Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, October 22, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 21

Pentecost 21, 2023
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Render unto Caesar.”  We use that phrase a lot, right?  “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”  And what we usually mean is, “Vote for the bond measure so our kids can have good schools.”  Or, actually, what we usually mean is, “You better pay your taxes, my friend.”  And like most cases when we borrow phrases from the Bible, we completely mess up the point of the story, and we render unto Jesus a disservice that does not belong to Jesus.

So first, let’s look at the people in the room in today’s gospel lesson.  There are the people called “the crowds.”  These are just people.  All walks of life and so on, but for the most part they would be Jews, living under the brutal occupation of the Romans.  If this crowd turns against Jesus, he’s a gonner.  But if the crowds are with him—on his side—then it is too risky to have him taken away.  At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has attracted big crowds wherever he goes.

And then there are the people who come to trick him in this scenario.  The Pharisees have cooked up the plan, and they send their disciples to do their dirty work for them.  But what’s really shocking is that they also send the Herodians with them.  We only hear about the Herodians a few times in scripture, and we don’t know much about them.  What we do know is that they were big supporters of Herod (which is why they’re called, Herodians, of course), and since Herod was the puppet governor for the Romans, sending them is like sending spies for Rome.

The Pharisees hated the Romans, and also hated Herod, even though he was their ruler.  But on top of all that, the Herodians were followers of the Sadducees, and the Pharisees and the Sadducees hated each other.  (Hatred is complicated stuff!)  So the Pharisees are sending their disciples to meet with their own enemies in order to trap Jesus.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying goes.

Okay, so that’s who’s there when all this takes place.  And then they begin.  They start off by complimenting Jesus, saying what a fine teacher he is.  A man of God.  And then they ask him The Question:  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  If Jesus says, “Yes, pay taxes,” the crowd will turn against him, since no one wants to support the occupying Roman forces.  If Jesus says, “No, don’t pay taxes,” then the Herodians will have him arrested for treason against the Emperor.  It’s a good little trap they’ve set, and either answer will have consequences.

Now it’s tempting to think that this is a lesson in the separation of Church and State.  In fact, for many people, that’s the whole point of this text: That Jesus wants us to maintain the separation of Church and State.  The first problem with that interpretation is that it’s off by about 1800 years.  There is no such thing as separation of Church and State until the U.S. Constitution forbids the establishment of religion.  And even after that, it took a couple hundred years more for us to start using the phrase, separation of Church and State.  To the group of people standing around Jesus—first century pious Jews—the separation of Church and State is unthinkable.  Their ultimate goal is the union of Church and State, into a theocracy ruled over by The Messiah . . . which they are certain is not Jesus.

Point being, this is not the place in the Bible where Jesus teaches the crowd the importance of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  So if Jesus isn’t giving an American civics lesson, what is Jesus saying?  Well, as they say, follow the money . . .

The coins used to pay the tax to Rome were called denarii.  A single coin was called a denarius.  So, Jesus says, “Show me the coin used for the tax.”  And they bring him a denarius. Then he says to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?"  And they say, “the Emperor’s.”  Now, two things about this:  First, the word we get translated as “head” or “image” is the Greek word, eikon.  (You’ve heard that word around.)  Second, the Emperor was always called, “son of God,” and the coin Jesus held in his hand would bear the eikon of the Emperor, with the inscription “Son of God.”  For this reason, observant Jews did not carry coins of the Roman Empire, because to carry them was blasphemy.  

And you’ll notice that when Jesus wants to show them one of these coins, he does not reach into his own robe and pull out some change.  And why not?  Because Jesus is an observant Jew.  He is not carrying around idolatrous images of the occupying Roman force.  But when he asks for a coin, they bring him one.  I’m not going to judge anybody here, but it sure seems like somebody is carrying around blasphemous images of the Emperor.  Just saying.

So Jesus holds up the eikon of the Emperor, son of God, and says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.”

And here’s where we really need to put on our thinking caps.  If Jesus is saying, “Give the government all your material goods, and give God all your spiritual offerings,” well . . . first of all, that would make for a very difficult Stewardship Campaign, wouldn’t it?  Jesus is not suggesting that God and money should be separated, any more than he was saying Church and State should be separated.  He doesn’t say give to the government your entire paycheck and give God your prayers, right?

It’s not about the value of the coin.  It’s about the eikon.  Whose image is on the money?  The coin is identified by the eikon that is stamped on it.  The one in whose image it is made dictates where and what happens to it.  You cannot spend a coin that bears the image of the Emperor outside of his realm.  The coin bearing his image belongs in his realm.  Hold that thought.

I want to read you something from the Prayer Book, on page 845.  This is way back in the section called, “Parts of the Prayer Book I’ve never seen before.”  Actually, this is a subsection of that part called, “An Outline of the Faith.”  It’s laid out in question-and-answer format, which is why it’s also called “the Catechism.”  When we look at the very first question:  What are we by nature?  And the response is, “We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.”  Made in what?  In the image of God.  An eikon of God.

You are an eikon of God.  Let’s imagine the challengers ask Jesus a different question.  What if they were to ask, is it lawful for me to use and abuse another human being?  Is it lawful for me to mistreat my neighbor, or belittle them, or call them an animal or a monster?  Is it lawful for me to hate someone because they have a political sign in their lawn?  And Jesus asks, "Whose image do they bear?"  A denarius is made in the image of Caesar.  And you are made in the image of God.  And your neighbor is made in the image of God.  Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God’s.  It’s hard sometimes, isn’t it?

This is not a story about paying taxes, or the separation of Church and State.  Those are paltry, insignificant arguments.  No, this is a story about you and me, being made in the image of God.  Your worth is not based on what people think, or how you are treated, or how much money you make, or who you vote for.  Your worth is based on bearing the eikon of God, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen.  Whose image and whose title?  The image of God, and the title of redeemed child of God, claimed for all time, living in the hope of the resurrection.

All of which fits nicely with St. Timothy’s Church and our Stewardship Campaign, which kicks off today.  We usually think of a Stewardship Campaign as being about money, and it mostly is.  Gotta keep the lights on.  However, true stewardship, truly giving back to God, means giving yourself to God.  Your time, your talent, and your possessions.  That is why on this year’s pledge card, we included space on the back for you to list ways you want to share your time and talents.  Even if you don’t want to fill out the front and make a financial pledge, we ask you to prayerfully consider that section on the back, where you can offer back to God the other gifts you have been given.

Sure, give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, the taxes that are required.  But, give to God the things that belong to God: your self, your time, and your possessions.  Since you are made in the image of God, all that you are belongs to God.  You live in the kingdom of God, you belong in the kingdom of God, and no one can take that away from you.  

Is it lawful to pay taxes?  Yes,  (And it is required, in case you haven’t noticed.)  But you are not made in the image of the IRS.  You are made in the image of God.  And what is made in the image of God belongs to God.  

Remember, you are God’s eikon, whether or not you believe it—and whether not others believe it—it is true.  You are God’s eikon, and no one can take that away from you.  You will always be welcomed by God because you are made in the very image of God.  You belong to God.   



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