What Belongs to God? 10/22/17

Matthew 22:15-22  Then the Pharisees went off and began to plot how they might trap Jesus by his speech. They sent their disciples to Jesus, accompanied by sympathizers of Herod, who said, “Teacher, we know you’re honest and teach God’s way sincerely. You court no one’s favor and don’t act  out of respect for important people. Give us your opinion, then, in this case, Is it lawful to pay tax to the Roman emperor, or not?” Jesus recognized their bad faith and said to them, “Why are you trying to trick me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin which is used to pay the tax. When they handed Jesus a small Roman coin. Jesus asked them, “Whose head is this, and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. At that, Jesus said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were astonished and went away.

Oct 22, 2017

What Belongs to God?

Part 1: DT  I was showing the world how to live when I was in my 20’s. I thought I knew better than just about anybody how to live and what to do. I wasn’t making enough to have to pay taxes, so I thought nobody should pay taxes. I was vegetarian so I thought nobody should eat meat. I was working to change the world and I could hardly understand why everybody wasn’t doing the same thing as I was doing.

As I started to peek out of my self-righteous work, I kept running into United Methodist pastors who seemed to be doing good things in the world. I had grown up United Methodist, so I noticed them in particular, even though I had left the church several years earlier while I was in college. One of the Methodist pastors I met was the chaplain at Drexel University, Rev. Dean Snyder. I thought he might be able to help me get a job, so I went to him for advice.

I talked to him on his porch in West Philly, just a block from where I live now. He seemed a little amused at my youth and self-righteousness. He said, “I predict that within 5 years, you will be using a credit card and wearing a 3 piece suit!”

I was appalled and said there was no way. I was quite sure I would never use a credit card and a suit just seemed absurd. But he was right. Within 5 years I used a credit card quite regularly. It might have taken a little longer before I stooped to buying a suit to get married in, but I still have that suit and I still wear it from time to time.

I came to realize that I wasn’t going to get away with not paying taxes – even if some of the money went to wars I disagreed with or causes I disagreed with. So I live a compromised life. If Jesus asked me for a coin, I could show it to him.


Part 2: Joanne. Our passage this week is Matthew’s account of the first of three debates between Jesus and the Pharisees and the Sadducees in their plot to trap him!

The question they pose is beyond clever, asking Jesus whether it was lawful to pay the poll or imperial tax that funded Roman occupation.  If Jesus answers yes, the adoration of the crowds would likely not simply evaporate, but rather be turned into opposition.  If he answers negatively, however, then he will have positioned himself over and against the Romans, never a wise thing to do.  So they’ve got him trapped…. Right?? …… Of course not, Jesus the consummate debater flips the script and transfigures the challenge to a theological question and uses it to instead disclose something about them and us!   Don’t you hate when that happens??   I’m sure they did!

As clever as their question is, Jesus’ response is ingenious leading to an exchange that is as revealing as it is brief. After asking if any of his questioners has a coin of the Empire – the only coin that could be used to pay the tax in question – they quickly reach in their pocket and pull one out. The coin is damning in itself because of what it says.

Jesus asks whose image is on it, and they answer “The Emperor’s.” But there’s more ….along with the image is an inscription Tiberius Caesar, august and divine son of August, high priest: a confession of Caesar’s divinity.  These words also spoke of oppression and blasphemy.  Jesus’s adversaries shaped their question as a political quandary and anticipated a political response.

But clever Jesus, skillfully and quickly widens the question so that it has little to do with politics and even less threat of arrest.  He crafts his response around a question that he never actually asks: What is it that bears God’s image?  “No one can serve two masters” (Matt 6:24) …. Basically none of us are exempt from the discernment of choosing what belongs to whom.

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” With this one sentence, Jesus does not just evade their trap or confound their plans, but issues a challenge to his hearers that reverberates through the ages.   His answer is ambiguous – wouldn’t you agree??  What we want to hear in this answer is him describing two separate but parallel duties ….an answer to both our civic and faith based obligations in two nice, neat tidy categories.  BUT – it isn’t – what Jesus usually sets out to do is provoke thought …. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but Jesus clearly means to make us think about what really belongs to God is – which is — EVERYTHING!


DT Part 3: Everything belongs to God. We all belong to God – so how do we render to God what is God’s, when we all are carrying the coin of the realm, owing so much of ourselves to Caesar? We all are compromised in more ways than we want to admit, All of us fall short even of our already compromised ideals.

As I thought about compromised situations I sometimes find myself in these days, I thought about a POWER march that I walked in this past summer. A thousand some people – were marching down Broad St. protesting the rise of blatant white supremacy in Charlottesville. People were angry about a woman being killed by an unrepentant man ramming into a group of protestors.

As we marched down the street, I was next to a flatbed truck that had a loudspeaker with people leading various chants. Most of the chants and slogans had me chanting as enthusiastically as the rest of the crowd, but one chant made me feel a little compromised myself. Someone started chanting “No good cops in a racist system. No good cops in a racist system.”

I understood what they meant. I understood that they were trying to get people to question how security systems in our society are constantly bent toward protecting white people at the expense of people of color. You may agree with that or not, but I did not feel like it was a wise or helpful slogan, especially when we had police marching right alongside us helping to protect the march and our right of free speech.

I started walking with one of the officers who was walking with us and I kind of apologized for the chant that I felt was insulting him. He looked at me and said, “Oh, I hear worse than that every day!” He wasn’t taking it personally. He was doing his job.

He may or may not recognize how he was personally compromised at times, how he sometimes has to defend things that he does not agree with. He had a job to do and I admired his ability to do it even when he sometimes did not receive respect or recognition that he is a human being too.

God claims us all – no matter how we are broken or compromised – and we all are broken and compromised.


Part 4: Joanne – Compromise – Merriam Webster define compromise as: a) settlement of differences by arbitration or by consent reached by mutual concession b) a concession to something derogatory or prejudicial, a compromise of principles.


We all have fine lines to walk in negotiating the commerce that fills our daily life,


Notice that despite the fact that Jesus’ opponents carry a coin with a graven image and confession of Caesar’s divinity, Jesus accuses them of neither blasphemy nor disloyalty. Instead, he calls them hypocrites, those who have quite literally taken to wearing another, and false, likeness. So perhaps the real charge against those trying to trap or discount Jesus in that conversation or even now is best understood as amnesia, a lapse of memory, forgetfulness of who they are, in whose likeness they were made.


Caesar will produce many coins with his image and will get many coins and be flattered.   What he collects or doesn’t a reflection of his power.  But what is rendered to God is whatever bears God’s divine image.  Every one of our lives, including Caesar, the Pharisees, the Herodian’s and the Roman’s is marked with God’s divine inscription and the image of God.  We bear God’s image, just as the palm of God’s hand bears ours.   It is true that sometimes that image can be difficult to recognize.  When we look in a mirror, when we look at each other, we have the tendency to see the inscription that our business in the world has left on us.  You are what you look like…. you are what you wear…. you are what you do….the company you keep.  The chanters along the march …. Tagging the image of racist based on the uniform worn by the officer and the work that he does to make a living.   But underneath these images and inscriptions, is the image God sees, the watery mark etched on us at our baptism.  We bear God’s likeness and are therefore made to be more than we sometimes realize.


Jesus love us all, all God’s children are of sacred value, the broken and cracked, the compromised, the Pharisees holding that coin, pastors, cops, gamblers, church folks, Jesus kept company with, ate meals with prostitutes, tax collectors, addicts, pornographers, movie moguls. What Jesus gives us in the simple through provoking response is a reminder of our primary identity, helping us to see who we are and whose we are.   A prompt to reorient ourselves again and again to God’s way.

Responsive hymn                        2172 We Are Called