Sunday, October 19, 2008

Proper 24

Matthew 22
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

It starts at the crack of dawn with the Globe.
Homepage set to
Wolf Blitzer, Campbell Brown, Anderson Cooper and (best of all) John King with his magic map through the evening
Election “tweets” at about one per second on
The interactive Electoral College tracker at and the daily “poll of polls”
Saturday Night Live with Fey as Palin and Palin as Palin (watched on Youtube, since SNL is past my bedtime)
Sirius satellite radio in the car set to CNN (TV on the radio is always a little disappointing)
And did I mention that I drove by Obama’s house in the summer? (we didn’t ring the bell)

And did I further mention that I started in political science before I switched into religious studies? My sadness when the current political season ends will only be matched by my wife’s happiness. You see, she backed Hillary, and so everything after the Superdelegates weighed in has been a bitter reminder that my candidate won and her candidate lost. We may have been the only newlyweds wandering through Paris arguing whether experience beats eloquence and whether it is healthy for democracy to have four presidents in a row named Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton.

And so I wonder: I wonder what CNN and the Globe will report on when all this is done. I wonder what will happen to John King’s magic map. And I wonder if living on the edge of the American empire and watching imperial politics was anything like sitting on the edge of the Roman empire and watching imperial politics in the time of Jesus. And Matthew provides the answer:

“Tell us Jesus, is it lawful to pay Caesar’s GST?”
“Why do you test me? Show me a coin – whose head is this?”
“Caesar’s, of course.”
“Then render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

Their collective “whoa” was likely more a “whoa” of “what on earth did he just say” rather than a “whoa” of “that was really profound.” Matthew leaves it to us to understand just how profound this is, but not without some effort. This passage, you see, is one of those places where Jesus is sounding more like a near-eastern Buddha than a Semitic sage. He is pointing to an issue far beyond any discussion with Pharisees and Herodians. He is pointing to a universal question.

From the very first moment someone affiliates with God, they put themselves on a watchlist. God demands loyalty, something that every despot and dictator in history has understood. If you make a public declaration for God, you have already indicated that your loyalty is divided. To be a Christian and a citizen may be simple enough in a liberal democracy, but in any other form of government it usually borders on treason. This was no different on the day of Jesus’ conversation.

If Jesus agreed to pay Caesar’s tax, the Pharisees would call it treason against God. If he refused to pay the tax, the Herodians would call it treason against Rome. With their trap set, the unholy alliance between religious establishment and political establishment waited for Jesus to fall in. It was not to be. Jesus spent much of his public ministry avoiding traps, and this day was like the rest.

Ultimately his answer is about as satisfying as Solomon’s advice to cut the baby in half. It is really a non-answer that forces you to ponder a bigger question rather than walk away with the final answer. And the bigger question is this: how will you live a double life? How will you serve Elizabeth, Queen of Canada and Jesus, King of Heaven? How will you make your worldview the same “on earth as it is in heaven?” Can this even be done? And if it can be done, then how?

I think the clue is in the text. Jesus asks “who’s image is on this coin?” And the answer, of course, is Caesar. The unspoken question, the one that does not appear in the text might go something like this: “And whose image, my friends, are you?” Or better yet, in whose image do you appear, or in whose image are you made? And the answer?

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

If my favourite Hebrew scholar were here, she would tell us that this is akin to a small poem in the middle of all that creation. It is as if God pauses to sing to the creature he crowns with consciousness, sings to the creature who exists with likeness and will be forever given the task of reflecting God’s glory. This orderly rollout of creation concludes with you and me: the actors on this human stage meant to star in God’s own play.

In the end we can “render unto Caesar” what belongs to Caesar so long as we give to God what belongs to God: and that would be us. Made in the very image of God, we return to God in our prayer and in our praise and we never lose sight of who we are and to whom we belong. We can pay tax and vote and watch CNN and all the other things we do as earthlings, but our real work is as Godlings, reflecting the glory and finding the glory in others.


Found long ago, carved in marble, are these words:

Whereas Providence…has adorned our lives with the highest good…and granted us and those who come after us [a Saviour] who has made war to cease…and signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him…

It might sound like I’m reciting an early Christmas reading but I’m not. The marble inscription is describing Augustus Caesar, the one whose image would have adorned half the coins in the empire. This was the same Caesar who wanted to be known as “the illustrious one” or “the supreme head.” Never satisfied, he also wanted to be called “the son of God.” He got his wish, and the coin in Jesus hand would have had this little bit of idolatry inscribed on it too. Even in death he was petulant, his followers giving him a month of equal length of his late adopted father, August following July in nomenclature we have been stuck with ever since.

But we live in another time. July/Julius and August/Augustus may roll around once a year, but we belong to God’s time. That coin in your hand still bears a sovereign likeness, but our likeness is the likeness of God alone. We live in the world, and we do worldly things, but there is only one illustrious one, only one supreme head and only, only one Son of God. Politics and politicians will return to the dust, Caesars will be no more, but we will remain in the image of God, and of God’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home