Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 18 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

We get a bit of a break from difficult parables this Sunday, and we return to the setting in which these parables are being told—the Temple precints, where Jesus is discussing and disputing theological points with an apparently mixed group of people. Here, at least according to Matthew, a somewhat improbable alliance of some religiously observant Pharisees, and some supporters of the Roman client king Herod Antipas, try to catch Jesus out in front of the crowd by asking him a no-win question about paying the Roman head-tax. This was one of several taxes which the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judea would have paid, but it was one which was particularly unpopular among those groups opposed to the Roman military occupation, so speaking in favour of paying the tax would have alienated some groups; on the other hand, refusing to pay taxes, or counselling such refusal, was illegal. So Jesus is, or at least so his questioners assume, going to make himself unpopular with someone or get himself in some kind of trouble, no matter what he says.

And, typically, Jesus refuses to engage with the question as asked. Rather, he asks his questioners to show him a coin. This is where the location of this incident becomes very important. It’s likely that the Pharisees, at least, knew exactly where this was going as soon as he said that, and probably realized right away that they had lost the argument. The Herodians, perhaps not. We do not know who handed over the coin, although it would be tidier if it were a Pharisee, but in any case Jesus takes it, studies it, and asks, probably in a deliberately neutral tone, whose head that is engraved upon it.

It is, of course, Caesar; it is, in all probability, Tiberius Caesar proclaiming himself to be the son of a god, since that would have featured on the most common kind of denarius. It is a graven idol, in the Temple precincts. A violation of the Jewish prohibition on images, and even more than that, the image of a Roman ruler setting himself up in competition with the one unnameable God whose glory cannot be seen by human eyes. Carrying that coin, especially in that place, was an offense. The Pharisees, at least, knew very well that it was an offense, and that they were condemned, as it were, out of their own purses. So Jesus’ next line could be read as meaning, well, look at this, you have already sold yourself to Caesar. If you belong to him, if you are Caesar’s property, you should probably just pay him your tribute tax and not complain, right?

It’s a bit of a gotcha moment, upon which perhaps more significance has been piled than the line was ever meant to bear. Jesus was certainly not laying out a political analysis detailing a secular realm, in which we owe duties to the secular authorities, and a separate religious realm, in which we are free to follow God; quite the opposite, if anything. As some of you know, my relationship with the secular authorities is complex, and not always one of obedience; on the other hand, I’m a great fan of fair taxation as a means of redistributing resources more equally, and I’d be happy enough if I could use this story to support that position, but I really don’t think I can.

Rather, if this is anything other than a snappy retort, the claim it stakes is absolute. For there is an image stamped upon each of us, in our deepest being, and that image is the image of God, in which we are made, in which we find the truth of our selves. We can sell that truth to Caesar, yes. We always have that choice. We can hand ourselves over to the powers of the world, to greed and violence and competition, to exclusion and hatred, to the relentless quest for more, to the fear which makes us want to destroy the other, the different, the weak. Caesar’s coinage is occupation and oppression; it is war and environmental devastation, it is racism, homophobia and transphobia, it is the small mean world of resentment and cruelty. We can carry that image in our purses and our pockets and our hearts.

But we are, finally, not Caesar’s creatures, and to live as if we are is to violate that divine image within us. We are God’s creation. We are the children of the infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering God who came to us in flesh, and it is to this God we must strive to give ourselves, over and over every day, as wholly as we can. In service, in love, in the struggle for justice, in the offering of our own fragile selves to others, we give to God what is God’s own.

So we need to avoid the kind of dichotomy which proposes that Caesar has a proper realm alongside God’s realm, a legitimate claim on any part of our lives, for Caesar has no such claim. But we also have to avoid another dichotomy, the one which condemns the secular world in its entirety, and sees it as set against the church in its entirety. For there is much in the world which expresses the image of God, much grace aand beauty, deep hope for a better world; and a good deal in the church which expresses the values of Caesar. There is no one simple answer. At each moment, in each choice, we need to ask, whose image is this, and whose title? It is the work of prayer and discernment, and the work of resistance, and it is the work of a whole life. It is about what we do with our money, and what we do with our bodies, and what we do with our souls. All of it, given to us in our creation, given back by us to God, and to the world and the creatures which God made and eternally loves. It is worship and protest and dance and care; it is singing and tending and loving and speaking truth. It is all that we are.

Of course, we are always compromised; we can never, in this world, be wholly as we should. Historians mostly, though not entirely, agree that the Romans demanded that the head tax be paid in Roman coinage, and most people were not able to take on the level of suffering which would be caused to themselves and their families by resisting that tax, so nearly everyone did have to handle Caesar’s coins. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, there is a charming and rarely-mentioned story in which Jesus manages to pay the Temple tax, while remaining unentangled in the money economy, by sending his disciples to catch a fish which, miraculously, has in its mouth a coin of the exact value necessary; but most of us cannot manage quite such clever strategies. We have sold ourselves, in part; we are partly owed to Caesar, and it damages us every day, in ways we cannot easily or entirely avoid.

It’s important to acknowledge this—and Jesus is hard on the Pharisees here precisely because they did not, because they presented themselves, at least according to the somewhat partisan gospel accounts, as an unflawed model of religious observance and obedience, all the while carrying Caesar’s coins. Probably not all the Pharisees are like this; but probably we, sometimes, are. We are not to give up because we are not, because we cannot be, perfect in our self-offering; nor are we to believe ourselves better than the person beside us. We are called to try, each day, each moment, to offer more of ourselves to God, and less to Caesar; that stringent and serious and never-finished work which is finally joy, which is finally the discovery of the full selves we were created to be. Which is, for all the struggles, the source of our life.

From the rocks, we glimpse, like lightning, the glory of God. And we know that the image of that glory is within us, is our shape and meaning, and it is towards that glory that we tend. We receive the bread of life, and offer ourselves as bread to the world, and Caesar, finally, has no power. In the rocks, in the desert, in the Temple precints, in our offering we are made free.