A Flip of the Coin

October 19, 2014

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

Proper 24– RCL Year A
Exodus 33:12-23; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Matthew’s gospel is tough. It was written for a particular audience at a particular time in history. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something to say to us today, but before we can attempt to understand how it might speak to us, we first have to do the work of understanding what it meant THEN, to THAT audience.

Most of us don’t take time for that kind of work. We hear today’s gospel and interpret it simply to mean that we should pay our taxes, give to Caesar what is Caesars’s, and get on with it. But, it’s not that simple. It’s Matthew’s gospel, so there’s work to do.

But, don’t be afraid, I’m here to help.

Matthew’s gospel is big on RULES and AUTHORITY.

We continually hear stories where the Pharisees challenge Jesus or his disciples about the Sabbath because they are healing people or taking corn from the fields and no one’s supposed to be working. And, a couple of weeks ago we heard the Pharisees asking Jesus, by whose authority John was baptizing people.

For all you rule-breakers out there, we like it when Jesus stirs things up! When he goes against the tradition and challenges the status quo.

And when we hear that the Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus with a question, we love it when Jesus turns the tables on them, and they are dumbfounded!

Today we have one more example of that kind of interrogation of Jesus. But, it has a lot of layers that aren’t readily apparent to our 21st century Christian –American mindset, with a completely different socio-political construct.

As you may recall, most of the hearers of Matthew’s gospel were Jewish, living under Roman rule. Even so, King Herod, a Jewish leader, was empowered to resolve issues within their community and to keep the Jews “in check” so to speak. One of his roles was to collect the tribute-tax from the Jews and pass it along to the Romans.  So, while the Romans have ultimate authority, the Jews and Romans have figured out how to work together.

The problem is that the Emperor of Rome was understood by many to be a divinely sanctioned representative of the gods, even a god himself. So, the Pharisees, as Jewish religious authorities, see a conflict here. The first Commandment says: “Thou shalt have no other god before me.” So, the religious question is whether paying the tribute-tax to the Roman Emperor could be construed as an act of loyalty to another god?

So, keeping all of this in mind, let’s look again at the scene put before us in today’s gospel lesson:

It begins by telling us that the Pharisees intend to try to trap Jesus by his own words. Then, it has disciples of the Pharisees, alongside some followers of Herod, addressing a question to Jesus. So, these two representatives have differing views on the issue, and are standing in front of Jesus and say:

“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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?””

They are saying, in effect, WE know that YOU know that we are on opposing sides of this issue, but we also know that you don’t care about that – your track-record shows that you are going to speak the truth. They are inviting him to speak freely, or so it seems.

And then, with the question itself, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they are asking Jesus to either speak out against taxes paid to Caesar, which the Herodians would object to, or to contradict scriptural law, which would be problematic for the religious authorities.

Oh, there’s one more thing I need to tell you – Jesus has no formal authority as a Rabbi. He wasn’t officially ordained, and therefore has no authority, in the eyes of the Pharisees, to interpret scripture. So, by addressing him as Teacher, they are further enticing Jesus to claim this rabbinic posture, but this is part of the trap.

Even so, Jesus is no slouch.

Jesus knows more about what’s going on than the questioners give him credit for. We are told that Jesus is “aware of their malice” and even asks “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”

coinsThen, instead of pointing directly to scripture, which would be a problem, Jesus asks to see the coin used to pay the tax, and they bring one to him. Next, he asks “Whose head is this, and whose title?” A better translation is “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (NIV) This term image would bring to mind the Creation story – that humans were created in God’s image. And it is God’s inscription that is on human hearts.

Although the Pharisees and Herodians haven’t grasped it yet, Jesus is no longer answering the question they brought to him. The Pharisees and Herodians continue to operate only on the earthly and literal plane; only seeing the coin and so their answer is only that the image is of the emperor.

Not unlike them, many times we modern-day readers are looking for the easy answer and only hear the first part of Jesus response: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s…” and interpret that as instruction to pay the tax. But Jesus isn’t finished.

Because Jesus is no longer talking about the coin, we can no longer hear the answer in light of the ones who asked the question. By bringing into the conversation the image and inscription, Jesus has changed the focal point away from the coin and on each person as a human being, and a child of God.

In that light, hearing his whole response is vital: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

What is given to the emperor has been minimized and what is due to God has become the greater thing! The coin is of this world; its image and inscription are for worldly purposes; those are limited.

Jesus’ answer challenges his hearers to replace these worldly images as the authority of our life. What’s more, Jesus is challenging us to not let the formal rules of tradition and government override who we are as people made in God’s image.

God is to have ultimate AUTHORITY in our LIFE!

So, when worldly things stand in the way of God’s message of Love, Compassion, Justice, and Peace, we need to reorient ourselves toward God. We must re-read the inscription that God has written in our hearts; remembering that we are spiritual beings – belonging to God; GIFTED by God.

  • You and I are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139:14)
  • Each made in God’s image.
  • Each of value and cherished. Even when we don’t feel like it, we still are!
  • And, all that we have is from God.

And since we are created by God, and since all that we have is GIFT from God, we are called to give ALL back to God. Render to God the things that are God’s.

It’s not a mild suggestion – it’s a command. This is Jesus’ calling his followers, and us, to give ourselves fully to God, through our actions in our lives. The decisions we make demonstrate that faithful response.

We each make these decisions based on personal circumstances and prayerful discernment. This became all too clear to me when I was in my early twenties…

You see, after college I returned home and attended the church I’d grown up in. My father was a City Councilmember in Houston at the time, and our young singles group from church invited him to speak to us about his faith-journey.

1971 bridge dad kidsAs Dad was telling his story, in addition to sharing his lifelong connection with the Episcopal Church, active participation, including teaching Sunday School, coaching church-league basketball, and various other activities, he brought up the topic of pledging to the church. I’m sure in their early married life, with five young children, the full tithe was probably not possible, but, even so, my parents made an annual commitment of giving.

He recalled one month in particular when they had unexpected expenses, so they couldn’t cover all the usual bills. There were three bills for about the same amount, but they only had money to pay two – they were insurance, country club dues, and the church pledge.

He admitted that it would’ve been easy to forego the church pledge for a month. No one would be calling to collect. They would still be allowed to attend. Nothing would be lost, per se. Yet, as my parents’ considered their situation, they realized that this decision was important. It would demonstrate what was important to them, that is, what had authority in their life; and specifically, where God fell on that list.

Now, as a child I didn’t know why we stopped going to the country club, I just knew that we did. But sitting there that day, as a twenty-something, I learned a lot about discernment, priorities, commitment and, more importantly, about FAITH.

My parents continue to be members of that church and make an annual financial pledge. They don’t agree with the clergy on every theological issue, but that isn’t the point. They are part of the Body of Christ; part of a worshiping community of FAITH, and as such, they show their commitment through their presence and their pledge. They are two voices willing to speak up and challenge the formal authority with compassionate candor, when necessary. And, in these ways, they demonstrate their faithfulness to what it is to live into the image of God, and to give-back to God what God has given to them.

Matthew 6:21 says “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”, but I think it’s really the other way around. God’s inscription is on our hearts, and when we embrace that truth and way of life, our treasure will follow.

On that same note, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor 9:7, NIV)

 

So, as you think about your commitment to Christ Church, begin by asking “In whose image was I made? Who’s inscription is on my heart?”

Then, prayerfully discern what God is calling you to do in response to the gifts you have received. Not reluctantly or under compulsion, but from your heart.

A heart inscribed by God’s endless generosity and love.

God is Generous

One Response to “A Flip of the Coin”

  1. Jim Greenwood said

    I am honored to have been referenced in this sermon. Humbled. Challenged, too. You are pretty amazing. Love, Dad

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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