For many people, probably including some of us (whether we like it or not) money is one of the high points of anxiety throughout our lives. Just as it is for individuals and families, so too it can also be true for church communities like us, seeking to pay the bills and maintain the buildings which house and serve as a base for our ministry and mission. Broadly in our society the response to money is something like this: if we have a lot of it, we want to be sure that we will hang on to it; and if we don’t have enough of it we want to try as hard as we can to get more.
All kinds of pressures in our society offer us the dream of buying a nicer house, a better car, the opportunity to travel or the illusion of perpetual security – and whilst it must be said that none of these are bad aspirations in themselves, they can lead us to live our lives always looking ahead for something better (whatever our age), always being distracted by a desire for more, rather than living in a state of thankfulness for all that we have already.
As Will reminded us last weekend, we can search for temporary happiness in our possessions, rather than seeking for the joy that comes only as a gift from God. The ongoing turbulence in our world financial markets has shown just how fragile any idea of certainty about money can be. But one thing is for sure: money is power.
Money is right at the heart of the questions which is asked of Jesus in our Gospel reading this today. The Church remembers and records for us in this Gospel an encounter between Jesus and those who seek to trick him and to undermine his ministry. As we have just heard, these questioners come to Jesus and ask him, “is it lawful or not for us to pay taxes to the Emperor?” That might seem like a fairly innocent question from people who have a genuine desire to learn from him. After all, we as a nation seem to be permanently gripped by questions of taxation – and its relative fairness to different groups in our society. But underneath their question, the followers of the religious leaders who come to Jesus are, in reality, hostile to him. They are trying to set him up. If you have ever been set up by someone else, you will know how uncomfortable that can feel.
Those who come to question Jesus are sure that they will cause him to get himself into an enormous amount of trouble as he gives his response. Because Jesus really only has two options with which to reply. Either he can say, in the hearing of the crowd, “no it is not lawful for religious men and women to pay taxes to Caesar,” in which case the Romans will come to hear about it, and he will be taken away and tried and sentenced for sedition. Or the other alternative is that he can say, “yes it is lawful,” and thereby lose the credibility and the respect of the onlookers, because these are people who are living under foreign rulers (who they despise) and who they don’t like paying taxes to.
We are given in this encounter an extraordinary glimpse into the pressure and opposition that Jesus faced as he sought to bring God’s message of love and forgiveness to the world. Jesus is trapped, by a seemingly innocent question. It looks like he has been boxed into a corner by these clever men. So what does Jesus do? He does what we have seen him do so often before as we read the Gospels day by day, week by week and year by year. Jesus answers the clever question with a further question.
Taking a coin from someone (you notice that he does not have one of his own) he examines it and ask the crowd, whose head is depicted on it? Whose title is given? And they say of course, “the Emperor’s.” Then he looks at them as if to say, “well you have answered your own question,” and then he makes his response clear: “Isn’t it obvious – don’t worry about these coins, give to the Emperor the things which belong to the Emperor.”
But Jesus has not finished yet, because he will transform this limited conversation about money, into a teaching about what is really means to give and to live. “Give to the Emperor the things which belong to the Emperor,” he says, “and give to God the things which belong to God.”
The coin that Jesus held in his hand as he said these things, was probably a silver denarius, a day’s wages for an ordinary labourer. The actual version of that coin at the time of Jesus depicted the reigning emperor, whose name was Tiberius. The Latin inscription on the coin, according to those that have been excavated and are available to us today, read “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the divine Augustus and Augustus.” Our coins here in Australia, like those throughout the Commonwealth, bear a similar image, because our coins are modelled on the coins of imperial Rome. They do not contain the image of an emperor, but rather the image of the Queen of England, Elizabeth II.
In the years before television and glossy magazines, those coins often provided the only depiction of the Queen that most people ever saw. Across the Commonwealth of nations, or the British Empire before it, boys and girls, and men and women often only saw the image of the ruling monarch on the coins that they used to purchase things. What was true for British kings and queens was true for emperor’s in the time of Jesus as well. Coins were not just legal currency, but an opportunity for people to look at an image of the king or the queen or the emperor who they lived under. But whilst coins in England still to this day – not our coins here in Australia, but the coins of pounds and pence in the United Kingdom – include in the inscription of her titles that the Queen is the Defender of Faith, a title which has been passed down the monarchs since King Henry VIII, the title which surrounded the image of Emperor Tiberius in the time of Jesus was ‘Son of God – Son of the Divine Augustus’.
The Romans glorified in the deification of their leaders (they believed that they were gods), but the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking, who knew that there was only one God, saw such titles and such images as an abomination. So much so, that when Jews went to worship in the Temple, they swapped their ordinary money for religious money as they entered the Temple precincts, so that only holy money was given as an offering to God (remember Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers – that is what those people’s jobs were, the problem was that they were giving an unfair exchange rate). Those coins had to be changed if they were to be used in a holy way in the Temple, because the image of the Emperor, who was considered by the Romans to be the heir of the divine, as a god himself, could not be looked at by the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, because to do so was idolatry.
Which is why, in another translation of this story, Jesus actually asks the question (not whose head but) whose image is on the coin, inferring that the people should give to the Emperor the things which bear his image, and to God the things which bear God’s image – which I think reaches right to the heart of the point that Jesus is making.
Those Jews who were listening to Jesus, like us who hear the story today, believed that they were created in the image of God. That is what we Christians believe as well. We did not just turn up by chance, we aren’t living our lives purely to gain all that we can for ourselves – but we are made wonderfully and beautifully, purposefully and lovingly in the image of God. So when Jesus says, “give to God the things which bear God’s image,” he is talking about more than just paying some coins in tax to the authorities, he is calling us to give our whole lives to God.
From a question about money, Jesus challenges his hearers (then and now) with a far more foundational question: “Forget about giving coins to the Emperor. How do we give to God the things that belong to God?” Just as that money bore the image of the Emperor, and so belonged ultimately to the Emperor, Jesus calls us to give ourselves, who bear the image of our creator God, back to God through our lives and our actions. That will include all that we have as well, but the greatest call is for us to give ourselves.
There is a car here in East Maitland with a great bumper sticker, I was behind the car at the traffic lights the other day. It reads: ‘born free – taxed to death’ – the 1960s are still alive in NSW! But the point of what Jesus is saying is not about whether we should pay tax or not, he is talking about something much bigger than that. He is talking about us giving ourselves and our world – all that is created in God’s image – back to God. So from a question about money, Jesus raises for us this morning a challenge about how open we are to giving ourselves to God. Our response to that question is far larger than we can hope to achieve on our own; which is why the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit of God is here with us today and every time we gather together, to stir us up and to lead us forward.
At this Eucharist, as a symbol of all that we seek to give back to God, we bring forward our gifts of bread and wine and money and food for the poor, as reminders of all that God has given to us, so that they (like we) may be transformed. Do you want God to continue the work of transformation in you and in our parish, and in the communities around us? I ask that seriously because that is what Jesus offers to each one of us.
Do not worry about the future, it is in God’s hands, even the hairs of your head have been counted. But give yourself to God, who has wonderfully created you in his image, and yet more wonderfully will love and sustain you, and those who live around us, if we will listen to his voice, and respond to his call. Jesus says, “Give to the Emperor the things made in the image of the Emperor. But give to God yourselves, your life, your hopes and dreams, the people of these congregations, and those who live around us – give to God all of these things which are made in the image of God.”