You can surely sense the storm clouds gathering by now as Jesus is confronted here by the Pharisees and the Herodians who together are trying to trip him up. Indeed, it is clear both here as well as in the verses which follow that his opponents are still trying to get at the source of his authority, moving quickly down a fateful path which will, as we know, end on the cross. Through it all, of course, Jesus manages to stay centered and clear, continually keeping those who would challenge him off-balance by answering their questions with questions, all the while proving again and again that they are, in fact, asking the wrong questions altogether.
For I am told that this is so — that the Pharisees and the Herodians should not have been carrying around a coin with the emperor’s head on it in the first place. Indeed, it was so that the emperor claimed to be “God” and by even having his engraving in their pockets, particularly in the temple, they had already exposed their ultimate loyalty to Jesus, all the while revealing that they had, in fact, already answered their own question. And while I like to believe that my intent would never be as malicious as theirs, I know that Jesus could and surely does find a whole lot of ways in which my loyalties are also at least divided for my motives are seldom, if ever, entirely pure. Just like all of us, I imagine.
And yet, while all of this is true, it is surely difficult to identify with Jesus’ first listeners, for while we all know something of ‘taxes’ many of us who gather around these words today know nothing of what it is to pay our taxes to a foreign occupying entity. This being so, while there are certainly ways in which I powerfully disagree with how ‘that which I give to the emperor’ is spent, at the same time, I can see a clear connection between what comes out of my paycheck and social services in my community, health care for those who cannot otherwise afford it, and the salaries of first responders who are called to keep us safe, to name just a few. And yes, it seems to me that many of these things are in keeping with the collective call shared by people of faith to tend our neighbors well, and so unlike those sharing in this exchange with Jesus so long ago, one could surely argue that even this, at least in part, is given to God!
Nevertheless, even given the obvious differences between then and now, isn’t it so that we all still live in a world where different entities constantly make competing demands upon our loyalties? The questio still speaks:
What part of me — my gifts, my resources, my time, my energy — do I give over to whom? For instance…
- Do I pause to help the old man in the grocery store or do I quickly move on because I really am in a hurry?
- Do I agree to serve on yet another board or do I put my energy more directly into the congregation I am called to serve and is the former actually a way of doing the latter or not?
- Do I ignore the abuse another is undergoing at work in order to protect myself and my paycheck?
- Do I pocket the incorrect change given to me when I pick up my morning chai or do I give it back?
- Do I take the time to rewrite the sermon because once again the world has turned upside down and it is surely less than faithful to not speak of it?
- Do I show up a the community meeting to speak out even though I may be laughed out of the room or do I just not go at all because I don’t believe my voice will make a difference?
- Do I recycle or do I throw my plastic and paper in with the rest of the trash because I just can’t be bothered or I am pressed for time or it seems like just too much effort this week? Indeed, do I take the time to call my representatives to advocate for a just budget, measures addressing climate change, or reasonable gun control, or do I make the excuse that I am too busy or assume someone else will do it?
- And on and on and on…
And through it all — and perhaps the answer to this is the most telling of all — even when I am doing ‘right,’ am I doing any of it out of faithfulness or it just out of a sense of obligation or trying to meet the expectations of others? Indeed, am I “giving” remembering it is God’s Church and these are God’s People — all of them, wherever I encounter them?
So, surely this dramatic moment in Matthew’s Gospel is not only about taxes, is it? Indeed, all of life is a constant negotiation for all that we have and all that we are and I am quite certain that by Jesus using the example of the emperor’s face on a coin, he is actually pointing to all of this — to all those things which compete for our obedience and our loyalty today.
So maybe the best gift of the exchange before us now is that it throws us back on ourselves, inviting us to wonder about what Jesus’ first questioners were called to consider so long ago. Oh, maybe these are the sorts of questions you and I are called upon to ask and answer every day. And maybe by doing so, this is how we come to a clearer understanding of what actually belongs to the ’emperor’ and what belongs to God.
I expect this is true as well: you and I who gather around these words today already know that first and last we belong to God for in our very very beginnings God’s image has been imprinted on us (Genesis 1:27). And this being so then it follows that all that we are and all that we have and all that we hope to be belongs to God as well. So given this, won’t you wonder with me now?
- How does how we spend our money, our time, our energy, our resources, our gifts reflect the truth that all of it and all of us have been imprinted with the very image of God? What would it look to take a personal inventory of your life — starting perhaps with your checkbook or your calendar? What might that reveal?
- What might you discover as you look over the past week or month and considered how many times your actions or lack of actions were motivated by fear and not courage, despair and not hope? And how does that reflect the truth that all of it and all of you belongs to God? That you bear the very image of God?
- And what would it mean to more closely align what we say we believe with the One to ‘whom’ we actually give back?
- Finally, how do these same questions play out in the congregations we call home — not only for individuals but for all of us together?
Oh, I don’t expect we will ever get it perfectly right, which is why I am grateful to be able to rest on the promise of grace and forgiveness. Even so, that does not mean we are not called to struggle with these questions of value and loyalty, does it? For this, it seems to me, is what it means to seek to live a life of faith — to be striving to give back to God what already belongs to God and day by day to work out what that means. And that means all of me. That means all of us together. All the time.