The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
The Things that are God's
You can almost hear Jesus' eyes roll in this Gospel. One might argue that we are perfecting the art, but partisan bickering and political entrapment are not inventions of the 21st century. Were it not for Jesus' confrontational immediate response, we might be fooled into thinking that this is a sincere inquiry on the part of the Pharisees and Herodians, but there is nothing genuine about the question these political adversaries are asking Jesus. They are trying to drag him into that old soul-crushing abyss: the partisan divide. Politically savvy as they are, they know either answer, yes or no, has the potential to compromise his base of support.
Now, every preacher has been told, at one time or another, to keep the politics out of the pulpit. It's just that the Bible is chock full of politics. It's not the politics we care about, but much of the Bible, including today's Gospel, is politically charged. What we don't know, that the first readers of the Gospel did know, is that there are some interesting political dynamics occurring in this incident. This encounter becomes religious, but it begins in a very political place.
Now these days, because of our political climate, many of us get excited when we encounter any trace of bi-partisan cooperation; if you are one those excitable folks, this will make you happy: 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 totally disagreed. But here, they come together around a common cause: to ruin Jesus.
If there is another topic preachers are warned to avoid it is money. No talking about politics and no talking about money. It's just that the Bible is chock full of money stuff – including this Gospel. Jesus is talking about some money, but 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.
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 enjoy paying for the privilege of being oppressed.
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 into power by the Romans, those benefiting from Roman rule, you guessed it, the Herodians, were happy to support the system that ensured 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 – specifically that he was the son of god. And that is the rub: possessing Roman currency was considered unlawful by some Jews. The coins broke 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, those who wished to be free of Roman oppression and therefore 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; he paves a third way. Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's. Rather than answering a question about taxes, Jesus begins a conversation about ownership and belonging.
There is an unfortunate word choice in the version of the Bible from which we heard this morning, the New Revised Standard Version's 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 statement. He is not just answering a question about one's relationship to money or taxes. Jesus doesn't allow us to compartmentalize our lives so easily; 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 from the biblical perspective is the tithe. The Bible explicitly mentions the 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 directly 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 so 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. Which is to say: God wants you. God wants your heart, your mind, your soul, your body. God wants your life. And that is why God marked you with God's own image.
Of course, this has wide-reaching implications. It becomes the reason those symbols of your life and labor end up in the offering plate. It becomes the reason you place your heart on the altar. It becomes the reason you dare to sow love where there is hate, you dare to sow hope where there is despair. It becomes the reason you can't help but share the Good News. It becomes the reason you shout your alleluias at the grave. Because you are made in the image of God and you belong to God. It becomes the reason you forgive yourself. It becomes the reason you let go of the secret shame that has burdened you for years. It becomes the reason you look in the mirror and finally see someone beautiful looking back at you. Because you are made in the image of God and you belong to God – because God loves you and wants you.
Now I know there have been times in your life when people have hurt you and tried to make you feel small. I know there have been times when you have been made to feel unlovable; but that is not true; the God of the universe loves you with an impossible love. I know there have been times when you have been made to feel unwanted; but that is not true; the God of the Universe wants you so badly that God left paradise to come and find you. I know there have been times in your life when you have been made to feel less than beautiful; but that is not true; of course you are beautiful. You are, after all, made in the image of God.
And so you are spoken for. You have been marked as God's own forever. And that means no one else has the right to claim you. That means no one has the right to abuse you or use you or treat you in a way that makes you feel small or dirty. No one has the right to objectify you or dehumanize you.
Because you are made in the image of God. Precious in God's sight, held in God's heart, marked as God's own forever. You, child, you belong to God.
1 Twelve Months of Sundays, 115.