— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 20th Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Jesus’ wit, debating skills, temperament and insight into human nature are on full display in this passage. Jesus was being set up by strange political bedfellows. As we know, politics does forge such alliances. Pharisees and Herodians could hardly have been more different in their religious and political outlooks, but what they shared at the moment in history of this passage was a fear of the prophet from Galilee.
Herodians were a group of Jews who accepted the rule of Herod and his sons; these were accommodating Jews who worked with the Romans to maintain their own financial and social security. Their answer to the question posed to Jesus about the lawfulness of paying taxes to the emperor would have been – “Of course, it is lawful.”
The Pharisees, on the other hand, were very nationalistic and highly religious. They paid the taxes to the emperor but they did so while privately denouncing such taxation and bemoaning the occupation of the holy land by infidels. They were discreet about their opinions in order to stay out of prison but they had contempt for the Romans and all who cooperated with them. Normally, they had contempt for the Herodians. The answer of the Pharisees about whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor would have been a lying whisper – “Yes, but no really.”
These two groups, Herodians and Pharisees, were united by fear because Jesus had become popular. Jesus was a threat to the established order that benefitted those who made accommodations to Rome because Jesus preached a higher loyalty to God over the emperor. Jesus was a threat to the religious authorities because he preached a higher loyalty to God over religious leaders. Therefore, the Herodians and the Pharisees were of one mind regarding this itinerant street preacher – he must be eliminated; so, the fearful bedfellows hatched a plan.
Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality…
The Herodians and Pharisees started off with this flattery, and every word of it was correct, but the problem was – they didn’t believe a word of it. This was pure gamesmanship of the deadliest sort. Jesus’ opponents were trying to lure Jesus into a false sense of security. They wanted Jesus to say in his mind and heart – “Oh, these folk are genuine seekers; they are hungry for the Word.” Yet, in truth, the bedfellows were trying to butter Jesus up for the frying pan! Jesus knew there was malice in their hearts.
Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax. And they brought him a denarius. Then Jesus said to them, Whose head is this, and whose title? They answered, The emperor’s. Most likely the coin had the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus” (that is: High Priest of the pagan Roman religion). Jesus then said, Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
The strange bedfellows slithered away
to their shared snake hole of fear and loathing.
Here’s an interesting bit of information that is obvious from the story but often missed. Notice who had the coins. The Herodians and/or the Pharisees – not Jesus. Though part of the Ten Commandments is to not make for yourself an idol or graven image, there they were in the holy Temple in the holy city of Jerusalem with pockets full of Roman cash. These hypocrites were all too happy to do business with Caesar’s coins and yet the one who enters the Temple with clean hands and empty pockets was being set-up as the sacrificial lamb.
Yet, here the Lamb of God was far too clever for his hissing interrogators. Jesus said, Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Jesus was saying, if the image of Tiberius is on the coin, then the coin belongs to him; so, if asked, give it back.
I think Jesus was being more than clever at this point. There is an important gem of wisdom just below the surface of this instruction to
Give to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor
and to God the things that belong to God.
To discover this gem is to first realize that Jesus and his fellow Jews lived under an oppressive rule. The Jews had some control over their living conditions but only so long as they remained docile in the face of the Roman authorities. Anyone who challenged Rome was imprisoned or executed. In the midst of this heavy handed rule, Jesus was telling any with ears to hear that while the emperor owns a lot of things –
there are some things the emperor can never own.
In Juan Williams’ book My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Voices of the Civil Rights Experience, he has a chapter written by Jerome Smith, an activist for civil rights in the 1950’s and beyond. Jerome Smith talks of his mother. He wrote this about her:
My mother was the well from which I drew much of my strength. She worked as a domestic but also cultivated her natural talents – photographer, furniture maker, seamstress. She taught us all to stand up for our dignity.
We lived in a house where we had to catch the water in pots when it rained. White folks would come out to buy the dresses my mother sewed by hand. One time they wanted to buy a bedspread she had made and some curtains – very elaborate. The spread was her own design – similar to patchwork, with geometric patterns in fantastic shades of blue.
“I can’t sell that,” she told them. “That’s for my children.”
“Well, if you refuse to sell us this,”they said, “we can’t buy the other items.
My mother said, “Well, you won’t buy them, then!”
That stuck with me. It meant that even though we lived in a little raggedy house, what we had in there were treasures – and that was something white folks could not get (p.61).
There are some things the emperor in Jesus’ day and in our day can never own – namely, our dignity. All of us are children of the God of all creation. No matter a person’s outward circumstances or position or status, dignity is a possession that cannot be taken away. We might offer it up for some reason, and many do, but it can never be taken from us or from anyone.
In this episode in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus was declaring a principle about human beings that, if taken into our hearts and minds, will change the way we view ourselves, others, and the environment in which we live whether it be oppressive or free. The principle relates to the dignity of human beings as children of God, our heavenly Parent.
Whose head, (whose image) is this? Jesus asked the Pharisees and Herodians. They said – The emperor’s. Jesus said, Give to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor (things that bear the emperor’s image!), and to God the things that are God’s (things that bear God’s image!). No doubt the Herodians and the Pharisees were familiar with Genesis 1:27: So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.
Human beings, all of us, have the image of God
imprinted on our very being.
We belong to God.
All human beings belong to God.
We do not belong to the emperor;
we do not belong
to the company, to the school district, to the Church,
to the Pension plan,
to whatever might try to claim us and control us.
We belong to God!
Jesus is asking – not Pharisees or Herodians –
he is asking Presbyterians in the twenty-first century
living in Sautee-Nacoochee, Georgia:
Whose image is on our souls?
The answer we give makes all the difference in the world.
Jesus and the author of Genesis gave us the answer:
Jesus tells us what to do:
Give to God the things that belong to God.
Will we do what Jesus tells us to do?
Will we give to God that which belongs to God?
Will we give ourselves ~ created in God’s image ~ to God?
As we give ourselves to God,
we will know the dignity that can never be taken away.
As we give ourselves to God,
we will find ourselves striving
to uphold the dignity of all people.
Jesus tells us what to do:
Given to God the things that belong to God.
Thanks be to God, in whose image we were made.