Pentecost + 20a
22-10-2017 Bridgewater Mt 22 15-33
Jesus lived in a time and place when the Romans said that everyone should respect their leader, the Emperor, as a god. Say the wrong thing about the Emperor in public, and you’re in trouble. Today, we’ve seen some enemies of Jesus, Pharisees, trying to trick him into doing just that; to say something about the Emperor that the Roman governor would think was blasphemous.
The Pharisees ask Jesus a question about paying taxes to Rome. It’s a very tricky question. It’s asked in a way that can only have a yes or a no answer. They try to make sure that however Jesus answers it, he’ll be in trouble. If he says yes you should pay taxes to the Roman emperor, his own people will hate him. If he says no you shouldn’t, he’ll be arrested by the Roman soldiers.
But Jesus surprises them with a question of his own; a question about the coin they had to use to pay those taxes. ‘Show me the coin’, he says. And they do. That’s a surprise. Those scrupulously religious people had a Roman coin in the Temple precinct. Think about it; they’re in God’s house and someone there has a coin with a graven image of a false god on it; an image of the Emperor who the Romans said all should worship as god. Remember the first commandment?
6 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7 you shall have no other gods before me. 8 You shall not make for yourself a graven image, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; Dt 5:6–9
Jesus has just shown everyone with eyes to see that these people with their trick question are hypocrites. No-one really serious about their faith would keep one of these coins. But they’ve just shown him one.
Jesus asks them, 20 “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
If you look at the coin, you’ll see a graven image of the emperor’s head, and around it is written “Tiberius Caesar, August son of the divine Augustus, and on the other side, high priest.” So the writing on this coin says this is an image of a god who the Hebrew Scriptures say is false. And how do we know it is false? People experienced this false god through his money and the oppression he used to gather it. We meet the true God through the living, free gift of this creation. False gods always take. The true God always gives;.
So when Jesus tells them “Give …to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” he’s saying the emperor can keep his deluded propaganda. Jesus reminds the Pharisees and everyone there that they and we bear the image of the true God; we belong to the true God.
The Pharisees had tried to trick Jesus into saying something that would divide him from his own people. His answer showed that they’d actually divided themselves between two gods. The enemy is often called the divider. This reminds us of what he said earlier, back in chapter 6.24, “No one can serve two masters; … You cannot serve God and wealth.” Today, he warns the Pharisees that they are doing just that.
One of the really terrible things that happens when a powerful people controls a weaker ones is that the people under the boot will often fight each other, and not the people who have enslaved them. They lose sight of hope; they can’t imagine freedom from the big power. Instead, they fight each other for the little scraps of power they can get hold of.
Jesus knew this was what was happening to the Pharisees and he wouldn’t join in that self-destructive game. Instead, he reminded them that we all bear God’s image and likeness – he showed us the way back to God.
Whatever happens to us, one thing is sure; we always belong to God. Not even death can separate us from the love of God – Jesus was going to show that with his own death.
The Pharisees’ question was clever and it reflected what life was like for them. But in the end, it wasn’t a real question. It only revealed how sad their situation was. Jesus gave them back the main question; ‘What do we owe God.’ And then he lived and died the answer, so when he rose again, we would know where the strength comes from if we are to name evil and be set free from its divisive power.
Today, we’re pondering this question for ourselves; what do we owe God. The answer, of course, is everything – our lives, our families, our gifts and talents, our character, our prosperity; everything. We owe God everything we have and everything we are.
Jesus calls us to remember that we bear the image of God. That means we don’t just own our gifts and talents, our character, our time and our plenty; no, it means we behave with them in the way God behaves – and that’s with a sense of abundance. How do we do that? The example of Jesus is clear – though he was in the form of God, [he] didn’t regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…Phil 2.6-7a
A time to look together at the inventory – Review and renew
Disciples of Jesus, our life as Christ’s Church remains true to the people we are. Our life as Christ’s Church truly proclaims Christ to the world where our gifts and talents, our time and our plenty are shared so that the world can continue to experience God’s abundance. Amen