October 22, 2017

Preached by Rev. George Yando on October 22, 2017.

Exodus 33: 12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10
Matthew 22: 15-22

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Image and Inscription

The passage that was our Gospel reading this morning has been a favourite one to quote, it seems, whenever people in the church start talking issues of church and state.  The statement by Jesus, “Render – or give, therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” has often become the basis for discussing the extent to which the church is – or is not – supposed to become involved in politics and what responsibilities individual Christians have to the government or the country.

The difficulty, however, is that the story doesn’t answer very many questions, especially for those of us who live in a democracy, where the opportunity and the responsibility to be a part of the decision-making process is more than simply a fundamental right and freedom, but is a necessity, a necessity because we value the input of the many rather than the one in making choices and decisions that affect the lives of all.

The other difficulty with the passage is that not only is there not a whole lot to go on in this one passage, when you isolate it from the rest of the Scriptures, when you separate it from the balance of the biblical witness, the passage lays itself open to a whole variety of interpretations, and sometimes even radically different doctrines of church and state.  Granted, this incident certainly has its place in the broader context of both Old and New Testaments as one of a number of texts to be considered, but all by itself, it hardly provides a basis for a precise definition of a Christian’s obligations in the political realm.

So, while it’s important to recognize this story has something to say about church and state, about politics and faith, the question that needs to be asked is, “Is that all that this passage is about?”   I’d like to suggest that there’s more to this passage than the memorable catch-phrase from verse 21, “Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s and to God what is God’s.”

Let’s begin with the setting.  The story begins with the plot of the Pharisees who are trying to steer the conversation with Jesus.  It’s a setup.  But first, notice the two groups that team up to trap Jesus.

Normally, these two groups were as friendly toward one another as two teams facing off in a Stanley Cup final, or lining up over the ball at the Grey Cup.  The Pharisees were that body of Jews who were very orthodox in their faith.  Obedience to the Torah was central to life.  They sought to get along with Rome, but in their hearts, they resented paying taxes to a Emperor who thought he was god, instead of the one true God worshipped by the Jews.

The Herodians, on the other hand, were more secular than religious, more liberal in their approach to life, more political in their allegiance to the Jewish King Herod who was ruler over Palestine.  Herod had come to a cozy arrangement with the Roman Empire and he was unwilling to compromise his political position with them, because he craved the power that Rome granted him.  But despite their differences, these two groups – the Pharisees and the Herodians – shared one thing in common: they were totally in agreement that Jesus was their common enemy and it was that shared hatred and hostility toward Jesus that motivated them to work together to try to eliminate Jesus as a threat.

So the Pharisees sent some of their younger members, along with a few Herodians, to ask a question of Jesus.  They begin by first flattering Jesus before putting him on the spot.  But their sweet talk aimed at buttering him up while hiding their real intentions didn’t work.  Jesus’ reply to them, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” shows us that he saw right through their flattery.

Why wasn’t Jesus vulnerable to flattery the way we often are?  You may remember that on one occasion, Jesus was called, “Good Teacher” by some one and he responded with something like, “Don’t call me good; only God is truly good.”  We are vulnerable to flattery because our personal self esteem is often quite fragile.  Fearing that more people will find occasions to knock us down than those who go out of their way to build us up, we tend to latch on to anything anyone says that props up our sense of self-worth.  Hence, we’re not always aware of the intentions behind flattery when it’s offered to us.

Jesus had no need for the adulation of others.  Jesus knew he was loved by the Father and had no need for flattery.  This level of self-confidence, grounded in the love of God, enabled Jesus to listen to what might be hidden between the lines and behind the fawning.  That takes discernment, a disciplined self-awareness and outward disposition. Jesus was first and foremost, a vessel of God’s truth and love, and not a person to go constantly seeking the affirmation and approval of others.  Rather, Jesus possessed qualities that enabled him to be discerning when it came to fielding the rather difficult question that was put to Him.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes or not?” he was asked. Now a “yes-or-no question” like this was bound to land him in trouble, one that was setting him up for a lose-lose situation.   If Jesus says “yes,” then much of the crowd becomes disillusioned with him, because there were many in his day who argued that paying the Roman poll tax was an act of political treason and religious sacrilege.

It’s important to realize that there were a variety of coins in use in first century Judea.  There were standard Roman coins, minted with the likeness of the head of the emperor.  Some of them bore the inscription, “Tiberius, Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, the high priest,” while others read, “Tiberius, Caesar, the majestic Son of God, the high priest.”

The coins, then, were offensive to pious Jews for two reasons: first, the image of Caesar’s head infringed upon the second commandment prohibiting the worship, respect and regard for idols and engraved images, and second, the language identifying Caesar as the Son of God was blasphemous.  As a result, other coins were made available for use by sensitive Jews, which allowed them to avoid blasphemy and contamination from the very handling of the standard coins.  Granted, it was only a very small minority of Jews that were sufficiently principled to worry about such things.  Nevertheless, their piety was held in high regard and it wouldn’t do for Jesus to offend them with his answer.

It’s a seemingly no-win situation; which ever direction his answer leans, Jesus opens himself to trouble.  But look at the rather disarming way he responds to the question.  He asks them to show a Roman coin.  They do.  It’s a wonderful twist of irony that the Pharisees come up with one, and produce it before His eyes – and those of the public.

Jesus has really put them on the spot.  The law of the Torah forbids the handling of legal tender that promotes the endorsement of “graven images”.  The Pharisees’ envoys couldn’t help but pick up this, but they are forced to conceal their personal opinions in public, because they want to appear to be cooperating with the Roman state.  Simply to produce the coin, let alone handle it, declares that they are compromised.  Jesus’ words acknowledge the truth of that fact, namely that if they enjoy the comforts of Rome, they should pay their dues to Rome.

But where is the line to be drawn?  And who draws it?  Who decides?  Who determines how far loyalty to the state goes?  Who sets up the boundaries to which the emperor’s claims extend?

Jesus’ statement is really a pronouncement in two parts, where the second overrules the first.  Surely only God can know where the limits lie, only God can determine how far the boundaries extend, and because only God can do these things, God’s claims are the ones that we humans must acknowledge.

“Whose image and whose inscription is this?” was the question Jesus tossed back to them.  A profoundly disturbing question, because in answering, “the Emperor’s” and in receiving Jesus’ pronouncement, “Then give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s and what is God’s to God,” Jesus is implying then that there is something in this world that bears God’s image and therefore must be rendered to God.

We read again in Genesis that man and woman were created in the image and likeness of God.  You and I bear God’s imprint and belong to God.  We are, so to speak, God’s coin, minted by the Divine, and bound to God totally.  Jesus’ primary concern was always for this tie ‑‑ for its meaning for God and us, for that connection’s restoration in repentance and forgiveness.  To render to God means to turn over to God that which is God’s and bears God’s image, namely us.  Our lives and behaviour must image God in whose image we are made; our conduct reflects on the name we bear and on the one whose name it is after which we have been named.

Jesus doesn’t give us a theory of politics here, or a defini­tive statement on the separation of Church and State.  Nor is he making a simple division of life into neat, distinct spheres of responsibility.  Rather, he is saying that we are what we are precisely as creatures of God, and we must first seek the kingdom of God in all things.  Our life is the Lord’s and those lives must be marked by that conviction.  We must become discerning, we must learn to distinguish that which will endure from that which is passing and temporary.  Admittedly, this doesn’t give us clear cut answers to sticky political and social issues.  But it does say something about the world, human destiny and our own personal history.  It reminds us that we belong to God and can treasure ourselves in that light.  It summons us to reflect on God’s nature in all of life, in everything we do.

By his il­lustration with the coin, Jesus was giving us a clear message indeed.  For Jesus, God and Caesar are not paral­lel options of equal weight.  His questioners try to set him up for an either‑or situation, insisting on a forced choice between the two.  By his reply however, Jesus indicates that it isn’t a question of choice, but of priority and of balance.  You, me, the human race are God’s coin, bearing God’s image, not Caesar’s.

The context of Jesus’ saying is not as in so many of the parables, where the focus is on the difference between the here and now and some far off future time.  Jesus was talking about the difference between a true vision of humanity as bearers of God’s image and the lesser impaired picture of ourselves we convey when too much attention is paid to other lesser images.  To focus on Caesar is to focus not just on money, but on a less than complete portrait of humanity.  Curiously, this turns out to have as many political dimensions as the more classic church‑state issues.

Our belief that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God leads us to wrestle with some concrete issues, issues which must be faced.  Our belief that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God begs of us the question, “What then is God’s?”

“What in the world belongs to God?”  The reality is: everything.  Everything, and that includes us, human beings, those whom the Bible tells us were created in God’s own image.  And we believe further that in baptism, we are inscribed with Christ’s own cross, named with God’s own name, declared to be children of God.

So before we slam the Pharisees for producing the Roman coin and thereby demonstrating their religious and spiritual contamination, let’s not forget that we are likewise contaminated.  We, too, live in the real world, and it is in that world that we are called to live, to go, and to bear the image and the inscription of the Divine.

To do so demands that we walk as did Jesus, with discernment, knowing who – and whose – we are.  Like the Pharisees, we make compromises of our own, many that seem less problematic for us than the dilemma which confronted them.  But as we choose to make such compromises, we do so knowing that neither are we – like the Pharisees – to haul in God as the backer of some point for our convenience in the compromise.  We all cut deals with our culture, and Jesus doesn’t condemn us.  Rather, Jesus challenges us to remember to whom our true and first allegiance is owed, and to keep that awareness in mind when making all other decisions that have the potential to challenge that loyalty.

Following his lead, our calling is to help the world find new ways of expressing love and justice and peace.  In doing so, attention must be drawn to the false standards of worth that are often used to determine value in such issues.

We know that as Christians we have a special call to implement this justice and peace, because we have been stamped with the Spirit; we mirror an even fuller image of God.  The comfort which we can offer ourselves and others is the promise and gift of the risen Lord: the assurance that some­thing of lasting worth is being formed at the core of our beings and at the heart of this redeemed world. Amen.