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October 22, 2023

I rarely carry actual money anymore.  Almost everything is done digitally.  I Venmo my friend for my half of dinner.  I have my offering to the church set up online.  Apple Pay takes one glance at my face to make a virtual payment.  I love the convenience of all of those methods, but sometimes it strikes me as weird – how I’m losing a sense of money as a tangible thing that we can hold in our hands.  I wonder sometimes how this changes my relationship with money.

Jesus, of course, does not have Venmo– which would have it more difficult for the local leaders to try to trap him in the way they attempt in today’s gospel.  They lived in a world where money was often a tool of control by the Roman Empire.  Taxation was not just a way that the Empire raised funds for the people at the top of the food chain; it was also a way to oppress people who had the least power.

Remember that Jesus is still in the temple in Jerusalem.  His time is running out, and these various groups of leaders are looking for ways to gather incriminating evidence against him.  So, as we hear, they plot to entrap him.

It’s worth noting that the alliance between the Pharisees and the Herodians was a strange one.  The Pharisees generally opposed the Roman Empire, and the Herodians were more willing to work with the Romans.  But their mutual disdain for Jesus brought these two groups together.

They begin, as deceivers often do, with flattery: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth.”  And then they ask the trickiest of trick questions: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  If Jesus answers yes, that the Jews should pay taxes to the emperor, then it sounds like he is favoring Roman oppression and renouncing Jewish identity.  But to say no would be to encourage tax evasion and sedition, which would very quickly put him in danger with the Roman authorities.

Both the Pharisees and the Herodians know exactly what they were doing here.  The Pharisees might have been opposed to Roman rule, but they had been negotiating with the Empire for decades.  The Herodians didn’t always love Roman rule, but they were perfectly willing to cozy up to the Empire’s power if it served their political and economic interests.  Both groups knew the consequences of directly defying the Roman Empire.  So when Jesus calls them hypocrites, it’s an accurate condemnation.

Jesus asks them for the coin used to pay the tax, and they produce one. The coin they offer up most likely carried the image of the emperor Tiberius.  He ruled Rome at the time, from about 14 to 37 AD.  One side of the coin would have named Tiberius as “the son of the divine Augustus,” essentially granting him a god-like status.  The other side probably honored him as the “Pontifex Maximus,” the chief priest of the many Roman gods.  Both sides of that coin pointed to the emperor’s ultimate power, both political and divine.

By asking them to produce the coin, Jesus already shows that they are willing to carry around a graven image.  That coin, with Tiberius’ image carved onto its face, was a version of an idol, which these leaders shouldn’t have been carrying around in the first place – and certainly not in the temple.

And then Jesus lays it out: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

It’s not an easy calculus, even if Jesus tries to make it sound that way.  Because if we’re being honest, all things come from God and belong to God.  God is our creator and provider, so even when we are tangled up in necessary systems of government and laws and – yes, even taxes – we try to stay mindful that God is the source of our being.

Our political leaders are not gods.  I suspect that doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone here.  So our rendering unto Caesar is always less important than what we render to God.  To live as Christians in a politically complex world means we we live out what is compassionate and merciful and life-giving, even when it demands sacrifice, even when it is not politically expedient.

That image of Tiberius on the Roman coin takes me back to the beginning of scripture, to the book of Genesis.  After God has created the wonders of the world – trees and plants, animals of sea and sky and land, stars in the heavens, the sun and the moon – God creates people.  We hear that “God created humankind in God’s image.”  From the beginning of your life God’s thumbprint has been on you.  You are uniquely you because God made you that way.  You are a walking-around coin of God’s kingdom.  And so is everyone else.

We have seen in the last two weeks some of the worst versions of the evil that human beings can inflict on each other.  The slaughter, torture, and kidnapping of Jewish civilians, many of them children and young people, by the terrorist group Hamas.  The death of innocent civilians in the subsequent bombings of Gaza.

We’ve seen that evil at work in our own country too.  A 6-year-old boy in Chicago killed by his landlord simply because the boy was Muslim, his mother critically wounded.

I checked in this week with a dear college friend, who is Jewish.  He said to me: “I assume 25% of the people in the world would prefer me dead and another large percent wouldn’t raise a finger to save me.”  His words broke my heart all over again.

So our Muslim neighbors and our Jewish neighbors, both here and around the world, are living in fear each and every day.  They ask: Will this be the day that I pay the ultimate price simply for living my faith, for being who I am?

I know most of us feel powerless to shape global events, and that kind of helplessness can quickly lead to despair. But I am convinced that it makes a difference for us to look at each person we encounter on a daily basis and say, “That person is created in the image of God…That person is created by God to be uniquely beautiful, uniquely who they are…That person is a walking coin of God’s realm.”  When we see each other in this way, it becomes harder to hold animosity and resentment in our hearts.  It becomes easier to care for each other with love and compassion.  It urges us to speak and act in solidarity with those who are being persecuted.

This is hard and holy work.  And I often have more questions than answers.  But we can bring those questions to God too – in our prayers, in our laments, in our crying out for hope.

Give to God what is God’s, Jesus tells us.  A reminder that all that we have comes from God.

But may we receive with reverence what is also God’s – the gift of each other’s lives, shaped by God’s holy hand.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

Sources:

https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3627
https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29/commentary-on-matthew-2215-22-6
https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29/commentary-on-matthew-2215-22
https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2787-what-belongs-to-god
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Join the fun this summer as we experience the ride of a lifetime with God!

Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.

Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm

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