October 22, 2017, Bearing the Stamp – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000047
The gospel reading today begins with a nasty little bit of political maneuvering. We have just finished reading and talking about a series of three parables that Jesus told – not to condemn, but to intentionally provoke the Pharisees and other Jewish authorities. He meant to provoke them to search their own hearts, to stop and think, to remember their long history with God, to open their eyes and hearts to what God had done in sending his Son. But at this point, the reaction of the authorities was to be offended. And to be angry. And to try to figure out how to get rid of this troublemaker in their midst. Having Jesus come to Jerusalem, it turned out, was a lot like having a hornet in the room. Somebody had better do something.
So the Pharisees sent a select group of people to do something, their own disciples, carefully trained by them to think and say what they were supposed to say, along with some of Herod’s people, to make sure the government played its part as well. Because the plan was to ensnare Jesus in his own words so they could catch him once and for all like a bird in a net. It was a very clever plan, just one simple question. And first, they set him up. “Teacher,” they said, bowing most respectfully, “we know you are a truthful man. We know you always teach what is true, and you don’t let anybody else influence you in what you teach” It was a nice bit of flattery, and it also set up the crowds who were listening, because their expectations would be raised to the highest degree. They wanted everyone listening when they asked their trick question, which was this: “Is it lawful – is it right and proper – to pay the tribute tax to the Emperor? Is it, or isn’t it?”
It was a very clever question, because there was no way – or so they thought – that Jesus could answer it without getting himself in big trouble. They had paid out the rope, and now they were eager to watch Jesus hang himself with it. If he said it was lawful to pay the tribute to the Emperor, the crowds were sure to turn against him, because they hated the Emperor. They hated the fact that their God-given nation was being ruled by godless pagans. They hated that their own Jewish king, Herod, was no more than a puppet in the Emperor’s hands. And they hated that their own people were working for the occupying forces and extorting money from them and calling it lawful taxes. A “yes” answer would get Jesus in big trouble with his fans, they were sure.
On the other hand, if Jesus said it wasn’t lawful to pay taxes, well, that was even better because then he was setting himself up to be charged with treason against the Emperor. Herod’s men were right there to make sure Caesar’s men got wind of it. It was a very clever plan – once they had their “evidence,” no matter which way Jesus answered, he would be caught in their web. And that ought to be the end of this troublesome Jesus of Nazareth and his preaching and his stories and his rabble-rousing.
But of course he wasn’t caught at all. Do you remember the story where Jesus makes the Jews in Nazareth really angry, and they form a mob and sweep him along to the edge of cliff, intending to push him over the edge? But Jesus just calmly walks through the midst of the howling mob and goes his way unharmed. It was like that, here in Jerusalem. The trap was set, and Jesus was surrounded. But it didn’t turn out anything like what they planned.
I think Jesus must have sighed a very deep sigh. “Somebody show me the coin for the tax,” he said to them. And somebody dug in their purse and pulled out a denarius and put it in Jesus’ hand. “Look,” he said, and he held it up. “Whose image is this on this coin, and whose name is written on it?” “Well,” they said, “Caesar. Caesar’s image, and Caesar’s name.” “Right.” Jesus answered them, putting the coin back in their hand. “So give Caesar what belongs to him. And give God what belongs to him.”
Matthew says they were astonished. They were filled with wonder, as if they had seen something miraculous, something divine. And they had. Where there had only been trickery and flattery and political manipulation, suddenly there was simple truth and undeniable wisdom. Their mouths were shut; there was nothing more they could say or do. Their trap had failed, and all their machinations were utterly deflated.
Sometimes people read this passage as if Jesus had just come up with a clever way to get people to feel OK about paying their taxes – or, if they extend the interpretation, to feel OK about following the regulations of a government that is less than godly. “Render to Caesar,” then, is really just another way of talking about the separation of Church and State in our lives. We do our duty as regards the governing authorities, and keep spiritual things for the realm of “churchy” stuff, like our private devotions and Sunday morning services and ministering in “religious” organizations. Caesar gets his 40 hours a week to pay the bills (and the taxes, of course), along with military service and jury duty and maybe a little civic involvement. God gets Sunday morning, and a few church-related activities (if he’s lucky). And happily, that generally leaves quite a bit of the week up for grabs – like watching football or catching up on our reading or a bit of crafting. We can get comfortable with that.
And that might have been enough to keep the crowds from turning against Jesus and to keep the Roman forces from arresting him for treason. But there’s nothing amazing or wonderful about that. And, in fact, this common notion of dividing our time and allegiance and energy between the three gods of state, religion and self-indulgence isn’t even in the vague general vicinity of what Jesus was saying.
When Jesus held the denarius in his hand, he asked, “Whose image do you see here?” Because when each Roman coin was minted, it was stamped with the image of Caesar’s face, as a mark of his power and sovereignty over all who held them. “Go ahead and give back to the Emperor what belongs to him,” Jesus said. “But give God what belongs to him.”
In the first chapter of Genesis, we read, “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them.” Like the Roman coins that were stamped with the likeness of the Emperor, from the beginning every human being who has ever lived, or who ever will live, is formed to bear the likeness of the Creator, stamped with his image. In all that we are told of the Creation, only humankind, man and woman, were created in his image.
We belong in a unique way to the God who created us, and that’s true whether we are Christians who believe in God or Atheists who claim not to believe in any god at all. But it is all the more true for us, because as we live out our lives in Jesus Christ, that divine image that is fractured and corrupted in everyone because of sin, is being restored. Paul says, “we all, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into his image from one degree of glory to another.”
And as we bear the divine imprint of our Lord’s image, and his name, the words of Jesus take on a new meaning. “Give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar” – those lifeless bits of metal stamped with the likeness of a man who is now long dead himself. “But give to God the things that belong to God,” – yourself, all that you are, all that you do, all that you love, all that you delight in and worry about and treasure – offer that up to him. Not an hour or two on Sunday morning, but the moment you open your eyes on each new day, and the moment you fall asleep at its end and everything in between; that is what belongs to God. Not just our prayer time and what we call our ministries, but all the work of our hands, all the thoughts of our minds and hearts, all of our “time and treasure and talents”, everything that is uniquely “us” belongs to the One whose image we bear.
What that doesn’t mean is that God wants us all to spend every waking moment doing and thinking about church-y, religious stuff. It doesn’t mean that he loves you as you are but he secretly wishes you would all sell all your possessions and go be missionaries in Africa. What is does mean is that he created you to be uniquely you. Your painstaking restoration of a beautiful car is an offering to him. Your baking of a perfect apple pie is an offering to him. Your delight in an exciting football game is an offering to him. Your honest and careful balancing of the books is an offering to him. Your delight in reading and studying and learning is an offering to him. Your knitting of a soft blanket is an offering to him. Your care for your dog or cat is an offering to him. Your love for your husband or wife or child or grandchild is an offering to him. And maybe especially your kindness to a neighbor or a stranger in need is an offering to him. But it is as you live into the fulness of the individual person he created you to be that his image imprinted in you can most clearly be seen, a living tribute to the One who created you.