If I were to ask you to name some things that you know you shouldn’t bring up in conversation with others so as to avoid conflict I would hazard a guess that money, politics and religion would make the cut. With it being election season in the run-up to a mid-term election, politics blankets TV ad space and fills our voicemail with robo-calls. The other two—while intertwined with politics from time to time—remain almost entirely off limits in polite conversation especially when we have no idea the proclivities or leanings the ones with whom we’re conversing.
Yet here they are front and center in Matthew’s gospel. The Pharisees and the Herodians got together to entrap Jesus while he’s in the Temple. This is akin to the liberals and the conservatives getting together to fight a common foe—and in this case it’s Jesus. The religious types, the Pharisees, just want to see him taken out of the picture, and the Herodians—those faithful to Roman occupation—well they want the same thing. So a gentlemen’s agreement is made and they concoct this loaded question: “Tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
If he says yes, the people will rise up against him because the tax in question was downright cruel. Those living in Palestine needed to pay a tax to Rome to cover the expenses of their occupation by the Romans. It was bad enough having the Emperor’s desires thrust on you, but then having to pay to cover the costs of his soldiers being on the ground was a tad gauche.
But if he says no, then the Herodians can step in and charge him with treason. It’s the perfect set up. They set the trap and sit back to watch Jesus go down in flames.
But he doesn’t. He knows exactly what they are up to and calls them on it. And then he does something ingenious: he asks them for a coin. Not just any coin, but a denarius. The coin used to pay the tax. And it just so happens that one of the Pharisees conveniently has one in his pocket.
Which, while you and I don’t get it initially, is a huge, huge deal. The first two commandments explicitly forbid that coin. “You shall have no other gods before me,” declares YHWH, and “You shall not make any sort of graven image.” That little coin bore two things: an inscription that declared Caesar was the son of a god and his image, his icon. For a religious Jew to produce that coin in the Temple meant utter rejection of God’s laws. “Whose image is on it?” Jesus asks. “Whose title?”
They’re caught, but the muster on anyway. “Caesar’s,” they reply. “Then give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” he tells them, circumventing their intent fully. But he doesn’t stop there, he keeps going “And give to God the things that are God’s.”
With that they are momentarily silenced, and they recognize that they cannot pin anything on him. So they saunter off, amazed at him, waiting for another chance.
And now we, present some 2000 years later, are left with these words too. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar, and to God the things that are God’s.” I suspect that the reason we avoid conversations on money and politics and religion is because we don’t want to deal with confrontation. We’ve nearly lost the ability to engage in conversation and debate peacefully, separating our friends’ views from them as persons. If we pull a different lever from one another in the voting both, then clearly we cannot be friends. Our states are divided into Red and Blue, as are our counties and our towns. But when we hide part of ourselves from others, we perpetuate the problem of being inauthentic. We think that somehow we will be valued more if we hide our true feelings about something, editing them and making them—and by extension, us—more palatable. We doubt that people have the capacity to accept us just as we are, so we avoid and deflect and pretend.
But when we do so, when we project a highly edited version of ourselves, we do not display God’s image in our lives. And that is both disruptive and harmful to our lives.
Any preacher worth her weight in salt this morning is telling her congregation that while the denarius—that coin a Pharisee pulled out of his pocket—has the image of Caesar and therefore was Caesar’s property, that the corollary with God is something else entirely. The language used for this image, this icon as it’s expressed in the Greek, is meant for us to hearken back to the first story in which the words “God’s image” appears. You may remember that God declared in Genesis that God would create humankind in God’s image, and in the image of God, they—male and female—were created. We, each of us who are human beings, bear the image of God. We are icons of God. And in the same way that the Jews under Roman occupation at the time of Jesus needed to render to Caesar the thing that bore Caesar’s image, we need to give back to God the thing that bear’s God’s image. We need to give God our lives.
And here are 5 ways to do that work.
1) Pray every day. Talk to God. If you do not know how, open your prayer book to page 810 to discover over 80 prayers for different occasions. Prayers of joy for God’s creation, prayers for our enemies, for our nation, and for birthdays. Tell God about your hurts and desires. Pray for those friends and family that could use God’s presence in their lives. Pray for this community. Pray.
2) Read scripture. The Bible is God’s inspired word given to us so that we can learn more about God’s interaction with humanity. We need to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest these words from the Almighty. They are life giving and life changing. You can find daily verses online, or you can read the passages set aside for each day from the Daily Office.
3) Care for your family. We were created to be in community. Your immediate family—your spouse, your kids, your siblings, your parents—should provide you with comfort, support and love, and you should do that for them too. Relationships all too easily break down, especially when we feel misunderstood or get angry. Seek reconciliation. Love those whom God has entrusted you with—and to you have been entrusted by God—with wild abandon and care. Our love for others begins there.
4) Put others first. We all know too many self-serving people in this life who put their own needs first. And then when someone like a Pope Francis comes along showing all of us how to live more intentionally among the poor, disenfranchised, lonely and brokenhearted, a light bulb goes off and we get it. Whether you do that through our outreach offerings — like the one to the Westborough Juvenile lock up in a couple of weeks, or feeding the homeless and needy at Our Father’s Table—or participating in redemptive work in other ways—like joining a literacy programs at a local library or helping a neighbor—find ways to care for others. We are made for community and this world is in need of Christ’s love.
5) Find your vocation. I echo Frederick Buechner’s definition. “There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, 1993, pg 118-19)
If you do these 5 things, you’ll more readily bear God’s image, and by extension, give back to God the things that are God’s. Because all of who we are and all of what we have are God’s. While we might want to dole out a small portion of our money or our time and think that is enough, we must realize that we have God’s image imprinted on us fully. If we are to give to God the things that are God’s, the we must present our full selves. We must offer our deepest and truest selves as living sacrifices to God, trusting that when we do, God will take all that we are in order to join in the work to bring redemption to the world. Amen.