Whose Image is This? [Proper 24A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 22:15-22

Whose Image is This?

It is said that one should not talk about certain topics in polite company: religion, politics, sex, and money.  I’m not sure we count as polite company, but, let's see how we're doing.  We talk about religion a lot here – and we should; we are a church.  And, the Church, the capital “C” Church, has spent a lot of time talking about sex – not my sex or your sex but the sex some other people might be having. They are not necessarily always helpful or gracious conversations; most of the time, they would be better described as arguments.  But nevertheless, we've talked some about sex.  Sex comes up and Church people have opinions.  Politics is a little complicated; what constitutes a political opinion or discussion is often subjective.  And while we honor the separation of Church and State, meaning we don't talk partisan politics or endorse political candidates from the pulpit in this parish, we do talk about politics pretty much every week; it's just usually ancient Jewish politics.  The bible is pretty political.  Jesus was not shy about mixing it up and the Gospel writers were not shy about recording his politically-charged actions and opinions.  And then there is money.

For many of us, money is the most uncomfortable of these topics.  Religion is easy.  Sex is on the table to a certain degree.  Politics is even tolerable – especially when what is being said is in line with our views.  But money is different; it's tough. A lot of folks have a complex history with, and passionate feelings about, money – especially when money mixes with religion. 

And so, for some of you, talking about the capital campaign or our annual pledge drive is uncomfortable.  And this time, these weeks between the Capital Campaign Commitment Sunday and the Sunday on which we bless pledges, is kinda the sweet spot, a little break.  But, no one told Jesus and here he is today: talking about money.

In Jesus' defense, he did not bring up the subject; you can thank the Pharisees for that.  Money has always been a touchy subject it seems – even in the first century; Jesus' adversaries hoped to use the subject, as the Gospel writer makes explicit, to entrap Jesus.

Speaking of politics of the ancient Jewish variety: the Pharisees and the Herodians, the two groups mentioned in our Gospel reading, were not political allies.  And on the issue of this tax, they disagreed.  But here, like politicians do, they come together for a common cause: to ruin Jesus.

It should be said that the tax about which Jesus was asked was a very specific tax.  Jews paid other taxes – temple taxes, land taxes – these were not up for debate.  The tax in question was an Imperial tax – a tax paid to the emperor to support Imperial oppression.  And so you might understand why many Jews, including the Pharisees, were not big fans of the tax.  Very few people like to pay for the privilege of being dominated. 

On the other hand, the Herodians did support the tax.  It seems strange that there would be any group of Jews who would support the Imperial tax of the occupying Empire.  But those individuals who were put in power by the Romans, those benefiting from Roman rule, the Herodians, were happy to support the system that supplied their power and privilege – even if it meant ruffling a few feathers within the tribe.

So, as you can see, the tax was understandably controversial.  But there was more to the question than just whether one should financially support the empire.  The question Jesus is asked is: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  Now we might think: of course it is lawful to obey the law of the land.  But the question is not about secular law; it is a question of Jewish religious law. 

The Jews, like other occupied peoples living under the authority of the Roman Empire, were required to pay the Imperial tax with Roman currency – instead of their local currency.  The problem is the Roman currency bore the image of the Emperor and a declaration of his divinity.  And that is the rub: possessing Roman currency was considered unlawful by some Jews.  The coins broke the first two of the Ten Commandments: no graven images and no other gods.

So this was the trap: the Pharisees intended to catch Jesus between the loyal Jewish Nationalists, who strongly opposed the tax and the Roman currency, and the Roman authorities, who strongly opposed anyone who opposed the tax.  Answering either “yes” or “no” would have had significant consequences for Jesus.

Clever as always, Jesus answers the question by not really answering the question.  He avoids the trap.  Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's.  Rather than answering a question about taxes, Jesus begins a conversation about ownership. 

There is an unfortunate word choice in the version of the Bible from which we heard this morning, the New Revised Standard translation of the Greek.  After someone hands Jesus the coin, Jesus says, in the version you heard today, “Whose head is this?”  But that wording misses Jesus' point.  What he actually says is, “Whose image is this?”  It might seem like a small thing, but it is not.  Jesus is making an intentional allusion to the Genesis creation stories; that would have been clear in the original text.  By suggesting that the coin belongs to the one in whose image it is made, Jesus is making an important theological point.  He is not just answering a question about one's relationship to money or taxes.  Jesus doesn't allow us to compartmentalize our lives; every question is theological because all of life falls under the reign of God.

And so Jesus says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.”  Which begs another question, a question much more immediate for those of us not living under Roman Imperial rule: what things are God's? 

In the context of taxes and money, probably the most obvious answer is the tithe.  The Bible mentions a tithe thirty-nine times – 32 times in the Old Testament and Apocrypha, seven times in the New.  In the Biblical context, including in Jesus' day, that meant 1/10 of one's first fruits – 10% off the top given back to God. 

Ten percent, the tithe, is a significant offering.  And Christians have long argued whether or not to take that number literally.  Does the idea belong to a time and culture long in the past or is it still what God expects us to give back to God?  Also, before or after taxes?  Our own General Convention has even weighed in – reaffirming a number of times that the tithe is the minimum standard of giving for Episcopalians and even encouraging clergy to teach the tithe – which rarely happens because no one really likes talking about money in church.

But is that it?  Is the tithe, which for many seems like a lot to give, even what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Give to God the things that are God's”?

The question of what is God's, what belongs to God, is why the translation issue I mentioned earlier is important; because it gets to this deeper theological point Jesus is making in today's Gospel.  The coin bears the image of the emperor; he has staked his claim by marking it with his own image; give to the emperor the things that belong to the emperor.  And you, human being, you bear the image of God.

That makes the tithe seem like an infinitely small requirement.  God's claim is not on 10% of your salary; according to Jesus, God wants it all – all of you.  God has staked a claim by marking you with the divine image.  You are made in God's image.  You bear the image of God.  Give the coin to the emperor; Give yourself to God.  NT Wright says it well: “Caesar's...claims are as nothing before the all-embracing claim of the one true God.”[1]

It sounds like a lot because it is.  All you have and all you are belong to God.  God has staked a claim.

Which is to say: God wants you.  God wants your heart.  God wants your life.  And that is why God marked you with God's own image. 

More than all the money in the world, more than anything: God's wants you.

[1]   Twelve Months of Sundays, 115.