October 18, 2020 /20th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Isaiah 45:1-7 / 2nd Reading 1 Thessalonians 1:1-9 / Gospel Matthew 22:15-22
Bearing God’s Image
I encourage people to pay attention to the Prayer of the Day in our weekly liturgy. These well-crafted prayers are often like sermons in miniature. In just a few succinct words – one or two sentences – these prayers manage to convey profound insights about God and about humanity. Two weeks ago this was our Prayer of the Day:
Our Lord Jesus, you have endured the doubts and foolish questions of every generation. Forgive us for trying to be judge over you, and grant us the confident faith to acknowledge you as Lord. Amen
This prayer came to mind as I was studying today’s gospel story. Jesus is at the temple in Jerusalem when he is approached by a group composed of Pharisees and Herodians who are seeking to entrap him. These men have serious doubts about Jesus. They judge him to be a heretic and a threat to their power and authority. So they concoct a question to ask Jesus that will cause him trouble either way he answers it.
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Before considering their question and Jesus’ response – stop to consider the vanity and presumption of his questioners. They came with their doubts and a tricky question, intent on judging Jesus. Picture it: The Son of God comes to the temple to teach, and the religious leaders are attempting to discredit him instead of learning from him – they can’t see who Jesus is. It’s outrageous and sad.
The prayer reminds us that Jesus “has endured the doubts and foolish questions of every generation.” These Pharisees and Herodians are not the only ones who presume to know better than Jesus. The disciples of Jesus certainly had their share of doubts and foolish questions. We know about doubting Thomas. Remember how James and John approached Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, asking him for special status in his coming kingdom. Judas criticized Jesus for allowing a woman to anoint him with expensive perfume that could have been sold instead to provide money for the poor. When Jesus says he is going to Jerusalem to suffer and to die, Peter rebukes Jesus and tells him not to go.
Such doubts and questions about Jesus have continued down through the generations to this day. We can be inclined to think we know better than Jesus. We can question how realistic his expectations are for us. We have our moments of doubt and uncertainty. You and I may not be outspoken with our questions and our doubts – but like the first disciples, we have our moments when we are not on the same page with Jesus. And so, like the prayer says, we need to seek both forgiveness for our presumption, and confident faith to acknowledge Jesus as our Lord.
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Now back to the question. The question put to Jesus by his antagonists has a contemporary ring to it: It’s about paying taxes. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The tax in question is the annual tribute tax that had to be paid by all Roman subjects. The questioners aim to put Jesus on the spot: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” If Jesus says yes, his fellow Israelites will see him as a traitor. If Jesus says no the Romans will arrest him. It’s a “gotcha question” – either answer will get Jesus in trouble.
Now if Jesus was a political candidate, running for office, he might have ducked the question or somehow changed the subject. (We’ve seen this behavior!) But Jesus wasn’t running for anything. He wasn’t seeking approval from anyone other than his heavenly Father. Jesus recognized their malicious intentions, yet he didn’t try to avoid the confrontation. Instead he begins by asking them a question: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” He questions their motives and their integrity. Jesus then steers the conversation in a new direction. He says, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” Roman taxes had to be paid with Roman coins. So they brought him a denarius. A denarius was a silver coin that was a usual daily wage.
Two things are worth noting:
1. Jesus says, “Show me the coin,” because he didn’t have one – his pockets were empty.
2. By producing the coin, his adversaries demonstrated both their hypocrisy and their complicity with the Romans.
It was a violation of Jewish law to bring any graven image into the temple. The purpose of the temple money changers was to exchange Roman coins for Jewish shekels, which were not engraved with any image. And yet these leaders are walking around the temple with Roman coins.
Jesus asks another question: “Whose head, whose likeness, whose image is on this coin – and whose title?” At that time a denarius had the image of the Roman Emperor, Tiberias, and the inscription read: “Tiberias, Son of Augustus, Son of God.” The emperor claimed divine status. The antagonists give the obvious answer: “It’s the emperor’s image.” Having re-framed their question Jesus proceeds to give his memorable answer: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s – and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus neatly avoids the trap they had set for him, and implicitly raises a much more profound question: What do we owe to God? In effect, Jesus declares: it’s the emperor’s coin, so let him have it. He made it, so give it back. In the current circumstances, taxes are a fact of life – pay up and get on with it. Yet by adding, “and give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus reminds his adversaries of something much more crucial. Just as the denarius bears an image, so does each and every person. All are created in the image of God, made in God’s likeness. Just as the coin belongs to the emperor, so do all people belong to God. We may owe taxes to the emperor, but we owe our lives to God. This undeniable truth confounded the Pharisees and the Herodians – and in their amazement they could only turn and walk away.