We are back to following Matthew’s story of Jesus on his way to Jerusalem after diverting to Luke for last Sunday’s Thanksgiving gospel reading.  So, a quick re-cap.  It’s now a couple of days after Palm Sunday, the day Jesus is hailed by the people as the Son of David, a prophet, a king.  Hosannas were sung to him in the streets as he passed by.  The day after Palm Sunday, Jesus ‘cleanses the temple’ — he overturned the tables of the money changers and the sellers of doves for turning the house of God into a sham, a marketplace.  Then he spends the next two days at this temple, teaching, telling parables and performing healings.  And the people—children and adults continue to proclaim hosannas in his name for the amazing things Jesus is teaching and the miracles he is performing.  

So, how do you think the Pharisees, the chief priests and the elders of the temple are feeling about Jesus, this upstart of a rabbi?  He has interfered with how the business in the temple was done.  And you can bet the temple leadership got a cut from the businesses around the temple whose tables Jesus overturned.  He was teaching in the temple, and was putting new ideas into people’s heads as to how to interpret the scriptures and live out their faith.  He called out the Pharisees to look into their own leadership of the temple using parables that pointed out, shall we say, less than ideal behaviours on their part.  

So, Jesus challenged the religious status quo, the temple leader’s financial security and their authority and power over the members of the temple.  And he seems to be getting increasingly more support from the people.  The leadership feels threatened by Jesus, and are looking to neutralize the threat, but are afraid of inciting a riot because of his popularity with the people.   The chief priests of the Jewish temple, these Pharisees need more clout on their side, so they go to the supporters of Herod, who was the Roman appointed King of Judea, ‘Herodians’ Matthew calls them.  You have to appreciate that this is really a very strange partnership, Jews and Roman politicians—unheard of!  Together they plan to trap Jesus into indicting himself in a very public forum.  And even more interestingly, the temple leadership don’t go themselves to Jesus, but send some of their own disciples instead. 

They pretend to be sincere in their desire to understand:   ‘Teacher we know you teach the truth about God’s will for the people…’ –you can almost hear the sarcasm dripping from each word —  ‘So tell us,  what do you think, is it against our Law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not?’   And you know, you have to give them credit, it’s a good question!   They think they have Jesus between a rock and a hard place, if he says yes, it is against Jewish law –the Law of Moses–to pay taxes– they have him for insurrection against the Roman government, if he says no, Jews should pay taxes to Caesar, they have him for contravening the Law of Moses.    

Jesus, ‘is aware of their malice’, their evil intentions, and he knows where this is going.   And Jesus, being Jesus, sidesteps their question, and poses to them another question—which gets to the unspoken heart of the matter—the elephant in the room, as it were, forcing them to look at where their hearts are in this matter.  Why are you testing me?   Then he asks for a ‘coin used for the tax’: And no, Jesus didn’t have a Roman coin with him.  Jews weren’t to keep Roman coins, because Roman coins had the image, the likeness of the current Roman Emperor on them—Caesar, the Divine Emperor, Saviour of the People.  This truly was the way that the Caesars of the Roman Empire insisted they be thought of, rulers by Divine right!   That of course was complete anathema to the Jews—an absolute no-no—only God was Almighty and Divine, only God was Sovereign, only the Lord God Almighty, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, could be the people’s Saviour.  To believe and act otherwise went completely against all their teachings.  The Jews had their own currency—the shekel, which was the currency used by the Temple.  Shekels had no likenesses, no images of any people on them.    But Roman taxes—which everyone in the Roman Empire paid, had to be paid in Roman coin, which is why the temple had money changers, because the Temples couldn’t accept Roman coins.  And the Temple, of course, was the centre of Jewish life.   

So, they bring Jesus a denarius—a silver coin equivalent to about a day’s pay for an unskilled labourer or a foot soldier.  Jesus asks whose image, whose title is on this coin — in other words to whom does this coin belong? And much like today’s currency still has, the coin has the head of state’s image on it.  The Emperor Caesar’s likeness was on the denarius.  Jesus responds:  ‘Therefore give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.’   An absolutely brilliant response, the Herodians and the Jews go away amazed.  Their plot was foiled.  The Herodians, the politicians cannot claim Jesus is preaching insurrectionism against the state, and the Pharisees cannot claim Jesus is speaking anything but religious truths. 

Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s:  and give to God the things that are God’s.   According to one biblical commentator “… the Greek word that is (very simply) translated to ‘give’ in English… means to ‘give what is due by obligation.’ ” [1]  So it seems pretty clear then, that we owe loyalty and obligation to both the emperor, ie. the government and God.  Let’s explore that for a moment.    

Over the centuries, this piece of scripture has been used to justify that it is right and good for people to pay taxes to the government, and also to pay their tithe, or a percentage of their income to the Church, for the work of God in our community, indeed around the world.  And you know in one way that just makes logical and practical sense; without financial support governments and churches cannot do the work they need to do.   These are institutions created by the people, arguably, for the good and care of all.  But I think the point Jesus is making goes beyond that, and gets to the heart of the matter.   He’s broadening the discussion, beyond simply paying taxes or tithing or donating.  He’s challenging them to consider the guiding principles, the values that determined not just how to handle money, but where our true allegiance lies.

If the coins that belonged to the emperor, bore the image of the emperor, where do we look to find the image of God, and how to know what belongs to God?  So I pulled some money out of my wallet, and realized we need look no farther than our own currency to see the images of our own “Emperors”, the faces of our government.  That got me thinking about the face of God, which is so immense, it’s beyond our capacity to see, God couldn’t even reveal it to Moses, as our first reading tells us.   So where do we find other images of God?

Well, this got me thinking about the images of God in the Bible, and I made a list, just off the top of my head.  And I’m sure I’ve missed some that you can think of and could add to mine.  The Lord is my shepherd, the rock of our salvation, a potter and we are the clay, the eagle under whose wings we are born up, God as husband, father, nursing mother.  Jesus spoke of himself as the vine and we are the branches, the gate through which we pass, the light in the darkness, a mother hen wanting to gather her chicks under her for protection.  These images are powerful and comforting, images we can bring to our minds when we need God’s comforting presence, when we are searching for the ways of Jesus in a world that can overwhelm us and lose us in the midst of all that’s happening in it.  And where do we fit in to all of this, we whom Genesis tells us, were created in the image of God? (Genesis 1.27)   If the coins that belonged to the Emperor bore the Emperor’s image and were of course made by the emperor, than we who were made by God, who bear the image of God, we of course belong to God.  

And we pay the Emperor aka the government, what is due to the government, what do we use, what do we do to pay our obligation to the Almighty God, to the one who created us?  What do we owe God?  Well, put like that, if we truly believe as we discussed last week that “All things come of thee O Lord… ”, then it stands to reason that we owe God everything!  Which means God even supersedes the Emperor, the government—regardless of what is stamped on the currency.  That is to say, regardless of what the Empire, what society tries to teach us is truth, the ways of God, the teachings of Jesus are primary!  So clearly, God is to come first in our lives, before anything else.  Which harkens us back to the first and great commandment that Jesus taught:   “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength.”  And if we consider the second of the great commandments which stems from the first:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.” we do essentially know what we, as people of faith, are to have as the guiding principles of our lives.  Our primary obligation to God, the creator of heaven and earth, is to put God first in our lives; God’s will for us is to be our primary focus, above all else—even the Emperor’s!  And we show our love for God by caring for others the way we would wish to be cared for and about.

I will end with the beautiful and poetic words of the prophet Micah, who wrote centuries before Jesus’ birth:   “… the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6.8 NLT)

The Rev’d JoAnn Todd, Rector The Regional Ministry of Hope

[1] Marvin A. McMickle. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4 (WJK Press. Louisville: KY. 20011 Homiletical Perspective for Matt 22. 15-22, p. 192