21 Pentecost, Proper 24 – October 22, 2023
So this morning, we are hearing about some of the Pharisees and Herodians plotting to entrap Jesus. They first use flattery and then ask him a question designed to make him look bad.
The Pharisees of Jesus’s day saw the tribute tax as a heretical and antinationalist capitulation to a pagan emperor, while the Herodians viewed refusing to pay the tax as sedition. Jesus understands that answering either way is a lose-lose proposition. He also knows that the question proceeds not from curiosity, but from pure malice.
Instead of taking on either a yes or no answer, Jesus asks them to show him the coin used for the tax, which is a denarius—the usual daily wage reflecting people’s blood, sweat, and tears. He knows that everyday life is hard and that this coin represents their hard work. They are part of the local economy no matter how complex or abusive it may be.
Jesus offers the Pharisees and Herodians an ambiguous, “both-and” answer: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” He seems to recognize that not all things are evil in the Roman Empire. An “all-or-nothing” worldview is a naïve worldview. As there is light and darkness in the world, people must face both and live wisely, doing the will of God.
So, Jesus gives the only realistic answer he could have given under the circumstances. He asks for a coin – a specimen of the Roman currency used to pay the Roman tax; and asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title? The coin, of course, bears Caesar’s image and belongs to Caesar. So they answer, “The emperor’s.” A point Jesus presses. Their reply half answers their question: they possess in this coin the possession of another. Is it wrong to return property to its owner?” The coin is an instrumentality of Caesar’s government — under Caesar’s control — its value established by Caesar. It is available for their use only because Caesar has ordered the mint to strike it and the treasury to disburse it. It is an integral part of Caesar’s realm. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s” — but “give” or “give back” draws attention to the fact that the coin comes from Caesar.
And Jesus adds, “and give (or give back) to God the things that are God’s”. We are made in the image of God. We bear God’s image, and so it is appropriate to give ourselves back to God — all that we have and all that we are — because God created us and we are an integral part of God’s realm.
From the opening chapters of Genesis, we know that as human beings created by God, we bear God’s image. God’s likeness is stamped into us and upon us. God’s signature is written across our very beings. Which means — if we keep the analogy going — that we owe God everything. Our whole and entire selves. Any fantasy we might harbor of dividing up the secular and the sacred is simply that. A fantasy. We can’t separate Caesar’s realm from God’s realm when everything — everything — belongs to God.
Jesus does not divide the world into two equal realms, clearly defining the boundaries between our obligations to Caesar and our obligations to God. Instead, his answer acknowledges our obligation to the state, but affirms our larger obligation to God. Coins bearing Caesar’s image may belong to Caesar, but all things (coins, Caesar, Rome, the planet earth, the universe) come from the mind of God and are under God’s dominion. Caesar’s realm is but a speck within God’s realm. The days of Caesar’s realm are numbered, but God’s realm is eternal.
We hear in this challenging text from Matthew’s gospel a message about our fundamental attitude toward the God who created us in God’s image. This is an attitude, a disposition, a place we come from prior to any loving and faithful response.
There is no thing that does not belong to God. If we embrace this attitude, which is also a truth, then we too will belong to God: everything we have, and everything that we are, and then what’s left over after that. If our basic attitude is that some things belong to God while other things belong to someone or something less than God, including ourselves, we are mistaken. We are emperors with no clothes.
In our passage, we can hear Jesus say, “Look, if Tiberius Caesar has so much fun minting these little bits of silver and writing his name on them, let him have them. Our true worth and our genuine resources come from God.” We belong to God. What we have belongs to God. We buy and we sell in God’s economy, God’s marketplace. The way we engage with the world’s economy and the world’s marketplace must reflect this prior reality and loyalty. That is no easy task, and Jesus does not give us a formula.
The question then becomes how we should spend our lives, gifts that they are. And that’s going to look very different, one person to the next. The practice will be different for each of us.
Simone Weil, the French philosopher and Christian mystic, said “Creation was the moment when God ceased to be everything so we humans could become something.” Don’t be everything; don’t have or hoard everything. Live your life mirroring how God created life: as a gift for the giving. It’s all gift. Life is all gift. Jesus says, “[Give] to God the things that are God’s,” which is the whole shebang. Amen.