Bible Passage: Matthew 22:15-22
We just heard the story yet another conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees, this time joined by representative of Herod’s government. The Herodians were not likely collaborators with the Pharisees, which shows just how badly everyone wanted Jesus to be wrong about something.
First they flatter Jesus—we know that you are sincere and truthful—and then they ask a question: “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Jesus sees through them right away. “Show me the coin!” he says. By even asking this of them, he is actually putting them in an awkward position. It is unlikely that the Pharisee would’ve been able to produce the Roman coin that is the object of the rest of the story; the fact that the Herodian does have one of those coins discredits their alliance.
Jesus is, nonetheless, in an awkward position. This is one of those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t questions, where no answer will please everyone. I’m not sure Jesus manages to please anyone, but he does give an answer which keeps him from being accused of either infidelity or treason. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” Phew.
This is a wonderful gospel for the time of year when many of our leaders are beginning to think about stewardship, yes, stewardship, even this year. Especially this year. I’ve used this passage as a good argument for challenging people to give to Caesar by paying taxes and being a good citizen, and by giving to God, through your parish, of course, a generous tithe. At least ten percent. Even this year. Especially this year.
And yet, I have been wrong to use this gospel to preach about stewardship in that particular way. I think it is part of our human condition to want to compartmentalize our lives, such that there is our civic life, our spiritual life, our private life, our public life, our business life, our family life. Think about all the buckets you use to talk about who you are. In fact, the way we make our budgets—if we are the budgeting type, and I acknowledge that some are and some aren’t—but our budgets put things into buckets: so much for housing, so much for utilities, so much for fun, so much for food. Right? For many individuals, our pledge is often what’s left over from all of that. And in the times in which we live, that’s maybe less than in a normal year. Even if our income hasn’t changed with the pandemic—and many of our incomes have—our anxiety and uncertainty about the future surely suggests that we should save a little more, give a little less.
How we give to the church reflects the kind of compartmentalizing mindset that has been with our northern European-Western-post-Enlightenment culture for a long time. It’s easy to conflate our relationship to God with our relationship to Church, and put it in a box. It’s in a Sunday box or a tough-times box or a ___ box. So it’s only natural to hear this gospel as a teaching about the God box vs the Caesar box. Church versus state. Kingdom versus empire.
Except that’s not how the world worked in Jesus’ time and it’s now how Jesus wants his hearers—including us—to think about our relationship to God or God’s relationship to us.
For Jesus and for the world in which he lived, there was not the temple here, and Caesar here. There was the religious world, and the world into which Caesar intruded and demanded a tax.
Neither was there the distinction that many people (in my generation at least) have been so fond of making, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, between spiritual and religious.
When Jesus said give to God the things that are God’s, he was reminding his hearers—reminding us—that the whole world belongs to God. We, ourselves, are, in fact, God’s.
The Romans etched the image of the emperor onto their coins. Not only that, but the denarius produced for Jesus would have said “Tiberius Caesar, augustus, son of divine Augustus.” Engraved upon the coins was the image of someone they considered to be divine. The contrast between Caesar and God that Jesus draws was not the contrast between compartments—Empire here, Kingdom there—but rather the contrast between images. The image of Caesar was etched on coins; God’s image is etched on us.
An anonymous early mother or father of the church in a commentary on this passage wrote:
The image of God is not depicted on gold but is imaged in humanity. The coin of Caesar is gold; that of God, humanity. Caesar is seen in his currency; God, however, is known through human beings.
God’s image is etched upon us. God is engraved in our hearts, in the selves we show to the world, and on our foreheads when we are marked as God’s own in baptism. We belong to God. Every one of us and every bit of us. We are God’s currency and, as a clever friend said earlier this week, “we are meant to be spent.”
The teaching to give to God the things that are God’s is the invitation to consider anew what it means to be made in the image of God. If God is etched upon each of us, what does that look like? It looks like you, and you, and you. I’m reminded of the closing scene of Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, Beloved….. I imagined that she discovered, through her own heartbreaking journey, that it is God’s image and no one else’s, who is inside of her and all over her. We don’t know the rest of her story, but I bet she went out and continued to reflect God’s glory in the world.
If we want a roadmap for reflecting the image of God in the world, for spending the currency of God as etched in each one of us, we could do worse than to look at our baptismal covenant. When we promise to seek, serve, respect, proclaim, break bread, and pray in the name of Jesus, we are being God’s hands and feet in the world, and showing to the world the cross by which we have been marked as Christ’s own, forever.
If we are indeed God’s currency, how will we be spent? This is indeed a stewardship question. The answer, though, is not “this much.” It is the true stewardship answer: all that we are, and all that we have, all the time.