“Whose Image is on this coin?” Jesus asked them. They were members of two groups in the religious and political establishment -that Pharisees and the Herodians. These two groups were constantly feuding with each other on the payment of taxes to Rome. Yet they had joined forces to trap Jesus who’s radical and teaching and preaching threatened to bring the wrath of Rome down upon all of them. So they went together to publicly ask him about the payment of taxes assuming that Jesus would not be able to please both of them, and would have to lose face in one way or another in front of the crowds.
“Whose image is on this coin?” he asked them. “The Emperor’s.” They answered. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” he replied. With this answer Jesus acknowledged that Caesar should receive what is due in taxes-an answer that was sure to please the Herodians – but the rest of his answer made it plain that Caesar was not to be worshiped as a God-an answer that was bound to please the Pharisees. So neither group could argue with him. They hadn’t seen this coming. Thwack! Jesus springs their trap in such a way that it does not catch him but snaps back on those who set it. Most importantly however his words teach those who listen critical lesson about the difference between human and divine power and domain. So what can we take from what Jesus is saying to apply to our lives. What does it mean for us to give what is due to this world’s structures of power and authority, and to give to God, what is God’s?
In a commentary on this passage Biblical scholar Ralph Klein says:
“Paying taxes in our society does not have the potentially bad connotations it had in the time of Jesus. Unlike those in Roman Palestine, we have chosen our government, and it has the full legal right to tax us. We often complain about the taxes we pay, and we rightly criticize waste in government, or the excessive proportion of our taxes that goes toward the military-industrial complex. We need to be careful however, lest we participate in the cheap and trivializing joking that goes on about taxes. Taxes are a part of the social contract that holds us together as a people, and they are a recognition that many social problems or public works are so immense that they can only be approached by all of us together working for the common good. We need to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”(Proclamation Series A, 1999, p. 257)
So the images of our government on our money remind us of our duty to contribute our part toward the upkeep and well-being of our whole society. We should keep this in mind as proposals for tax cuts are presented in our congress these days. And we need to ask ourselves, who would those tax cuts serve? Do they serve the whole of society? Are those most in need and at risk being served by tax cuts? If not, why not? As people of faith who seek to follow after a God who is as the Prophet Isaiah put it “ a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress” perhaps it is time we asked those questions of those who represent us in Washington. There are all sorts of tools available to us to do so- from pen and paper and the US postal service, to online portals to our representatives’ offices. How will we speak out in a faithful way about the taxes we pay for the health of our society?
Then there is the second part of what Jesus says in response to the Herodians and the Pharisees – “Give to God the things that are God’s”. How do we live into that statement?
Last week my I took my mom out on an errand and we ran into a friend of mine who took one look at us and said to me, “This must be your mother- you are the spitting image of her.” The coin bears the image of the leaders of the state, but physically we bear the image of our parents and our family’s genetic line, but spiritually we each bear the image of God. I love the old Jewish adage, “Before each person goes a band of angels proclaiming loudly, ‘make way for the image of God!” God’s image is emblazoned on the very core of our being. From our birth we are marked as God’s very own. And as St. Augustine of Hippo said, “God loves each of us as if we were the only one.”
When we bring children to be baptized – to receive the primary sacrament of the church – we touch on this truth, acknowledging that we need God’s loving partnership to raise up the treasure of a person who has been entrusted to our care. A child has been put into our arms and in that sacramental moment we return that child to the embrace of God in the church, thus honoring that ultimate divine imprint that will carry them farther than we ever could. Baptism reminds us to make way for the Holy Spirit’ power to work among us. And each time we are part of that sacred rite our own baptismal turning over is renewed – the turning over of our full self to God in Christ.
And as we live more deeply into that turning over of our lives and wills to God, amazing things take place. When we dare to renew this commitment daily, problems that seem insurmountable find resolution in ways we could not have predicted. We are led more and more to take a breath or a step back before charging ahead on self-will alone, and we find God leading us to do and say things that we could not have done or said on our own. It is not that we live happily ever after, but when we do our imperfect best every day to turn ourselves more fully over to the One whose image is emblazoned on the core of our being, we recognize that we never go through the hard times alone, and the joys of life we feel more deeply.
But we do not do this alone. The Christ we follow gathered followers around him and wove them into a community that has been handed down to us. We need faithful community to sustain us and to join in taking faithful action in the world. We need each other to reach out and bring comfort and relief to those who are in need around us – those who hurt or hunger in body, mind or spirit. We need each other to nurture the next generation as they grow up into the full stature of their path with Christ. We need one another to puzzle and tussle with over what it means to worship and contemplate, and take faithful steps where we live and work each day – in the nitty gritty of our lives. And we need each other to shine in this world with a light that draws others to the presence of Christ we count on in this place.
So, may we each be inspired once again to give the best of who we are back to the One from whom we came, that goodness may outweigh brokenness in this world. Part of that is of course, as we have been reminded over the last few weeks, taking time once again to stop and ask ourselves what percentage of our income God is calling us to give to this Godly work here at St. Paul’s. The tithe, or 10 % is our goal, and our individual situations and circumstances are going to help each of us to prayerfully determine what percentage we will give as a pledge for the coming year. In that process, I pray that each of us will be freed from fear of economic insecurity, and that we will find faith to step up to what we hear God calling us to.
I want to leave you with one final image that I think expresses so beautifully what God can do with and through us when we trust and give back to God our hearts, our minds, our treasures and our actions in this world. In a workshop I attended years ago in another diocese, the workshop leader had a large framed artistic rendering of the face of Christ at the front of the conference room. From where I was sitting, it looked as though it was a black and white photograph of a mosaic from some European church. Under the picture were the words, “Behold the face of God”. After a while of looking at the picture from our seats, we were invited to the front of the room to see the picture up close. It was only then that it became clear that it was not a photo of a mosaic, but rather a mosaic of photos of people’s face, arranged in such a way that the color values of each picture fit together to create the picture of Christ’s face that could be seen from a distance. The message is this – by giving ourselves to God through Christ in the church, we become precious parts of the mosaic of Christ’s face to the world. Without us the picture is not complete.
“Make way for the image of God!” The angels proclaim before each one of us, and before us as a church as we show Christ’s face to the world.
In his name. Amen+