Sunday, October 16, 2005

October 16 Sermon: Text from Matthew 22: 15-22[

read scripture here

Whose Image?
Don’t you hate it when someone says something challenging to you, and you’re just kind of dumbstruck by it, you sputter out something in your defense, but it ends up just sounding stupid? I can remember several occasions when I thought of something brilliant to say about 4 or 5 hours later, long after the moment had passed. Sometimes I’d go and fetch my mom or if it were recently I’d go and tell Lara. Hey, so and so said this, and I just thought of what I could have said that would have really shut him up, I could have said this….. Sometimes if I were recounting the story to someone who wasn’t there to witness the whole thing, I’d just go ahead and substitute the brilliant comeback that I had thought up later for the pitiful dribble that I really was able to come up with on the heels of what the other person had said. In my mind, perhaps, I really had made the switch to the more brilliant retort to enhance my own self image in my own mind! Have you been there? Or am I just a dolt! Sometimes when I’m telling these stories to my wife, she knows to look at me out of the corner of her eye when I sound really grandiose and witty in the stories of my youth and young adulthood. When I recount a story like that to her, and make the switch to what I wish I had said, she says, “Did you really say that?” And, I’ll say, “Well, no—but I wish I had!”
Jesus never had to pretend that he retorted with an earth shattering jewel of wisdom when challenged. He was able to simply respond on his feet to questions that were meant to entrap him, and in the process, left behind bits of cryptic wisdom that sent his questioners away scratching their heads, and which still echo in our ears 2000 years later.
This is probably one of the best scriptures that shows off Jesus’ savvy. If we worshiped a God based on the factors of coolness alone, this scripture would rank Jesus pretty high, don’t you think? Here Jesus is, faced with two factions of people who didn’t really share many opinions other than the fact that they were nervous about this Jesus fellow. First, we have the Pharisees, devout Jews scrupulous in their observance of God’s law as they understood it. This is probably the religious movement with which Jesus felt the greatest connection. He may have been viewed, at least initially, as a Pharisee—although an eccentric one. So there is special irony in certain other Pharisees plotting to entrap him. The other group is the Herodians, Jews who support the local puppet ruler, Herod Antipas, or the entire family to which he belongs. Little is known about the Herodians as a group, except that Herod and his family were unpopular with the people, and so their supporters must have been unpopular as well.
The Herodians were probably unpopular because they were seen as Roman collaborators. On the other hand, the Pharisees were a grassroots movement generally respected by the people. Pharisees and Herodians differed on several issues, such as whether or not the Jews should pay taxes to the occupying power. It is remarkable, therefore, to witness representatives of these opposite social forces working together. Evidently both groups felt threatened by the rabbi from Nazareth.
I can just see it, they’re up all night plotting, deciding how to best get Jesus in trouble. They devise a plan. If we ask him if its okay to pay the tax, then he’ll be stuck! If he says yes, he’ll lose credibility with the revolutionaries, and if he says no, he’ll be in trouble with the Romans! I’m sure they all fought over who would get to pose the question to this brash young upstart of a messiah!
This brings us to an important point, and a clue to the cryptic meaning of Jesus’ response to the verbal trap that was laid for him. Jesus outfoxed the foxes on two counts.
First—the coins that Caesar produced were offensive to the Jews because it had an engraved image of the Emperor’s face on it. During this time and place, the Herodians and Pharisees probably produced a coin that had the face of Tiberius on it. As you might remember from the Ten Commandments, God commands his people to make no graven images, no artificial replications of the creativity of the Divine hand. Unlike most Christian churches, You still will not find any representations of living things in Jewish synagogues or Muslim mosques. Our Christian tradition diverged from this path early in our history, when the early church met in the catacombs of Rome and used the art of symbols to convey the truth of the Gospel in ways that could pass undetected in a culture that celebrated the visual arts. To tell the truth, the Jewish culture had been influenced by the culture of the Greeks for 300 years before Jesus came along, and the fact that the coins had Caesar’s face on it was probably not as big an issue as the fact that the coin also said above Tiberius’s head, “Son of the Divine August.” The Roman Caesars usually paid tribute to their fathers by referring to them as Gods. The reverse of the coin said “Pontificus Maximus’ referring to the fact that the Caesar was also the chief priest of Roman polytheism.
Now as you can imagine, all this was pretty offensive to the Jews, so under Herod’s rule, a special coin was minted that didn’t say anything about Tiberius being the son of God or have any graven images. The fact that the priests and Pharisees who were questioning Jesus produced a coin with the Emperor’s head on it outed them as being full participants in the Roman system of commerce, whereas Jesus wasn’t able to produce a coin from his own pocket, illustrating his own purity of the Roman system.
Secondly, Jesus cut through the entrapping trick of the question posed to him by getting to the real meat of why the Jews disagreed with the tax in the first place. While the Pharisees and Herodians argued about the details and particularities, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter.
I read an article about this story of Jesus by a Jewish Rabbi named Arthur Waskow. He referenced a teaching by the Sanhedrin who were alive during Jesus’ time on a similar subject to what Jesus was talking about with these Pharisees and Herodians. You see, the Sanhedrin was a ruling body of Jewish Holy men who were mostly composed of the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the Priests who operated in the Temple. They were fine and dandy with the Roman rule, because they were the ones in power living the posh life in the temple. The Romans allowed the Jews to practice Judaism, and for the temple cult to exist, and Herod and his court were Jews who had been installed by the Roman empire. Though the Sanhedrin have been viewed in a negative light by Christians because they were the group who bribed Judas to betray Jesus, they were also a group of theologians who over the years wrote some interesting things about God. Rabbi Waskow shared the following theological statement of the Sanhedrin in his article:
Adam, the first human being, was created as a single person to show forth the greatness of the Ruler who is beyond all rulers, the Blessed Holy One. For if a human ruler [like Caesar, the Roman Emperor who was the ruler in their time and place] mints many coins from one mold, they all carry the same image, they all look the same. But the Blessed Holy One shaped all human beings in the Divine Image, as Adam was…And yet not one of them resembles another. (Sanhedrin 38a)
The rabbis drew an analogy between the image a human ruler, Caesar, puts upon the coins of the realm, and the image the Infinite Ruler puts upon the many “coins” of humankind. The very diversity of human faces shows the unity and infinity of God, whereas the uniformity of imperial coins makes clear the limitations on the power of an emperor.
Here it is clear—Jesus challenges us for the ages by answering the political question that is posed to him, by answering with a probing theological answer that lifts us beyond questions of politics. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s. Our temporal governments may claim to own certain things—and the price of living in a civilized world may be for us accept that ownership and give our share to its maintenance. But the reality is that while coins and government property may be branded with the image of Caesar, our whole being is branded with the image of God. While the taxman may have a claim on a portion (and sometimes seemingly more than a fair portion) of our pocketbooks, God has a claim on our whole lives. We are the coin that God wants. What if we were to give our lives to God as dutifully as we give our taxes to the government?
As Episcopal priest Charles Hoffacker writes: It is right to pay the emperor taxes using coins with his image. But it is an even greater responsibility to give God what bears his image, namely oneself.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home