Matthew begins our lesson by spilling the beans of the plot all at once. Thanks to the internet meme—and those famous words uttered in Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi—I hear it in Admiral Ackbar’s voice. (He’s that amphibious salmon-colored character with a head that’s a cross between a squid and a catfish.) “It’s a trap!” he proclaims as the Rebellion fleet cruises in to take down the Empire’s second Death Star. And so it is with Jesus today. “The Pharisees plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said,” Matthew writes before laying out the story, inviting us to watch over Jesus’ shoulder to see if the trap springs back on his questioners.
They begin by buttering him up. “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.” You can almost hear them licking their chops as they circle tighter and tighter. “So tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
It’s a trap!
If Jesus says yes, he loses the respect of the people who are oppressed by the Romans and do not want to pay taxes to their oppressors. If he answers no, he’ll be charged with sedition. You can see those Pharisees and Herodians—unexpected bedfellows—giving knowing glances to one another as they wait expectantly for Jesus to squirm knowing they’ve put him in a lose-lose situation.
And yet, here’s the funny thing. Everything they said to describe Jesus, those words they used to stroke his ego, were all true. Jesus is sincere, and teaches the way of God. He doesn’t show deference to anyone, instead treating all people as worthy of his time and healing touch. They said it as a way to bring down his guard, instead he responds true to the picture they’ve painted of him.
“Why are you trying to test me?” he asks. Then, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” It just so happens that one of them—likely a Herodian, a follower and supporter of the puppet ruler put in place by Rome—has one in his pocket. He slides it out and holds it up as Exhibit A. “Whose head is this and whose title?” “The emperor’s,” they reply. Before they can see that their plan is about to backfire, he says, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” He sprung the trap without getting caught. They walk away disdainfully amazed.
There are a number of questions raised, but I want to focus in on that coin, the denarius. It signified a day’s wage for a common laborer. Eight hours or so of work out in the field would earn you one of those. And it was used to pay the poll tax, everyone over the age of 12 would have to pony up a few of those to cover the cost of living in an occupied territory. The coin was stamped with the emperor’s image—in the Greek when Jesus asks about the image, the word he uses is eikon, clearly where we get our English word icon, and he uses the word deliberately. Finally, that coin had an inscription declaring that Caesar was divine, a god. We need only return to the first of the 10 Commandments to be reminded that we shouldn’t have any other gods before the one true living God.
Jesus befuddled them by stating “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” These coins, fashioned by the Emperor to stroke the Emperor’s ego, use them used to make the payment required by the Emperor. They are the things made in his image, so render them when you’re required. Then, to turn everything around on its head, he said, “And give to God the things that are God’s.” That thing that you have that bears the image of God, that needs to be rendered back to God too.
And that thing bearing God’s image is you.
When God created at the beginning of it all, God said, “Let us make humankind in our own image”—it’s the same word, icon—“and in our own likeness;” and then, the writer of Genesis tells us, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” You bear God’s image and likeness. You are the icon of God. You and me and everyone who walks the face of this planet in places far and near, we are the icon of the Almighty One, the Creator of the Universe, the Lord God. That’s whose image we bear.
Now from many a pulpit this morning clergy are thinking this is a lay up if not a slam dunk to focus on stewardship and giving. We are talking about taxes here with Jesus, and there’s that coin floating around, and so quite a few preachers are trying to say “show me the money” in as polite and theological a way as possible. This preacher is not one of them.
You see Jesus wasn’t making this about the money. “Give to Caesar the things that are his, that bear his image. And give to God the things that are God’s, that bears God’s image.” The coin bears Caesar’s image; you give it back, you pay the tax. You bear God’s image. This isn’t about giving back some money to God, friends, it’s about giving yourself. You bear God’s image, not the currency. God’s asking for you.
And that’s seems—at least at the surface—to be much harder than putting some money in the offering plate and calling it all good. It was St. Paul who wrote to the Roman Church, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” If that doesn’t slightly terrify you, then you’re not awake or have wandered off in your head making the grocery list or thinking about the Pats-Falcons game tonight. “Present yourselves—give your body, your life, your desires—present all of you, as a living sacrifice to God.”
Our wills and nature push against that. We claim we don’t want to do the hard thing, and yet, I’d suggest, we actually do. We humans are funny in that we don’t think we want to work hard at something, but we look up to a revere those who do. We do it with those who lose weight and get fit—on the more simple level—to the ones who embark on changing the world. We hold up people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Theresa—who gave themselves, who gave their lives—for the work of God. Something in us longs to be like them, and others who’ve given themselves fully for the betterment of our world. We want to give God this life of ours and make a difference, but we’re often too scared to take the next step. Or too busy or too unsure of what to do, so we don’t. We don’t set off on the adventure that could change our lives and the world. We don’t give ourselves.
This past week our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry—that is the bishop who oversees the entirety of the Episcopal Church primarily in the US but in a some other countries as well (we insiders call him the PB)—Bishop Curry proclaimed that we need to put Jesus at the very center of our lives. To live the way of Jesus as his followers. Bishop Curry preached “I really believe that the way of Jesus, the way that is gracious, kind, loving, just, good – that way and that Jesus – is what the world is hungry for and God help us, we’re getting a …. call [to live Jesus’ way in a hurting world].” We are getting a call, you and I. “Give to God the things that are God’s.”
Friends, we have a choice. We can think that Jesus is asking for some money and do that and move on, or we can know that he’s inviting us into living a life that can impact the world. It will not be easy. Nothing truly worth having in life is. But by God it will be the most meaningful and purposeful life you could ever live. There will be more joy and delight and exuberance and love than you could ever think possible. But you’ve got to give yourself. I’ve learned that you’ve got to lay aside the self-image that we have fashioned for ourselves, the one that strokes our egos, and live into being that icon of God. Give yourself to God. You were made in God’s image for a purpose. Render your life back to God, live in the way of Jesus, and bring hope and love to our world. Amen.