid gratefully or grudgingly. Rather the question put to Jesus is whether in his opinion it is right and proper to pay taxes at all.

You see, the tax in question was the imperial tax paid as a tribute to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel. Jews were required to pay their oppressors a denarius a year, roughly the amount a laborer would make in a day, to support their own oppression. The faithful had to pay the tax with a coin engraved with a picture of Tiberius Caesar, and a proclamation of his divinity, forcing them to break the first two commandments. Needless to say, this made the topic divisive and one’s opinion revealing. Therefore, the Pharisees and Herodians, who were united in their opposition, decided to devise a plan to try to trap the very popular rabbi who just the day before had entered Jerusalem to great acclaim and had been stirring things up at the temple ever since.

The Pharisees hoped that Jesus would support paying taxes to Caesar so the Jewish people would view him as a Roman sympathizer. On the other hand, the Herodians hoped Jesus would oppose paying the tax to Caesar so they could accuse him of treason against Rome and arrest him. No matter which way Jesus answered their question, it would seem to them that they had Jesus trapped. Jesus aware of their motivation, with a coin and his response gave a teaching that left them with a challenge that rings down through the centuries. “Show me the money for the tax,” he says. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” “Caesar’s” they reply. “Render therefore Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus tells us all, yes, we are to take care of earthly matters which means, paying our taxes. Caesar will get many or most of the coins and be flattered by how well he looks on the coin of cold hard cash; but on the coin of our flesh and blood what image do we bear? What are the things that belong to God, that bear the image and name of God? Christian theologian Tertullian, writing early in the third century, said, “Render to Caesar Caesar’s image, which is on the coin, and to God God’s image, which is on man. Every life is marked with this inscription; what is rendered to God is whatever bears the divine image. The coin that belongs to God reveals to us who we are, what we are, and what we can be. A coin is what we work for, and what we have come to believe is the measure and symbol of our value and worth. But the true value of who we are has to do with the likeness borne on our bodies and souls.

As Caesar cast the denarius in his image, God has cast each one of us in God’s own image. The image can sometimes be difficult to recognize. But as Paul reminds us in First Thessalonians, “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that God has chosen you….and you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers.”  The point Paul makes is God is active in our lives; God is active, empowering and encouraging in the lives of his followers and calls his followers to be examples of what it means to have God imprinted on them. What it means to follow the one who asks us to be different by placing our faith, our lives, our coins, in God.

Jesus is not setting up rival kingdoms in his teaching. God’s kingdom is the original will and plan of God for humanity and creation, and we do not need to carve space for God’s kingdom out of the secular empire. We still have to live in this world. The problem for the Christian is how to justify allegiance to the emperor while remaining faithful to God. No one can serve two masters. So perhaps Jesus’ teaching could be summarized as, give the emperor his due but love God and neighbor. Jesus is casting a vision of how we are to live in the two kingdoms and leaves us with the difficult task of sorting out our loyalties. As Bishop Edwards reminds us today in our bulletin insert from Journey to Generosity, “rules and money are so much easier to calculate, more manageable, than the awesome living God who loves a cosmos into being, who loves us into being.”

God’s claim on us in our baptism is total and no part of our life is excluded from the one who is our creator and savior, in whose image we are made. It would have been much easier if Jesus, when he was approached by the Herodians and Pharisees, to just let it go with “Give to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor.” But Jesus did not stop there; he did not stop until he had directed our hearts and our lives to what is central. Jesus did not stop without first showing us what it means to “give to God what belongs to God.” For Jesus gave fully to God what was God’s on a cross, and did so for each one of us.

The reason we give God what is God’s is that God first gave to us…God’s self in Jesus and our very lives. We remember what God has given us each time we repeat the words “This is my body given for you; this is my blood poured out for you.” God has given us everything and everything belongs to God, not just human persons created in the divine image, but also coins and emperors and Pharisees and Herodians and bread and wine. Can we give or return to God less?  As Caesar sent out the denarius and calls back the tax, God sends us out as bearers of God’s likeness to be his example in our world and then God calls us back, wanting our lives for God’s own self. Jesus is the gatherer of this tax with God’s divine image stamped and inscribed with God’s name on each of the coins.