Readings: Isaiah 45:1-7, Matthew 22:15-22, Divine Love & Wisdom #326 (see below)
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For the last several weeks, we are have been following the lectionary in Matthew, and Jesus’ occupation of the temple in Jerusalem, where he has been using parables to criticize the powers that be: the high priests and the Pharisees for forgetting about the everyday people, and using their high religious and political positions for their own gain. The priests and Pharisees have been spending their time conspiring and trying to discredit Jesus, trying to get him to say something that will get him in trouble and end the stand-off. And this is what the text is about today, a question from them about taxes that is supposed to be a trap.
First, what is this tax that they are referencing? It was called the census tax, and it was instituted when Judea became a Roman province. So, it was a tax levied just on Jewish citizens, not Roman ones. Not surprisingly, the Jewish people hated it. and it’s institution triggered the development of a nationalist movement called the Zealots, who later fomented rebellion against Rome themselves. Now, this tax was really not at all like the taxes that we pay in a democratic society, where, at least in theory, taxes are used for the betterment of all citizens, and where we have the option to vote out our representatives if we don’t like the way they are using our tax money. To the Jews, the payment of this tax was a constant reminder of their occupied and defeated state as a people, and it went directly towards the perpetuation of their oppression. So, of course, they were incredibly resentful about it. They would have been very happy to hear Jesus say that the tax should not be paid. Jesus would then be fulfilling many of their collective dreams about the coming Messiah who would return them to independence and finally throw off Roman rule. And the pharisees knew that, that it would disappoint Jesus followers to hear him say the tax was lawful.
But the Pharisees also knew that saying what the people wanted to hear would raise the ire of Rome. The empire was relentless about putting down rebellion, and in fact, this is what the practice of crucifixion was all about - the public display of an extremely shameful, slow and painful death as a deterrent to anyone who would even think about challenging the empire. The Zealot movement would learn this painful lesson about 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when they rebelled against Rome and Rome completely ravaged Jerusalem, destroying the temple, which would never be rebuilt, even to this day. So the Pharisees were trying to put Jesus in between a rock and a hard place. What is fascinating is the hypocrisy involved, which Jesus calls out. As experts and scholars in the law, their question to Jesus, “is it lawful” was a question about the Torah, not about the lawfulness of taxes in general. And as scholars of the Torah themselves, of course they had an opinion about it, which was, that in principle the tax was not lawful. They just did not publicly say that and resist it. So, they were trying to get Jesus into trouble for an opinion that they actually agreed with, but did not choose to act upon.
So obviously, the question is a trap. If Jesus answers that the tax should be paid, then the people would be disappointed (and disappointed people often get angry). If Jesus answered that it should not be paid, then he would anger the Roman authorities for fomenting rebellion. Jesus’ answer though, is one of his typical non-answers, vague enough that he could not be trapped either way. Though it might look like just a clever evasion, it contains much more than meets the eye.
The most common interpretation of this episode is that it represents an argument for the modern conception of the separation of church and state. There is a secular realm (Caesar’s realm) and a religious realm (God’s realm), and they should be compartmentalized separately. While certainly, there are lots of good arguments for the separation of church and state, it is not likely that this was intended to be one of them in Jesus time because the modern notion of the separation of church and state is just that: modern. Ancient readers would not likely have understood this verse in that way. The way that religion and politics interacted then was very different then to the way it does now, in the democracies and constitutional monarchies of the modern world.
How else then, did Jesus mean it? Well, at first, it sounds like we are getting an indirect yes on the face of it. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Ok sure, pay the tax that is due to Caesar. Simple right? Except, then he goes on: “give to God what is God’s.” What *is* God’s then? Oh, everything. And so what seems like a simple answer actually becomes a subversion of the phenomenon of empire as a whole, empire that would try to claim territory, treasure and people as its own. Nothing can actually be the empire’s own. We heard in the Isaiah reading about a God whose presence is in everything, who was even in the actions of a foreign monarch, Cyrus without his acknowledgement, who formed light and darkness and who created all things. “I am the Lord and there is no other.” Or from our responsive reading, Psalm 24 “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.”
In Jesus’ answer, we see an affirmation of the fact that a separation of the secular and religious is ultimately impossible. Now, by this, I don’t mean that the modern separation of church and state in political systems is useless or ill-advised; on the contrary, within a human system such as politics, the separation of realms is an important safeguard. But as a philosophical and theological matter, we see that the presence and the imprint of God in the world and in our lives is much larger than a human system can contain or express. God is the source of all life, all creativity, all love, all wisdom…so all our decisions, all our striving has relationship to God.
This becomes even more intriguing when we consider what the inscription is on the coin Jesus asked them to bring: “Tiberius Caesar, August son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” The emperors of Rome routinely made the claim to be divine, to be the Son of God and the High Priest of the Roman empire. To the Jewish people, to those who believed in the “I am the Lord and there is no other,” this was an entirely blasphemous claim. So, it was not just the image of the emperor on the coin that prevented the use of Roman money in the temple, which is why Jesus famously expelled the money changers, but also the explicit claim that the image served to express: that there was some other divine being apart from the Lord to which people should give allegiance.
And in drawing attention to the image of the emperor, Jesus also draws attention to all that empire stood for and all the ways the Pharisees were complicit. In asking the Pharisees to give him the coin from their own hand, he was also showing how they played a part in the essential usurping of God’s divinity for the purposes of empire, for the purposes of the consolidation of power, and the perpetuation of injustice that power demands. Because imagine if the emperor really did have divine power - what would it be dedicated to? It’s own preservation on the backs of marginalized and occupied people. Whereas the power of God is dedicated to the renewal and restoration of *all people*, enacted and embodied through God’s steadfastness and loyalty to the Jewish people of that time. The image of God is dedicated to a heaven from the human race, dedicated to the regeneration and growth of all people, dedicated to the reconciliation of the whole world.
So, the image of Caesar exists only to serve itself, whereas the image of God exists to love, to serve, to create. It is not surprising then that the image of Caesar was imprinted on money, a proxy for power and accumulation. Conversely, God’s image is imprinted in the whole world, in the way that the universe is made to be useful, and in the capacity for every human being to receive love and wisdom.
So, the driving question left behind by Jesus enigmatic answer is: where do we see the image of God? Caesar and empire sees the image of God in the self, and the things that serve the self. Whereas where does Jesus want us we see the image of God? Everywhere. Everyone.
It is one of Jesus’ clearest teachings. Yet somehow, we still fail. Somehow we still forget. We try to take the image of God and like Caesar, claim it’s definition, so that we might feel like we are okay, safe, certain, superior. The most extreme form is Caesar claiming to BE God, but the much more common, less extreme form, is saying that we are LIKE God, or God is LIKE me, …like my gender, like my racial group, like my religious group, and this is how we end up with all kinds of war and oppression.
The only thing preventing any one person from embodying the image of God is idolatry, the inversion of God’s gift of love and wisdom towards the self, or a selfish ideal, not any of the outward characteristics by which we usually try to judge people. How ironic then, that Caesar’s very act of claiming God’s image for himself was the very act that proved that he wasn’t in that image at all. So, let us then give back to Caesar all the things that cause us to turn our own backs on the image of God, that cause us to despise, dismiss or disparage others. Let us subvert the reach of empire by refusing to act by the rule of power and gain. Let us instead give glory and gratitude to God for a universe that bears God’s image, for an divine order that supports life, growth and resurrection.
1 “This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: 2 I will go before you and will level the mountains ; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. 3 I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. 4 For the sake of Jacob my servant, of Israel my chosen, I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. 5 I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, 6 so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the LORD, and there is no other. 7 I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things. 8 “You heavens above, rain down my righteousness; let the clouds shower it down. Let the earth open wide, let salvation spring up, let righteousness flourish with it; I, the LORD, have created it.
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” 18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
Divine Love &Wisdom #326
We can tell from all this, then, that if we focus on functions, there is a human image to everything in the universe. We can also tell that this testifies to the fact that God is human, because the things just listed do not come into being around angelic people from themselves, but from the Lord through them. They actually arise from the flow of divine love and wisdom into the angels, who are recipients, and are brought forth to their sight the way the universe is created. So people there know that God is human and that the created universe, functionally viewed, is an image of God.