Toorak Uniting Church

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Whose Face do you Wear?

Psalm 96   Matthew 22: 15 – 22
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
16 October 2011

"Let us not be satisfied with just giving money. Money is not enough, money can be got, but they need your hearts to love them. So, spread your love everywhere you go."

Mother Teresa

Religion and money had often had an uncomfortable relationship. From the often misquoted, "the love of money is the root of all evil" from the first letter of Timothy to the passage from the book of the Acts of the Apostle where the members of the infant Christian community were exhorted to, "sell their property and possessions and to give the proceed to anyone who had need," it has been difficult to work out a healthy relationship between money and faith.

Of course remember we are the followers of an itinerant preacher/healer of whom it is said that he had no place to lay his head. And Jesus like many of the great sages of history saw that an attachment to wealth and the mistaken belief that those who dies with the most money win, was nothing more than a cruel fallacy.

I don’t think there is anything intrinsically evil about money and money, coins, paper notes are in fact just promissory notes. Their value depends of many factors, and perhaps the most important one is trust, faith in the current economic system as any financial trader will tell you. So wealth itself isn’t of itself evil or even to be shunned, but a little observation of life will show that wealth like all human endeavours - government, learning, community, etc. need to be formed and shaped by our morals, ethics and values, but that is a sermon for another time.

Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s…..
Today we look at that oft quoted passage attributed to Jesus, and I will use the words of the King James Bible, "Then he said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." Always helpful to gain a little authority by using the KJV! Some have used this passage to argue that Jesus said Christians should pay their taxes. Well I not going to suggest that we shouldn’t pay our taxes, but that’s not really what this story is about. Like many of the parables and stories of Jesus, he uses the stuff of life. Jesus did not use ethereal illustrations to deliver his message, he used what was around him, what was in the world and in the culture, to illustrate a much big picture and deeper meaning of life.

The context of this passage and much of the Gospel stories is the tension and conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities; the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and here in this story the Herodians, those who represented the Herod the King and the royal court. Each of these religious groups is in the invidious position of collaborating with the enemy. You see the land of Palestine into which Jesus was born was under the rule of the Romans. The Roman Empire controlled every aspect of the lives of these Hebrew people from the top down.

But for reasons that we are only beginning to understand Jesus and later his followers were not willing to bow the knee to the Empire. And it was more than just that this was a foreign empire; it seems that Jesus was in fact against all empires because he had a through commitment to what he call "the Kingdom of God or the Empire of God." It doesn’t take too much to see that that statement, allegiance to the "Empire of God" in an authoritarian society is treasonous. Jesus was not crucified solely because he preached a gospel of love, but because he preached the overthrow of Caesar.

So, the story tells us that these religious authorities, for their own reasons wanted to entrap Jesus. They saw him as a usurper who had a strong following particularly among those in Northern Palestine and they used what they could to trick him into making a treasonous statement.

"Then one the Herodians asks Jesus, Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?"

Umm! I think I said a few weeks ago that I wished when I was asked a question about my beliefs, or some particular doctrine, where the questioner is demanding a yes or no answer that I could say, "let me tell you a story." Unfortunately, in our literal and rationalistic society that response is seen as avoidance or just not answering the question. But for many questions there are not simple yes or no answers and to demand one is simplistic and reductionist.

Sadly, that’s probably where we are in our politics today. If a Politician can’t give an answer to the question in ten monosyllabic words in ten seconds then we’re not interested. I think if a politician said in response to a question, "let me tell you a story…" the electorate may start looking for another representative. But personally and I hope within in the bigger picture, I am and we are more interested in the subtleties where truth is most often found. The poet Emily Dickinson certainly got it right when she said, "Tell the truth, but tell it slant…the truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind."

Render unto God that which belongs to God
This question to Jesus was a set up. They really didn’t want a thoughtful explanation on the intricacies of tax law. So how will Jesus respond? Well there is only one place from which the answers to life’s questions come and that is from life itself:

So Jesus, aware of their malice said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you are the hypocrites? Show me the coin you used to pay your taxes." And they brought him a denarius. Then Jesus said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?"

Jesus asks the question to whom does this coin belong? You may think it belongs to you, but in fact it belongs to the regimen that honours this money. Remember that taxes were used very differently in the first century then they are today in a twentieth century democracy. This coin, these taxes are not used to support education, health care and the myriad other enterprises within a welfare state like ours; yes they were used to build roads and other infrastructure but primarily to move armies for one place to another. And also in an agrarian society like the one Jesus is a part of taxes hurt the poor much more than the rich.

But that’s not really the point here. As I began, this story is not really about taxation. It’s about two things; first, how Jesus gets out of a tricky situation - it’s a wisdom story and demonstrates the wisdom of Jesus and secondly, it’s about whose face is printed on whom.

"Whose head is on this, and whose title is this?" They answered, "The emperor’s of course." Then he said to them, "Well give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that belong to God."

What image is printed on our coins? We often put the ruler’s image on our coins - Queen Elizabeth II on Australian coins, Canadian and British. On American coins it isn’t the "ruling" president, but at times a past president – Abraham Lincoln or the like. But I think if we follow the analogy that Jesus has created by holding this coin before his questioners, we see that he is saying, "It is very clear whose image is on this money and we know who it belongs to, but whose image is on you, to whom do you belong?"

I suggest that Jesus is saying, it’s not about the money, it’s not about the taxes and more dangerously, it is not even about Caesar, it’s about the "image" that names you, that is stamped upon you. It’s about living into a life that is nourished and nurtured by a loving God, not by a cruel empire and when you focus on that then the money, taxes and the Caesar things of life will work themselves out. As the words quoted from Mother Teresa on the front of the Order of Service say:

"Let us not be satisfied with just giving money. Money is not enough, money can be got, but they need your hearts to love them. So, spread your love everywhere you go."

Get your priorities right.
I heard a story some time ago that may illustrates this point:

In the 18th century George Fox, the famous Quaker and pacifist was asked by a soldier who came into his congregation if he could wear his sword. "Yes" Fox replied, "Wear it as long as you can."

There’s a profound subtlety it that. It is truth told on the slant and illustrates how important it is to live into the truth rather than just live by the truth. I think Jesus was clear that what he called the "Kingdom of God" works from the inside out, not the other way around. For a religion like Christianity that celebrates reconciliation with the Holy, with God; freedom of the Spirit and liberation for all kinds of bondage, it seems strange that so much of our religion is imposed on us through duty, rules, doctrines and regulations. Whereas we would do so much better if we had just a little more faith that the power of the face or the "image" of God within us and upon us, could do more transforming work than all the clever rules that the world and religion use to bind us.

Perhaps we could change the order of the story before us this morning; Render upon God that which is God’s, which is simple, because everything belongs the God and what is left render unto Caesar.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2011

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