Sermon for Sunday, 18 October 2020
By Revd George Mwaura
Psalm 96 and Matthew 22: 15–22
Lord may I speak in the power of the Holy Spirit to the glory of your name
and may our collective meditation be acceptable in thy sight.
A young lady was sunbathing on the beach in Cornwall when a little boy in his swimming shorts came up to her and asked: ‘Miss, do you believe in God?’ She was surprised by the question, but she replied, ‘Yes, I do.’ Then he asked her, ‘Do you go to church every Sunday?’ Again, she said, ‘Very regularly.’ ‘Do you read your Bible and pray?’ ‘Yes, almost every day,’ she said, her curiosity very much aroused. The boy sighed with relief and said, ‘Will you hold my pound coin while I go swimming?’
The little boy was straightforward and honest in his questions, because he wanted to entrust the lady with something obviously valuable to him. But the people in our Bible passage today are not being honest. They have no intention of entrusting Jesus with anything valuable. The Pharisees and Herodians, who held opposite views on paying taxes to Rome, join forces here to try and trap Jesus. You see, Jesus had attacked them through the parable of the two sons, by suggesting that they were the son who did not do the father’s will. Then he compared them to the wicked tenants who killed the son, and in the story of the King’s wedding feast we looked at last week, they were the guests who turn down the invitation.
At this point they have just about had enough of this troublesome Rabbi from Galilee and they begin their counterattack by asking him embarrassing questions in public. So, tell us Mr Knows-it-all: ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?’ Jesus found himself in a Catch-22 situation. The Pharisees opposed paying taxes, because paying it would be an admission that Israel was in bondage to pagan foreigners. The Herodians, on the other hand, supported taxation out of necessity, since no one could rule any part of the Mediterranean world without Rome’s approval. So, if Jesus said a simple yes or no, he was damned either way.
Sensing their trap Jesus says, ‘Fetch me a coin, will you,’ and then he asked them: ‘Whose image is on this coin?’ ‘The emperor’s,’ they responded. ‘Well then,’ Jesus said, ‘give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor.’ I would want to think that Jesus paused here to let the significance of what he was about to add sink and then added, ‘And give to God what’s Gods.’
The coin in question used for taxation 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 peace. The coins were against Jewish law, which prohibited graven images. I am convinced that those Bible translations which use the word ‘head’ miss Jesus’ argument. The Greek word used by the Gospel writers is ‘icon’ and is better translated as image or likeness; and so, when the Herodians and Pharisees respond that it was Caesar’s image on the coin, Jesus told them: then give him back what rightfully belongs to him. But when Jesus added that they were to give back to God the things that are God’s, it left everyone confused and wondering what exactly he meant.
And in case you are wondering too, the clue was the word icon or image and likeness. Jesus’ answer was derived from the creation narrative in Genesis chapter 1, where God spoke and said, ‘Let us make a man in our own image and likeness.’ Here is the logic: Just as the coin that has Caesar’s image on it is Caesar’s, we who were made in the image and likeness of God, are God’s. So, Jesus affirmed the tax while making it all but irrelevant. His implication is that, though we do owe governments, there are limits to what we owe. But to God we owe everything.
This text is often used by some churches and ministers to talk about stewardship in terms of what we give to the church. But to be fair to the text, it has nothing to do with tithing at all. Let’s assume that all you do is give 10% of your income faithfully every month; in that case, you are short-changing God by 90%, because everything we have and everything we are belongs to God according to this passage. While this would certainly apply to the money we make, the formula is not that we give 100% of our income to God; that would be daft. God knows very well that we need the money for the necessities of life. Rather, the idea is that once we have given God some of the money we earn, let’s not imagine that we’ve bought off an obligation. God wants to share in some of our time and energy as well. So, the 100% formula relates to our time as well as our wallets.
What God wants is nothing less than our permission to come and abide in our hearts. Since he made us in his image and likeness, God loves us dearly and wants to be part and parcel of our everyday life. Jesus did not care much about the taxation in Israel; he understood the practicality and politics behind it. His real concern, however, was that we live into the image and likeness of the God who lovingly created us. And we begin to live into that image and likeness of God by following Jesus’ footsteps closely every day.
But do not get me wrong: giving back to God through the church matters a lot. This church would not be here if you did not believe in giving God your money and your time. Whether you give God a tithe, 20% or whatever fraction, you and I understand that giving is part of our responsibility as followers of Christ. We owe money to our government because somebody must pay for the roads, hospitals, schools, military and all the benefits that come with living in a free modern welfare state. In the same way, we give to God in order that the Gospel may be proclaimed and that future generations may have the same spiritual benefits that we enjoy.
What we owe to God is infinitely more than we owe to Caesar. The Words of 1 Peter help put the issue into perspective: He writes: Fear God and honour the king. There is a world of difference between those two obligations, no matter where we draw the line. In the end, Caesar is Caesar, and God is God. Ladies and gentlemen God has given us everything; including governments: how dare we give Him any less; how?