Our understanding of the Bible is inevitably shaped by the culture we live in. Mostly that is a good thing. It means the Bible is speaking to us where we are. The Bible answers our questions, addresses our needs. The remarkable thing about the Bible is how powerfully it continues to speak to us today, two thousand years after it was written and in a very different world.
But sometimes the assumptions we bring to the Bible can obscure its message. That is often true for this morning’s Gospel reading. We are so shaped by our experience of the separation of Church and State, that we naturally hear Jesus preaching it.
Jesus says, “give… to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” And what a lot of us hear is, there is politics, which is the business of the state, and there is God, which is the business of the Church. And the two should never go together.
For the record, I am in favor of the separation of Church and State. On balance, separation has been good for the Church and good for the State, even if we are constantly working out exactly where to draw the line.
But American-style separation of Church and State is not how Jesus’ words would have been understood in the first-century.
Political authority among Jews in the first century was limited. But local political authority, such as it was, was held by the chief priests. In the Roman Empire more generally, the emperor was often considered a god. As best we can tell, no one in the first century thought Church and State were separate.
I say again, I like our system. I am NOT suggesting that Churches should get political or that the State should interfere with religion.
But this passage is not about that. If we go straight to our model of Church and State, we may well miss the challenge in what Jesus is saying.
Start with the context. Like our reading last Sunday, today’s Gospel comes from the final week of Jesus’ life, in the middle of a long fight with the religious elite of Jerusalem. Jesus has already outsmarted the chief priests and elders. As our passage begins, some Pharisees are plotting with Herodians to “entrap” Jesus. Their question about taxes is not sincere. They are trying embarrass Jesus.
And they were clever. There is no good answer to their question about taxes. If Jesus says that Jews should pay taxes to the emperor, the ordinary people in the crowd will resent him. If Jesus says they shouldn’t, he can be arrested for treason.
Jesus outsmarts his opponents by giving an answer that is considerably cleverer and more ambiguous than it appears. Sure, give to Caesar whatever properly belongs to him. Give to God whatever properly belongs to God.
So, what belongs to God? As soon as you ask the question, it is obvious. Everything.
And what do we owe God? Everything. Everything we have and everything we are comes to us as a gift from God.
All right, what properly belongs to Caesar? If you mean, to Caesar and not to God, nothing at all. But God allows some things to Caesar. Taxes are OK. But Caesars sometimes claim a lot more than taxes. Soon after Jesus’ lifetime, one of the crazier Caesars tried to put a statue of himself in God’s temple in Jerusalem. That is most definitely not OK.
Jesus is telling the Pharisees that Caesar has real authority. But only under God. No matter how powerful he might seem, Caesar is not in charge, God is.
Any Jew knew that. The prophet Isaiah had said as much several centuries earlier. The great power of the time was the Persian Empire, and its emperor was Cyrus the Great. Speaking for God, Isaiah says to Cyrus, “I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you,” he says again, “though you do not know me” (45:4-5).
In his day, Cyrus was the equivalent of the Roman emperor. The Jews paid taxes to him. But Isaiah reminds us, God was in charge of Cyrus, whether or not Cyrus knew it. The same was true of Roman emperors in Jesus’ day. People should give their political rulers their due, of course. But it was even more important to give God God’s due. And God’s due is everything. Because God is in charge of everything.
There is nothing particularly new about this. But we often forget. So, let’s bring it up to today.
We are in the middle of a strange and contentious election. People are as anxious about this election as I can ever remember. I am anxious, too. The stakes are high.
In this anxious time, our passage comes as a helpful reminder.
First, we should respect the results of the election, whoever wins. That is one way we render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
But more importantly, we need to remember that God is in charge, that our ultimate loyalty is not to a political leader, or party, or nation, that our ultimate loyalty is to the God we know in Jesus Christ. God will be in charge whoever serves as President next year. That is a comforting thought.
But there is more to this passage than a reminder that God is in charge, important though that is, more than the Pharisees and the others crowded around Jesus that day could have recognized. There is a deeper combination challenge and invitation here.
In our translation, Jesus points to a coin and asks, “whose head is this?” But the Greek word translated as “head” actually means “image.”
That might not seem like a big deal. After all, the point is pretty clearly, “who do you see here on this coin?”
But the word “image” means more than that.
Paul tells us that Christ himself “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Paul says that in Colossians and again in Second Corinthians (Col 1:15; 2 Cor 4:4).
While the Pharisees are looking at the image of Caesar on the coin, they are also, and more importantly, looking at the image of God standing right before them. It is as if Jesus is asking them to choose which image matters more, Caesar’s or God’s. Are they more worried about political questions like taxation or about what God is doing in their midst and in that very moment?
We can take it another step. We are all created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). God’s image in us has been distorted by sin. But Christ comes to redeem us, to recreate us, to restore the image of God in us.
So, there are the Pharisees, with the image of God in them damaged by sin. They are looking at the image of Caesar on a coin. And they are looking at the image of God in front of them. And the question for them is, whose image matters more? Who do they want to look like?
And here we are, in exactly the same position. God’s image is distorted in us. And depending on the choices we make, we can come to reflect images drawn from the world, including the world of politics. Or we can come to reflect a little more closely the image of God in Jesus Christ.
My prayer for us is that we will always choose Christ, and choose him more and more faithfully. In his name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan