Give what to God?

Matthew 22:15-20

This sermon was adapted from one written by the Rt. Rev. Frank Logue in 2014.

“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” These words of Jesus have become a sort of proverb, and those who know little of scripture may still have heard “Render unto Caesar.” Yet, digging beneath the surface of this short encounter helps uncover some of the deeper currents in the exchange.

First, the combination of people approaching Jesus is intriguing. Matthew tells us that the Pharisees come together with the Herodians. The Pharisees did not want to give money to their pagan oppressors and so were opposed to paying taxes to Rome.

On the other hand, King Herod’s position of power came courtesy of the Romans, so even though the taxes were widely considered to be oppressive, the Herodians had a vested interest in keeping the Roman taxes paid.

Therefore, the Pharisees and the Herodians each reflected one of the horns of the dilemma they tried to catch Jesus out with.

Then came the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” This question is a reference to Jewish Law, or the Law of Moses. Clearly, it was lawful to pay the tax by Rome’s standards; the question being asked was whether it was proper for a Jew to do so.

It would seem that they had presented Jesus with no way out. He couldn’t speak against the tax, for that would anger the Herodians and lead to a charge of treason against Rome. He could not speak in favor of the tax without alienating most of the crowds that followed him.

The Pharisees must have thought to themselves, “We’ve got him!”

But then Jesus asks for one of the coins used in paying the tax.

This, in a way, is Jesus’ own trap, for it proves at least one of those who were questioning him was a hypocrite.

Because the coin used for the tax was a silver Denarius with the image of Caesar on one side, and on the reverse, the image of a woman named Pax or personified goddess of peace.

As such the coins were against Jewish Law, which prohibited graven images.

You might recall the incident when Jesus chased moneychangers from the outer courts of the Temple?

These moneychangers had a business because one was required to exchange pagan currency for Temple coins before going to do business in the Temple. Carrying the image of Caesar into the Temple was considered sinful. But when Jesus asks for a Denarius, one is quickly produced and handed to him.

Jesus then asks the question that everyone in Israel could have answered without a coin in hand.

In the New Revised Standard Version, the question reads, “Whose head is this and whose title?”

That translation really misses the point of his argument.

The word they translate as “head” is “icon,” a Greek word better translated as “image.”

The word “title” is better translated as “likeness.”

When they answer Jesus’ question, saying that the image and likeness are “Caesar’s,” Jesus replies that they are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Again, the translation covers something better revealed.

It could also be translated as “give back” rather than “give” or “render.”

Give Caesar back those things that are Caesar’s. It is his coin anyway, who cares if you give Caesar back his coin for the tax?

Then Jesus gives the most amazing line of the short encounter when he continues by saying that we are to “give back to God the things that are God’s.”

It leaves everyone calculating what exactly is God’s that we are supposed to give back. And in case you were wondering, the clue was the word “icon” or “image” and the word “likeness.”

Jesus’ answer came from Genesis 1:26-27, which says, “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,’” and goes on to state “God created humankind in his Image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

The principle is this: Just as the coin has Caesar’s icon on it, so it is Caesar’s, we were made in the image and likeness of God, so we are God’s.

Jesus essentially dismissed the question about paying taxes as all but irrelevant. Jesus implies that there is nothing implicitly wrong with paying taxes; we could perhaps intimate that there are things each of us ought to contribute to the stable and just continuation of society.

But Jesus is also pointing out that while there may be things that we do owe the state, there are limits to what we owe.

Yet, Jesus places no limits regarding what we owe to God.

Sometimes this text is used to talk about stewardship in terms of what you give to the church.

But this is no passage on tithing.

For if giving 10 percent of our income is all we do, we would fall well more than 90 percent shy of the mark that Jesus is setting here.

Jesus is reminding us that everything we have and everything we are is God’s already.

While this would certainly apply to the money we make, the formula is not that we give 100 percent of our income to God, for God knows we need the money for the necessities of life.

The teaching is that if when we give God some of the money we earn, we are not paying off an obligation in the same way that taxes to the emperor did.

God wants to share in all that we are, not just the money we make.

God loves and values us as individuals, not according to our salary.

What God wants is nothing less than to come and abide in your heart.

St. Luke, whose feast day is today, portrayed the life and ministry of Jesus as a divine visitation to the world, seeking hospitality and teaches us that the one who came as visitor and guest then becomes the host and offers a hospitality in which the whole world can become truly human, to be at home, and to know salvation deep in their hearts.

The point in today’s gospel (which is reflected in Luke as well), is that we have been made in the image and likeness of God.

God loves us.

If you like you can think of God as keeping your picture in the divine wallet or on the heavenly refrigerator.

Jesus did not care about the tax, for his real concern was that we live into the image and likeness of the God who lovingly created us.

We begin to live into the image and likeness of God by conforming our life to be more like Jesus’ life.

Giving back to God through the church (not necessarily to the church) does matter.

But merely giving money to the government or to this church or anywhere else is only part of the picture, and I would dare to say a small part at best.

To live more fully into that image and likeness of God that is in us, we need to give back our heart to God – for it is God’s anyway.

When the time comes for communion in just a little while, I would encourage you all to keep in mind that when you are receiving the bread you are receiving Jesus into your hearts.

And in this moment to allow yourself to be, little by little, conformed to the divine image and likeness that was revealed to us through his life, death and resurrection.

And that as the Holy Spirit slowly works this transformation within us we may learn that in response to the question, “What are the things that are God’s which we are to give back to God?” that the answer is, “You.”

In Jesus’ Name we pray; Amen.

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