Sunday, October 19, 2014

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 22
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax[a] to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

Roman emperors collected titles like kids collect hockey cards.

Maybe more though, since I have no idea if kids still collect hockey cards. So let’s take just one example, the Emperor Trajan, ruling from 98 to 117, number two of the famous group ‘the five good Emperors.’ He expanded the empire to its fullest extent, and can therefore legitimately claim a title or two.

Take a denarius from your pocket and read the obverse, as coin people say:

"The supreme commander of great dignity, Nerva Trajanus, the most perfect prince and sovereign, victor over the Germans, Dacians and Parthians."

Well, that’s impressive, so let’s turn it over:

"High priest, Tribune of the People, Consul for the sixth time, Father of the country, as recognized by Senate and the people of Rome."

Now you’re thinking ‘how big was this coin?’ About the size of nickel, so they had to write small. To be fair, Trajan was one of the best, and in fact all future emperors were blessed by the Senate with the wish “May you be as fortunate as Augustus and as good as Trajan.” Maybe just put that on your coin.

Or keep it simple, like Tiberius. When Jesus says ‘show me your coin,’ he is very likely handed a coin of Tiberius, emperor throughout the time of his earthly ministry. It seems the Emperor liked to keep things simple with the words "Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.”

So what happens when the Son of God is handed a coin with a picture of someone claiming to be the son of god? That would be jumping ahead. We begin our story with some well-crafted flattery: “Good teacher,” the ones sent to Jesus say, “filled as you are with integrity, sharing only God’s truth, never tempted to follow the thought of the so-called great minds...tell us something.”

Never one for flattery, Jesus ignores their words and says “show me your coin.” Then he asks two important and very distinct questions: “Whose likeness is this?” and “what’s the inscription.”

By the time of Trajan the answer to the second question might have been “how much time have you got?” Instead, this is Tiberius, and the answer to this all important question would be that claim to the divine sonship of the great Augustus. So it may well be a theological debate, but first it is a political debate.

Remember Linus? He said something like this: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed...and all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.” Mary and Joseph, city of David, swaddling clothes, no room in the inn, shepherds abiding in the field, and, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them (and this is Carol’s favourite part) “and they were sore afraid.”

But some time later, they were just mad. After the star and the creche came the tax, a tax that became a fixture in the lives of these people. Like King George after him, Augustus believed that if you were going the enjoy the benefits of the Roman peace (pax romana) then you ought to help pay for it.

But the people disagreed. And rather than throwing perfectly good tea into Boston harbour, various groups began to organize a revolt against Rome under the name of Zealots. In the end, things would turn out badly for the Zealots, but they did succeed in troubling the Roman authorities and sparking a lively debate among the population about paying the hated tax.

Focusing then on the politics, they were framing a no-win question and Jesus knew it. Side with the Zealots and you were a outlaw. Side with those who paid the tax and you were a collaborator. So which would it be? Jesus, being neither outlaw nor collaborator, said simply “give me a coin.”

Then, in one of the most cryptic and frequently misunderstood moments said “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.”

Was he suggesting an early version of the eighteen-century idea of the separation between church and state? Was he introducing Paul’s later notion that Christians ought to respect earthly government since governments are put in place by God? Not very likely.

More likely, and certainly more compelling, is the idea found in the writings of the great Tertullian, who said “render the image of Caesar, which is on the coin, to Caesar, and the image of God, which is on [humanity], to God; so as to render to Caesar indeed money, to God yourself.”

In other words, in the world but not of the world. We were made in the image of God (Gen 1.27) and we belong to God, we are named sons and daughters of the Most High. So we give ourselves to God rather than Caesar: we render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and we give to God what belongs to God, and that would be all of ourselves.

Now what about that inscription? It’s all well and good for Jesus to sidestep the question of the tax and remind the people around him that they are made in the image of God. It is all well and good to avoid this ongoing confrontation with Rome, knowing as Jesus did that after Rome there would be another Rome all the way down that whoever to choose to label Rome today.

But the inscription says "Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” The Son of God holding a coin showing a man claiming to be the son of a god? Where will this lead?

First, Tertullian would say that’s just Romans being Romans. They were famous idolators, naming everthing a god. In the passage that follows the quote I shared a moment ago, Tertullian goes on to list all the household gods Romans pray to beginning at the front door: The god of the door (Forculus), the god of the threshold (Limentinus), the goddess of the hinges (Cardea), not to mention the god of the gate (Janus). So saying Tiberius is a god because he is the son of a god (Augustus) sounds like harmless formality or just good old-fashioned puffery.

Until you make a counter-claim, or your friends do. In Matthew Jesus says, “yes, but who do you say I am?” and Peter replies saying “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God. And Jesus says “tell no one.” And rightly so. In the Roman mind there may be many gods, but only one son of god, and that would be Caesar.

They took their titles seriously: titles that they took great pains to earn, titles they used to literally lord it over others, titles that spoke to earthly power. And when Jesus said “render unto Caesar” he was really saying ‘make a choice.’ To whom will you belong, to Caesar or to God? Who is the real son of God? Is it Tiberius? Jesus?

Many would choose to follow Jesus, and earn the same fate Jesus earned in his desire to live for God alone. The coin led to the cross, just as every choice for God requires some sacrifice, some sort of decision between the way of the world and the way of God.

May we be bold as we render our lives to God, surrendering to worldly powers what they need, but remaining children of the Most High, now and always, Amen.


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