October 18, 2020 (video available here)
Earlier versions of this sermon were preached on October 19, 2014, and October 22, 2017.
We’ve learned a lot from Paul’s letter to the Philippians over the past few weeks, but this week we jump back into the gospel according to Matthew. We’re discovering the identity markers that tell others we belong to Jesus. We’ve explored the markers of humility in obedience, surrender, and joy. In today’s reading, Jesus teaches us how the image we present to the world is a key indicator of where our allegiance really lies.
How is God calling each of us to grow closer to God, deeper in faith, and more active in the mission and ministry of this congregation? If we really want to stay centered on Christ and offer Christ by doing everything through Christ, we will want to pay close attention to what Christ himself has to say.
Matthew’s gospel takes us back to the Temple court in Jerusalem, only a few days before Jesus will be betrayed. Jesus is still teaching about what it means to belong to the kingdom of God, a kingdom that has already broken into our world and is growing toward its fullness.
Because the kingdom of God is already present, our citizenship in that kingdom rubs up against our very real day-to-day living in a broken world. Sometimes the conflict between worldly reality and kingdom living becomes confusing and uncomfortable. Sometimes we don’t know how to reconcile our allegiance to God with our worldly obligations. Jesus was faced with this same dilemma, and in today’s reading, he shows us how to live in the world while living into the kingdom of God.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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?”
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.”
Then he said to them, “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. (Matthew 22:15-22)
Here’s the story so far: We’re in the Temple on Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus has already cursed a fig tree, challenged the authority of the chief priests and elders, and told parables to anger the Pharisees – and it isn’t even noon. That’s the setting for the story.
The characters include Jesus, of course, but the rest of the cast has changed somewhat from earlier in the story. Now, instead of the Temple rulers who challenged Jesus’ authority in the last chapter, the Pharisees have sent some of their own disciples to speak with Jesus. This is the only time disciples of the Pharisees are mentioned in the entire New Testament, so that might be an important detail to hold in the back of our minds.
In addition to these disciples, the Pharisees have enlisted the help of their opponents, the Herodians. The Herodians weren’t particularly religious. They were political leaders who supported the Roman authority given to Herod over Israel. An alliance between the religious Pharisees and the political Herodians was unusual – they only worked together because of their mutual fear of Jesus and his growing influence with the people. So we have Jesus, the Pharisees’ disciples, the Herodians who have joined them in an awkward alliance, and the silent onlookers who have gathered around Jesus to hear him teach. We have the setting and the characters. It’s time to introduce the plot.
As the Pharisees go off to conspire with the Herodians, they look for a way to force Jesus to reveal himself as a rebel against Rome or a blasphemer against God. Preferably both. They decide to start with flattery, hoping to get Jesus to let down his guard, so he will walk right into their trap. They describe his impartiality to all, and his disregard for rank, encouraging him to denounce Roman authority. At the same time, they refer to his sincerity and truthfulness, encouraging him to claim a level of righteousness that belongs only to God.
The problem these religious and political leaders set before Jesus is one we face every day: To whom do we give our primary allegiance? When the law of the land seems to go against the law of God, what choice will we make? This is the problem in the story’s plot that must be resolved. They think they have set up the perfect “either/or” riddle, because whichever way Jesus answers, he’s going to offend one group or the other: he will either break Roman law or Temple law – he can’t have it both ways. They wait for Jesus to answer. They are sure they’ve got him now.
You may have noticed that we live in an increasingly polarized society. Everything is ‘either/or’ and if you don’t land on the same side of an issue as your neighbor, that makes you an immediate enemy. The Pharisees and the Herodians lived in a similarly polarized world. You either paid allegiance to Caesar, or to God. But Jesus says that looking at this question from a polarized perspective gets it all wrong. If we insist on ‘either/or’ we miss the point.
“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he asks. And we suddenly remember another conversation, at the very beginning of his ministry, when Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 to Satan in the wilderness:
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt 4:7).
In that conversation, Satan has invited Jesus to throw himself down from a pinnacle of the Temple, to prove that he is the Son of God. But Jesus knows better.
And now, facing the Pharisees and Herodians as they gang up on him, Jesus sees through their hypocrisy, just as he sees through ours whenever we pretend to submit to God, but hold in our hearts the desire to have our own way.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as hypocrites. We don’t like to fall into that category Craig Groeschel describes in his book, The Christian Atheist: people who claim to believe in God, but who live as if God doesn’t exist.
And those disciples of the Pharisees, who stood before Jesus, didn’t like it either. The Herodians might not have cared one way or the other, but those Pharisees considered themselves among the most faithful of all God’s people. They did not like being called hypocrites. At. All.
Let’s pause here at this point of tension in the story. Imagine you are one of those silent onlookers in this drama.
Maybe you have been following Jesus as a faithful disciple throughout his ministry. You’re one of the insiders, one of the chosen twelve. You think you know this guy, this Jesus, but you are wondering how he’s going to wriggle his way out of this one. You’ve been close enough to hear him say, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised” (Matthew 17:22-23). You may be wondering if Jesus is about to be arrested, leaving you without a leader.
Or maybe you are one of the people who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and when you heard that this Jesus was preaching in the Temple courts, you went looking for him, to hear for yourself what this new rabbi was teaching. You are here simply out of curiosity.
Maybe you were laughing along with the crowd when the pompous religious leaders heard their own words used against them. You are here, not as a believer necessarily, but as a skeptic. And if this Jesus can embarrass those self-righteous religious leaders, you want to be around to see the show.
Or maybe your heart was “strangely warmed” as you listened to this man teach with an authority that could only come from God. Maybe you have been wondering, as you listened, if this could be the Messiah after all.
Whatever has brought you into this crowd, you wait to hear what Jesus will say, how he will solve this riddle the Pharisees and Herodians have put before him. Because you are certain that whatever he says will force you to decide where your allegiance lies. Whatever he says will tell you if you should put your trust in him, or if you should walk away.
And Jesus says, “Show me the money.”
Notice that Jesus does not happen to have a denarius in his own pocket. But he’s pretty sure one of his challengers will have brought such a coin into the Temple. And he’s right; they hand him a denarius immediately, not even realizing they have exposed their own blasphemy, by bringing a Roman coin, bearing a Roman inscription that calls Caesar “divine,” into the Temple where God alone is to be worshiped as holy.
But Jesus does not call attention to this. He turns the coin over in his hand and asks a question any child could answer. “Whose image is this, and whose inscription is on this coin?” And with this seemingly simple question, Jesus raises the stakes even higher.
You see, this wasn’t just any coin, but a coin required for paying a tax to the Romans. And it wasn’t just any tax. First century Jews had to pay their share of taxes, just as we do. But the tax that required payment with a denarius was the Imperial tribute, or “census” tax that had been instituted about the time of Jesus’ birth. It was the tax Jews paid to support the Roman occupation of Israel. The Jews had to pay one denarius a year to finance their own oppression.
I have to imagine it was the Herodians, those Jews who supported the Roman occupation, who answered first. “The emperor’s,” they said. Jesus doesn’t blink. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
You can almost hear the wind going out of their sails, can’t you? The Pharisees and Herodians are amazed. There is nothing more they can say, so they turn and walk away. Those who are gathered around Jesus are left to ponder what this all means. At first, it seems as if he has foiled his opponents once again with a “both/and” answer to their “either/or” question.
But an unspoken question hangs in the air: If the image stamped on a coin determines whose it is, what has God’s image stamped on it? The Herodians and the Pharisees may have already left, but a deeper truth begins to dawn on the rest of us as we remember the story of Creation from Genesis:
“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
You belong to God, for you were made in God’s image. God created you to bear his own divine likeness. Your purpose, your calling, is to bear that image into the world as a constant reminder that God’s kingdom has a higher claim on each of us than this broken world of ours has.
Some have used this passage to defend the separation of church and state. That isn’t what Jesus is talking about. Some insist that this is another one of Christ’s lessons on the proper place of money in our lives. It isn’t. This lesson isn’t even really about money at all.
It’s about recognizing the image of God when we see it in one another, and calling attention to that image as a reminder that God is very present, even when we feel the most oppressed or threatened by the world around us. When Jesus says, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” he’s reminding us that all we are and all we have belongs to the one who created us, the one who loves us more than we can ever imagine.
At another time in Jewish history, another oppressive regime ruled over the nation of Israel. The prophet Isaiah described the love of God to people who had given up all hope, who were certain that God had abandoned them forever. We read in Isaiah 49:15-16,
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.
Not only do you bear the image of God, you have been inscribed on the palms of God’s hands. Not only are you inscribed on the Creator’s hands, but also on the hands of Christ, those hands that bear the marks of death on a cross for our sakes.
Sometimes the image we bear may be difficult to recognize. It may be distorted by the world’s inscriptions on our lives – what we wear or drive or eat, how we live and whose opinions we value. But under all those inscriptions is a deeper mark. It is the mark of the cross, drawn on us at our baptism, on Ash Wednesday, and at the time of our death. It is the mark that says, “You belong to the God who formed you, who loves you, who will not let you go.”
This is why we say, here at Willmar United Methodist Church, that we are centered in Christ. We bear the image of Christ to the world around us, and how we bear that image determines how willing others may be to receive the good news that Jesus died for their sins and wants to give them eternal life.
This is our primary identity: we are the beloved children of God. That identity is the filter through which we make all our decisions. It is the standard against which we must measure all our choices. Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. But give to God the things that are God’s.
Now, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by increasing your pledge or your commitment to service in the church. As much as I would love to see your deepening faith expressed in these ways, I’m not asking any of those things.
I’m simply asking you to remember that you are the image of God shining out into the world, and the people you encounter every day, whether you like them or not, whether you approve of their actions or political opinions or theological beliefs – they also bear the image of God to you. Look for it. Recognize it. Know that someone is looking to you, often when you least expect it, to find that image and see it as a reminder that God has each of us marked on the palms of his hands.
Our identity as beloved children of God, bearing God’s own image, shapes our behavior and our thinking. It urges us to become the people Christ calls us to be, centered on Christ, offering Christ, doing all things through Christ, to the glory of God the Father.