23rd Sunday after Pentecost / October 19, 2008 / Resurrection Lutheran Church
Text: Matthew 22: 15 – 22 / Message by Rev. Carol Kniseley / ‘Show Me the Coin’
If you’ve been listening to any of the news on CNN lately, then I would dare to guess that you’re ready for this Presidential election to be over and done with. Primarily because of the way the different parties seem to be on the attack when talking about their opponent. I am always amazed at how quickly folks are ready to believe the worst about a candidate…whether it be true or not…whether they even said it or not…simply because we don’t happen to agree with a particular candidate’s viewpoint.
As far as the news media is concerned, there are times when “entrapment” still appears to be the name of the game. If we can just catch the person saying something that can be construed as being ‘out of bounds’…then just maybe, we have ourselves a front page story. And if it means teaming up with folks that we normally wouldn’t dream of being seen with in order to spring the trap, then so be it. Drastic times call for drastic measures. Even when considering the subject of ‘paying taxes’…there are some things that simply never change.
That’s the way it seemed when Jesus suddenly found himself surrounded one day by two sets of folks who normally wouldn’t be seen on the same side of the street together. Both saw Jesus as a “threat” to the status quo…and for their own individual reasons wanted him taken out of the picture. Their plan: to ask a question in such a way that no matter how Jesus answered it, his answer would be considered ‘out of bounds’.
The question was appropriate enough, even for today’s time. Change the governing body and the question remains the same: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to…the United States government…or not?” Of course in Jesus day, it was the emperor Tiberius Caesar who was in control of the Roman empire…and to whom the Jews were required to pay “Roman” taxes. In fact, the taxes were to be paid with a Roman coin called a denarius…the very coin Jesus asked the Pharisees and the Herodians to show him.
Taking the silver coin and turning it over and over in his hand, Jesus remarked without even looking at those waiting with baited breath:
“Whose head is on this coin…and whose title?”
They answered, “The emperor’s.” And they were right. For on every denarius, the pay for one full day of work, was an imprint of the current emperor…who just happened to be named Tiberius. On the denarius that Jesus held, Tiberius’s head bears a laurel wreath, a token of the emperor’s claim to divinity. And on the flip side of the coin can clearly by read this inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of the majestic God, and High Priest”. No wonder the Pharisees cringed at the thought of paying taxes in support of a government whose emperor claimed to be not only the ‘son of God’…but also a High Priest. To such a claim…even Jesus had just one thing to say:
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that
are the emperor’s,…and to God the things that are God’s.”
What belongs to “the emperor”…or, in our case, the United States government? Well, to begin with…all of those coins that have been imprinted with images of former presidents…including the paper bills…all belong to the government. As in Jesus’ day, money was considered to be the property of the one who had minted it. Therefore what belonged to the emperor…needed to be given back to him. End of story.
And yet…you and I both know that that is not the end of what Jesus was trying to say. Governments ask for more than just money from its citizens. The government asks for allegiance…and in times of war (like we find ourselves in today) the government asks for military service, which may very well require the taking of another person’s life or the sacrifice of our own. Making the Gospel lesson all the more relevant for us today.
In giving us this particular “teaching”, Jesus does not set before us a clear and concise set of guidelines for determining what belongs to the government…and what belongs to God. But what Jesus does do is affirm…that a line does need to be drawn. And that no claim on us by an earthly power is to be considered the final answer. Only the claim of God on us is absolute. Meaning: we are not to give to Caesar what belongs to God.
What, then, belongs to God? Looking back at the Roman coin that Jesus held up, we can’t help but be reminded of the image of the emperor. It would then be safe to say that that particular coin rightfully belonged to the emperor. So what then…bears the image and name of God? Turning to Genesis 1:26 we read:
“Let us make humankind in our image,”
God had said, “according to our likeness”.
Leaving us to rightfully surmise that every single one of us was made in God’s image; in God’s image God created all of humankind. Making us the coins of God’s kingdom. If that be the case, then by all means, let us “give to God the things that belong to God.” In other words, what we hear Jesus saying to us even today is that there is a limit as to what we owe Caesar (our government). But, there is no limit as to what we owe God.
And in that respect, Jesus has made his answer crystal clear by “showing us” what it means to “give to God what belongs to God.” Jesus rendered fully unto God what was God’s, and did so on behalf of us all. The reason that we give to God what is God’s…is that God first gave us God’s own self in the person of Jesus the Christ. We are reminded of this every time we come to the altar and hear the words: “This is my body…given for you.”
Reminding us all…that God has already given us what is God’s. Namely, his imprint placed on us in Baptism…making us over in his image so that in peace and kindness towards one another…we can spend our lives serving the Lord. Thanks be to God...we bear God’s image. Show me that coin…and I’ll show you a picture of Him.