Sunday, October 16, 2005

Proper 24

Matthew 22

15Then the Pharisees met together to think of a way to trap Jesus into saying something for which they could accuse him. 16They decided to send some of their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to ask him this question: “Teacher, we know how honest you are. You teach about the way of God regardless of the consequences. You are impartial and don’t play favourites. 17Now tell us what you think about this: Is it right to pay taxes to the Roman government or not?”

18But Jesus knew their evil motives. “You hypocrites!” he said. “Whom are you trying to fool with your trick questions? 19Here, show me the Roman coin used for the tax.” When they handed him the coin, 20he asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?”

21“Caesar’s,” they replied.

“Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to him. But everything that belongs to God must be given to God.” 22His reply amazed them, and they went away.

I'm thinking of forming a union. I'm going to call it the International Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Subsequent Born Children. Who are we? We're not first born, I'll tell you that. How do I know, aside from the fact that I have an older brother? I'll tell you: photographic evidence. Or to be clearer, a lack of photographic evidence.

First born, you know who you are. You know what you looked like. There are countless photos of you: sleeping, smiling, walking, sitting, and doing nothing at all. Subsequent born, where are our photos? My mother will leaf through old pictures and the dialogue is always the same:

Me: Is that me?
Mother: Sure it is. No, wait, that's your brother.
Me: Is this one me?
Me: Surely this is me.
Mother: I'm not sure, honey. Does it really matter? I mean, you and your brother look so much alike.

I look in the mirror and can see myself, so I know I exist. The problem is finding something that confirms that I was once a baby. In the absence of photographic evidence, we subsequent born are left to ponder the possibility that we arrived as children rather than infants. Perhaps one day we just wandered in off the street.

Now, to be fair to parents, especially the "first born shutterbugs," the first kid is a novelty. Who knew a child could do so many things? Once the novelty has worn off, the camera goes away. Perhaps our union will begin by teaching subsequent born infants to do unique and surprising things. "Quick, honey, get the camera. The baby seems to be writing a novel or finding a cure for some incurable disease."


20Jesus asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on this coin?”
21“Caesar’s,” they replied.
“Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to him. But everything that belongs to God must be given to God.” 22His reply amazed them, and they went away.

There seems to be an informal rule in biblical interpretation that the shorter and more enigmatic the passage, the more interpreters who claim to have the definitive understanding of the text. Few passages are as quoted and yet as widely misunderstood as "render unto Caesar."

Let's see: Pay your taxes; support the government; separate church and state; be a good citizen. Maybe all of these. Maybe none. I wonder if the statement was more in the realm of a Zen Buddhist koan, "a puzzling, often paradoxical statement, used as an aid to meditation and a means of gaining spiritual awakening." ( The Zen master will pose a koan and send the novice away, to allow him to find meaning or solve the riddle.

Perhaps Jesus was posing a kind of koan, to give us something to puzzle over 2000 years later, of maybe just as a way of escaping a difficult situation. I think I favour the latter.

The context, of course, is Roman occupation. The occupying army brought its currency with it and insisted that all commerce occur in Roman coins. For the Jewish population, this was problematic as much for the use of Caesar's image on the coin as for the inscription: Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.

Describing Tiberius as the son of God was blasphemy and using the coins was treason to the cause of Jewish independence . Ditto from the Roman point of view. Rejecting Roman coins was an act of treason because it undermined Roman rule. Jesus' religious opponents simply banded together with some Roman supporters and posed an impossible question. Either response to the question "is it lawful to Roman tax" would lead to treason.

Having successfully mystified his audience, we are still left with the task of finding meaning in the text. "Give therefore to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and to God the things that are Gods" must teach us something. Maybe we need to break it down to its constituent parts.

Whose image? Pictures in the ancient world were rare. Some cultures rejected portraiture and most others limited the practice to the most powerful and wealthy. There is a unusual mosaic portrait in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul where Christ in seated between the Empress Zoe and her husband. What makes this image unique is that Zoe had a number of husbands, and each time there was a change, the former guy was chipped away and the new guy was inserted in his place. Sobering thought, really.

Whose image is this? Jesus' question, coin in hand, points to the image of Caesar, and his logical conclusion that the coin belongs to Caesar. Now imagine Jesus pointing to any of the people that surrounded him and asking the question "whose image?" The literal answer would be John or Mary or Mordecai and the non-literal answer would be God's image. We bear the image of God and therefore, following this reasoning, we belong to God.

While Jesus was busy skating through the tricky question of blasphemy and treason, he takes care to remind the people around him that they belong to God. In other words, ignore the coins and get on with the business of belonging to God and discovering all that it means. If I belong to God it will have implications for my work, my family life and even in the way I spend my money. It will require a new way of thinking.

Whose inscription? The irony here is intentional. The earliest readers of this text would have known that the coin said "Tiberius Caesar, son of God." They would have delighted in the fact that the one whom they worship as the Son of God was holding a coin that claimed the opposite. It would have strengthened them in an era when the earliest and most popular creed of the church was also the simplest: "Jesus is Lord."

When they went about saying "Jesus is Lord" they were really saying "Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord." Jesus is the lord of my life, not a Roman king who demands to be worshipped. Jesus is Lord, not Tiberius, not his money, not the marketplace, not the Prime Minister and certainly not the President. Jesus is the Lord of my life.


Looking at the rare baby picture (there are a handful) I know that I was created in the image of God. I know that this comes with implications: how I live my life, where I place my loyalty, what value I ascribe to each experience. Looking into the face of others, I also God's image. I see God in an infinite number of shapes and sizes, in colours and modes of dress, in every social and economic group. I see God in the face of the people I care for and (despite myself) in the faces of the people I struggle to care for.

This is our call: to see God's face in everyone we meet. To give them to God in our service and in our prayer. To always give thanks. Amen.


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