“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
It is one of the most famous lines in scripture. And we so often treat it as simply good advice. We take it as practical advice about how to organize the affairs of church and state, or how to manage the conflicting demands of our faith and our world. We saw it play out in Washington this past week, in the way that US Senators and Judge Amy Coney Barrett danced around the sacred and the secular in their questions and answers.
But when we treat the Bible as simply a source of good advice, we do scripture a disservice, and we get ourselves in trouble.
Jesus isn’t giving advice here. He is doing something much important, much more radical. He is calling us to a complete reorientation of our values, our priorities and of who we are in relationship with God and others. This isn’t about the management of our affairs. This is about the transformation of ourselves.
One of the challenges of reading the bible is that we’re just given the words. We don’t know the tone of voice, and there’s no indication about when to pause. But when I read today’s text, I hear a pregnant pause and a long, uncomfortable silence.
“Tell us 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.”
That’s where Jesus pauses. That’s where the silence begins.
And in that long silence, what do you think is going through the heads of the authorities and of the crowds gathered around Jesus?
Maybe they’re looking at the silver coin that the Pharisee just pulled out of his pocket and gave to Jesus, the one with the engraved image of the emperor on it, and the title inscribed on the coin that says “Tiberias Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.”
Maybe that makes them think about the first words of the Ten Commandments that we read together two weeks ago:
“I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself any graven image. You shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” Graven image. Other gods. Hmmm.
And maybe when they all see the ease with which the Pharisee produces a Roman coin, maybe that reminds people of what Jesus had done just the day before, entering the Temple and driving out all those who were selling and buying, overturning the tables of the moneychangers. Surely they remember his words as he flipped the tables:
“My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”
Jesus is quoting scripture here, Isaiah Chapter 56, and these folks knew their scripture. In Isaiah 56, God is calling for people to maintain justice and do what is right. He is calling for the inclusion of all peoples, including foreigners, including those who have been marginalized and oppressed, he’s calling for all to be included in God’s house of prayer. It is a radical call for justice and inclusivity. “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”
Then he says “but you have made it a den of thieves,” That’s Jeremiah Chapter 7. It’s is a call for repentance, a call for people to amend their ways and return to God. It is a call to end the oppression of the widow, the orphan and the outcast. It is a call to do justice, for that is what God requires of those who seek to worship in his Temple.
Justice, inclusion, true worship: these are what matter to Jesus. This is what he is calling us to. And so he takes the coin with the image of Caesar, the Son of God, on it and gives it back to the authorities who produced it in the first place.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” Take your blasphemous coin, that Roman symbol of oppression, that symbol of your misplaced priorities and values, that symbol of injustice and exclusion, and get it out of the Temple. Give it back to the emperor.
But give to God the things that are God’s.
It’s a call to repentance, a call to turn to God, a call to a complete reorientation of our values, our priorities and our understanding of who we are and whose we are.
You know, we’re pretty good at giving the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s. When the national anthem is played we stand. We turn our noise down at 11pm. We license our cars. We obey speed limits, or if we don’t and we get caught, we pay the fines. We pay our taxes, in fact not only do we pay them, but we spend a lot of time and money collecting receipts and filing our returns. We may resent these things, or disagree with the politics, or maybe we only do them because we feel we have no choice, but overall, whatever the reason, we’re pretty good at giving the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s.
How good are we at giving God the things that are God’s?
Some might argue that the reason we respond well to the Emperor’s demands is because the Empire is pretty good at making clear to us what we have to do. The problem, perhaps, is that maybe we don’t know what God requires of us?
The prophet Micah in response to that very question, makes it very clear: “The Lord has told you what is good and what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”
When Jesus was asked what God requires of us, he too gave a clear answer: “Love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.”
And just in case you think that’s a bit too general or abstract, Jesus was happy to provide some specifics: Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick and visit those in prison.
We know what God requires of us.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”
Here’s another way of looking at it.
If the coin belongs to the emperor because it has the emperor’s image on it, what belongs to God? What is it that bears God’s image?
We are the ones who bear God’s image.
As it is written in the book of Genesis,
“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;
So God created humankind in God’s image; in the image of God, he created them.”
We are the ones who bear God’s image. And we can look at that in two ways:
On the one hand, I am made in God’s image. So when Jesus says “give to God the things that are God’s”, I am one of those things. I belong to God. And so Jesus wants me to give myself to God. I bear God’s image, so I am called to be God’s image in the world, to live the way Jesus that shows us, to live justly, to show mercy and compassion, to love God and to love my neighbour as myself.
On the other hand, you are made in God’s image. And that means that I have to treat you with respect and honour. I need to recognize your inherent dignity and worth as someone who has been created in God’s image. I need to realize just how amazing you are, and treat you with love and compassion. I need to learn to see the image of God in you.
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s”
We need to stop hearing this as practical advice about how to manage our divided loyalties in this world, and instead hear it for what it truly is: a call to a complete reorientation in our values, priorities and the way we understand ourselves in relationship with God and with each other.
Homily. Yr A P29, October 18 2020, St. Albans
Readings: Ex 33.12-23; Ps 99; 1 Thess 1.1-10; Mt 22.15-22