Rev. Teri Peterson
We Belong to God
October 19 2008, Ordinary 29A
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘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?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Have you ever noticed that Jesus never seems to just answer the question? I’ve always been taught it’s one of the first rules of a tough interview: just answer the question. If a person were to hold up a pen and ask “do you know what this is?” then the answer would be “yes.” That’s all—simple, direct, an answer. But that doesn’t seem to be how Jesus operates.
Can you imagine how things might have gone if Jesus had answered with a simple yes or no? When the Pharisees and the Herodians (who, by the way, were traditionally at odds with each other but have now found a common enemy in Jesus) ask “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” they are asking a religious law question. They each know perfectly well that it’s against Jewish law to carry on their person something bearing an image—since images were prohibited by the first commandment. And it was even worse to carry something bearing an image of someone who claimed to BE a god, as Caesar did—again, the first commandment. So imagine if Jesus had simply said “no.” Then, after he was executed much earlier than planned, this time for refusing to pay taxes, throughout the ages we would have this teaching straight from the mouth of Christ: don’t pay taxes. And governments would have spent the last two thousand years trying to think of other ways to finance infrastructure and militaries and education and safety nets for those who need help.
Then again, imagine if Jesus had simply said “yes.” Then governments score a point, for sure, but Jesus would once again have been arrested early, for blasphemy and out-and-out 10 commandment breaking. And throughout the ages we would see government appealing to Jesus as the one who told us all to support them with as much of our money as possible.
Perhaps there’s a good reason why Jesus never answers a question with a simple yes or no!
Instead, he asks to see the coin. Now remember, no law-abiding Jew was allowed to carry one, especially not inside the Temple, where most of Jesus’ teaching took place. And yet the Pharisees and Herodians manage to produce a coin bearing the image of Caesar, proving already that Jesus is not the lawbreaker they are trying to make him out to be. And then the fun begins.
Jesus asks who’s picture it is on the coin…they answer that it’s Caesar, and his title too (a title which, by the way, proclaims him to be god). And Jesus, in a brilliant rhetorical move, says, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give back to God what is God’s.”
In other words: if it has Caesar’s picture and name on it, it must belong to him, so go on and give it back. And then Jesus goes one step further: if it has the One True God’s picture and name on it, then it must belong to God, so you’d better give it back. Well, coins had the picture and name of the emperor, so that’s fairly obvious. The coins used in the Temple—the special Jewish money—didn’t have any images on them and were only used in transactions between Jews and to buy sacrifices and other goods in the Temple, so Jesus is not talking only about money. What has the image of God on it and so clearly belongs to God, something we are to give back to God?
I suspect by now the answer is becoming obvious. In Genesis chapter 1, it says, “male and female God created them, in the image of God he created them.” We, human beings, are stamped with the image of God, each one of us. When we look at the coin, we can see whose picture is on it. When we look at each other, we can see whose picture is on us. And the clear teaching of Jesus is to give to God what is God’s—that means us. All of us. All of our selves—our time, our work, our love, our intellect and our emotions, our money, our hopes and dreams and fears, our bodies—all of it. God doesn’t want just a segment, just a little, just a box, just an hour once a week or even just an hour a day. God gave us all we have, God put God’s own image on and within us—we belong to God.
I suspect most of us know this intellectually. We know with our minds that everything we have is a gift from God—that we literally owe God everything. Many of us even try to live this out—trying very hard not to separate what is “religious” from what is “secular.” But all of us, and I include myself in this!, fall short of this goal. We think of things as “ours” or “mine” and we wonder how to increase those things, the benefits to me. We separate our faith from our work and our play and sometimes from our brains, because logic and faith don’t always go hand in hand. We compartmentalize our time: time for working, time for eating, time for playing, time for family, time for exercise, time for God. We compartmentalize our money: money for housing, money for food, money for clothes, money for kids, money for fun, money for God’s work. We compartmentalize in so many different ways, it’s hard to even name them—that’s just the way our lives are. I’m as guilty as the next person about this, and I even belong to an organization that states as its goal the integration of sacred and secular, of work and worship. This is hard work!
But then again, whenever Jesus decides not to answer a question, you can guess that it’s not going to be easy. Jesus says quite clearly that we, who are made in the image of God, belong to God and we are to give everything we have, everything we are, back to God. That’s what life means. And then he did it—every day, every hour, every time he opened his mouth, every time he acted, he lived his entire life as an offering to God. Jesus is not just a teacher here but a living example of what it means to live life belonging to God. It didn’t end well for Jesus’ earthly life, but it ended in obedience and in gratitude and as an offering of all he was. While I hope none of us will be called to that kind of end, it is out there as a possibility and it’s important to recognize that—its hard to be obedient if you don’t know what you’re being called to. But ultimately, we are all called to offer our whole selves—our time, our talents, our money, our hopes and fears and dreams, our work and our worship and our play, our lives, to the One to whom we belong. God will walk with us each step of that journey toward wholeness and belonging.
Thanks be to God. Amen.