Isaiah 45:1-7 Psalm 96 1 Thessalonians 1
Matthew 22:15-22 Preached by Anna C. Haugen,Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Did you look at your bulletin cover this morning while you were waiting for church to start? I sometimes find the pictures they choose interesting. Today the bulletin shows a stained glass window of an open hand, spilling out three coins. Now, being a stained glass window, those coins don’t give any detail about what the coins Jesus was talking about actually looked like, so let me describe them to you. There was a picture of the Emperor, as the Pharisees and Herodians note. The custom of putting political leaders on money is one of the few things that hasn’t changed in the 2,000 years since Jesus lived and taught. And above the image—in Greek, it’s called an “icon,” the same word used for religious paintings—is a slogan, a motto, because putting mottos on our money is another thing that hasn’t changed. On Roman coins, above the Emperor’s icon, the slogan was “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus.”
That’s quite a mouthful! But what does it mean? Tiberius was the name of the Emperor in those days, and Caesar was his title. His father had been Caesar Augustus, who was declared a god, which is why he’s called “divine.” The Roman Empire was fast establishing a religious cult around worship of the Emperor and his predecessors. Pontifex Maximus, well, that means that the Emperor was also the high priest of the Roman Empire, the person in charge of keeping order among all the orders of all the various religious orders, temples, priesthoods, and other religious groups in the empire and making sure all the gods had their proper worship. Caesar was the supreme political ruler, the one who put and kept Herod on his throne. He was also the son of a god and (depending on who you talked to) possibly a god himself, and the single most important person in the religious life of the Roman Empire as a whole. And all of that showed in the coins that bore his icon.
You can see why paying taxes to Caesar—which had to be paid in Roman coins, with Caesar’s image and titles on it—was a hot-button issue. The taxes were often cripplingly high and always unfairly distributed, at the whim of the tax collectors. But that was just the beginning. I’m sure you all remember the Ten Commandments. They start off like this: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol.” And anyone with half a brain could take one look at those coins and make a good case for the coin being an idol, a physical representation of another so-called god, and therefore just having one in your pocket meant you were breaking the first commandment. It wasn’t just a question about whether or not the taxes were fair, or whether you wanted to pay taxes to your foreign overlords. Something much more fundamental is at stake in today’s Gospel lesson. Is it possible to be faithful to the one true God in a world that worships so many other things as if they were god?
In some ways, the question was much more clear-cut in Jesus’ day. You had the Roman overlords and their lackeys the Herodians, and you had the good, God-fearing Jews. Today we live in a country in which most people have at least some allegiance to Christianity, a country which has considered itself Christian since before its birth. The motto on our money says it: “In God we Trust.” And yet, it’s not that simple. Do we truly trust in God, or do we trust in our economic and political ideas? Do we truly give to God what is his, or do we focus on giving ourselves what we want?
The Pharisees prided themselves on being faithful to God. They studied God’s Word, and they worked out practical ways of living according to their understanding of God’s will. They believed they were doing as God called them to do. And yet, when God actually came among them in the person of Jesus Christ, they didn’t recognize him. Worse than that, when their ideas of God conflicted with what God actually wanted, they set out to discredit him, to remove him. They tried to use God’s own Word against him! They could not imagine the possibility that God might not agree with their interpretation. They weren’t trying to set themselves against God; they honestly believed that they were in the right and that Jesus was a danger to the right way to follow God.
I wonder what would happen if Jesus came back today. Would we find that we sometimes think like the Pharisees without even realizing it? Would we find that in some cases we use our faith and God’s Word to prove ourselves right rather than to seek out God’s wisdom and comfort? I know it can be easier to go to the Bible to find something specific that I agree with rather than to read with an open mind, praying for the Holy Spirit to guide me. And it can be easier to walk through life without thinking, to assume that because I am a Christian I already know what God wants me to do and how God wants me to think.
Those coins of Caesar’s said a lot about Caesar. Does our money say a lot about us? Do we really trust in God, or do we give God lip service while going about our lives? Too often it seems like our trust is in our money, our politics, our prejudices rather than in God. Are we faithful to God, or do we worship other things that draw us away from God? Unlike in Jesus’ day, we can’t just look at the coins in our pockets and the statues in our sanctuaries to see where our faith lies. As a culture we idolize politicians, entertainers, technology, riches, violence, sex, anything that promises to give us what we want.
Jesus said, “Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” I’m sure that a lot of his hearers wanted to hear him declare the Empire to be evil and say they didn’t have to obey it. After all, the Empire was the power of the world that interfered with their faith and sometimes oppressed them. Jesus didn’t do that. Give to the Emperor the things that belong to him. Civil government isn’t the same as the religious identity, and it doesn’t have to be. The problem isn’t the things of the world in themselves. The problem comes when we take the things of the world—leaders, money, anything—and put our whole trust in them, instead of in God.
That’s why Jesus didn’t stop there. Give to God the things that are God’s. So what belongs to God? Everything! God created the heavens and the earth, all that is, seen and unseen. God created us, each and every one. Jesus Christ heals us from the things that leave us broken in body and soul. Jesus Christ gives us life even in death. The Holy Spirit comes to us to comfort us, guide us, and inspire us. Every good thing that we have and every good thing that we are, comes from God.
Giving to God the things that are God’s means opening ourselves up to God’s grace and mercy. It means listening for God’s call instead of assuming we already know what God wants. It means acknowledging that we are God’s. Giving to God the things that are God’s is about living as God’s people, even in the midst of a world that gives God only lip service. The world may promise us what we want, but only God can give us what we truly need: our lives, our true and deep relationships with God and one another, and the peace beyond understanding.